by: Heather Fawn
Reaching for meaning, for resolution, and for the future while the past holds on for dear life….. ((Artwork below is part of a photo-shop free photography exhibit entitled “Stage of Mind” by the talented Korean artist Jee Young Lee.))
She wore pants for the task. The ones that had been cool for a bit. The ones with the really wide legs. Almost like fisherman’s pants. She wore neon orange sneakers. Sunglasses. A trucker hat pulled down close to her eyes. Her long auburn hair was pulled back. A snug-fitting sleeveless shirt with a trendy print covered her sweaty torso, and a tiny purse was slung across her body, slid so the bag flapped gently above the dimples on her lower back. And she was climbing.
At first, nobody noticed. She was happy about this. She just kept going. It was a sunny, warm spring afternoon. There was a gentle breeze that seemed to emanate from the obscene, effervescent blue of the sky, which only served to add energy to her ascent, providing a lazy sort of encouragement. She felt compelled, possessed even. She could not control her impulse. Her sweaty fingers made half-hearted promises, reluctantly forced by her single-mindedness to ignore the occasional nick. She was wearing fingerless climbing gloves that she’d pinched from his suitcase.
She was climbing the fire escapes. Without using the stairs. They were rusty and dirty. She climbed past potted plants, hanging laundry, confused cats, curious work-from-homers opening kitchen windows to peer up at the compact body spidering unrelentingly up each level.
By the 10th story, she had acquired a small crowd of casually nervous rubberneckers below her. She’d never done this before, so she hadn’t known what to expect. But she didn’t care. It wasn’t about them. They were probably worried, but absently so. Their Instagram and Twitter accounts were getting marginally more interesting as they speculated both the motive and the possible outcome of this unusual stunt.
I don’t know why I’m doing this, but it feels right. A continuous loop of the past several months fed into her consciousness. She saw images of him, violently cutting them off when they sparked any emotion. It made her think of being disemboweled. There were so many feet of intestines that could slide out without one realizing, and once everything starts to pile up in front of you you realize that you need that bloody heap and you panic, fight gravity, get messy and start to bleed. Curiously, it is only the initial cut into the abdominal wall that actually causes pain. But once you go digging around in there, everything starts to unravel.
She planned to specifically remain in one piece.
How lonely could one be before every attempt to label a situation was clearly just a fancy sign marking an empty room? No furniture, no bed. A blanket on the floor. One window, emanating only blue light or darkness. Waiting for a knock on the door. A homelessness of the heart. When you get cold you go stand in a group of people and try not to think too loudly at them that you’re just there to steal their warmth, their attention.
She was climbing because it felt like progress. It felt better than screaming or breaking things. It felt better than the conscious neutralization of every experience, every need, every thought. She was doing something difficult without the expectation that anyone would save her or attach meaning to her actions. Although perhaps some people thought she was crazy, he probably was not in the group of gawkers on the ground. If he were, it would not change anything for her.
Who is really to blame when things never get off the ground…? She didn’t want to think about it anymore. So she reached for the 15th story. 22nd. 29th.
She was in a trance. The rhythm of pulling herself up was comforting. She wasn’t afraid.
An old man yelled at her from a couple floors down, “Are you trying to get yourself killed, you idiot?!” She smiled, but didn’t look down. “Of course not! I do this all the time!” Which was not the cleverest of replies, but from somewhere deep in her throat, a self-satisfied chuckle clutched at her neck. In passing, she hoped that she would not die, but she had faith that, at the 40th floor, all would work itself out.
She reached the roof. She climbed the rickety, rusty ladder over the side and, as she did so, one rung snapped loose and twirled down like a baton towards the crowd, momentarily parting the Tweeters like so many ants. They all seemed to pause around the object to identify it or perhaps to ascertain meaning from this random clue about the woman’s journey to the top.
She glanced around for a quick panoramic view of, first the roof, and then the city. She passively wondered whether she might get into some kind of trouble for her stunt, but she’d made it this far without a hiccup. And she planned to take a different way back down.
Then he called. He’d been calling her for 20 minutes. She had seven missed calls, but this was the first one she’d been aware of.
“What’s going on? Why are you doing this? I don’t want you to do anything crazier than you already have. Your neighbor friend, I forget her name….she’s been tweeting about you since 4:30. You’re on Instagram, too. I know it’s you by the hair. You’re scaring me.”
She took a deep breath, “I know I can’t fill in your blanks. You’re three thousand miles away. But I’ve pieced it together – someone else is filling in the blanks for me.”
“So this is how you react to something you don’t even know is true? You just go and decide it’s the end, that you’re giving up on yourself?”
Unable to control her reaction, she emitted a brief howl of amusement, “Whoever said anything about anything ending? You think I’m killing myself?”
“Why else would you climb onto the roof of a building?”
“Because there are no mountains here, and I needed to do it now.”
“Do what, Kaia? What the hell are you doing, exactly? I’m trying to understand how you’re not totally insane right now.”
“I just wanted to feel something different. I wanted to enjoy the day. I wanted a rush. I don’t get that from anywhere. No one is giving me anything. I never feel the things I want to feel. So I did this. To feel.”
She could almost hear his body language, his reasonable, rational hand gestures, his piercing gaze, “You couldn’t just meditate or something?”
“You know how much I hate that.”
There was a long pause. The evaporating layer of sweat on her arms and back caused goosebumps when the breeze, which was more of a brief gust at the top of the building, swirled past her. She heard the static sound of the wind forcing itself into the mouthpiece of her phone, like the drawn-out, pent-up sigh she’d wanted to release. A bird chirped confidently, loudly, from a tree many storeys below.
“You know I care about you,” he began.
She rolled her eyes as her mouth slipped, “Fuck you,” into the receiver.
“I love you. That’s the truth,” he mumbled.
“As is the fact that you have women all over the country who await their chance to fuck you wherever you’re traveling.”
“You can’t possibly be serious.”
“Neither can you,” she momentarily switched the call to speaker, slid the strap of her purse over her head, and lowered herself to the floor of the roof. On her back, the view was dull concrete to her right, and a swatch of blue that almost hurt her eyes. Air conditioners bumbled noisily from any number of storeys beneath her. She silently took a breath that made her lungs feel rubbery and taut, then released it slowly. She was shaking.
After a couple of minutes, he said, “Hello?”
“What do you want to happen, right now?”
“You really think I’ve been cheating on you?”
“I feel it, Finn. You lie. You’re an articulate guy. But your lies are eighth-grade reading level nonsense. I’m a linguistic specialist. I’m trained to decode speech.”
“So you automatically jump to cheating?”
“Why are you being such a politician?”
“You know how busy I am. I can’t just sew a phone to my hand. I’m working most of the time I’m awake. You knew it would be a challenge for me to adjust.”
“I don’t want a synopsis of your days. I’m still waiting for you,” she thought about the text messages he often ignored. The lack of Skype interaction. The way he’d just said, “Cool,” when she sent him pictures.
“It’s not easy for me…” he began.
“You’re not easy for me.”
He was the one to sigh first. Then, almost imperceptibly, he said, “You aren’t wrong.”
“All of it.”
She swallowed multiple times to accommodate the sensation of drowning. “I sleep alone. I eat alone. I keep my hands to myself. It’s been 8 months…” then the thread of thought was dropped, as though it weighed too much to carry on.
Five minutes went by. She lay motionless, stoic.
“I wanted to believe you were better than this.”
“I wanted to be better than this.”
“I’m not sure,” his voice was utterly without inflection.
“Why are you so fucking neutral?”
“Why are you?”
“Because there’s no reason for me to cry. I’m not the idiot, here.”
“I really like you. I mean, it goes pretty deep.”
“I really like the color red.”
“Kaia,” he cooed. Because he was tired, and it was habit.
“Cut that shit out,” she retorted.
A cloud drifted by overhead. She shifted onto her side, using her purse as a makeshift pillow, not wanting to let the expanse of sky out of her sight.
“I thought you would be angry.”
“I’m fucking indignantly furious. From my bones. I feel sick. I want to throw my heart up. I want all the blood to drain from my body. I want to scream and scream until my lungs collapse,” her teeth clenched.
“But instead you climbed fifty stories.”
“Forty-one,” she duly corrected.
“I want this to work.”
“How. How?! How could it possibly work?!” she wanted to explode, to be done with the conversation.
“I’ve always been lucky to be with you.”
“Well fuck. You’re a humble motherfucker about it. I try with all my might not to go ‘Cider House Rules’ on you as you’ve been fucking your way through every city.”
“It means less than you might think.”
“It means you’re an emotionless robot, and a coward.”
“It means your words have no value.”
“All this time, what I’ve really craved, what I’ve really wanted, is to be next to you.”
“Are you serious? That makes no sense.”
“You haven’t told me to fuck off yet.”
“That’s too simple, not my style.”
“You can say whatever you want to me. I deserve it.”
“There’s nothing to say. You said it all without saying anything,” her heart felt freezer-burnt. Forgotten meat.
The sun started to set. Purple and orange. She thought of Lisa Frank. Terrible splashes of 90’s colors. But the colors in the view before her were visceral, and they had a depth that took her breath away. She stood up to turn in a full circle and absorb the scenery.
“I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Yes, you did. Accept that about yourself.”
“Stop denying your own ability to be cruel.”
“It’s not something I try to do.”
“Nor is it something you try to stop. Look, the truth is, I was waiting for a passionate plea for forgiveness or understanding. I was waiting for more than a textbook account of the first layer of your bullshit. I could have written this conversation myself. You are very predictable.”
All that patience she’d accrued, all that ability to sit with discomfort, it had gotten her exactly these qualities, and nothing more. Nothing of tangible value. No forged connection of trust, no peace of mind. A simple exercise in being utterly still, utterly quiet, and utterly alone during the most painful, pathetic-feeling moments. She squeezed her eyes shut. Crying was too easy.
“If we stay together, I don’t think I can be the heroine of this story,” she said.
“You shouldn’t settle for anything less.”
“I’m not your girlfriend.”
“I loved you a stupid amount.”
She snorted at the ridiculousness of his statement.
“I loved the person I thought you were. Please continue living. Be happy. Be well. But stay away from me.”
She waited for him to respond.
“I wanted to be your Prince Charming. As much for myself as for you.”
“Nice thought. Thanks for thinking at me.”
“I will miss your wit.”
“I will not miss this empty feeling.”
“No one wins.”
It was getting dark. She ran down the stairs, throwing herself into the depth of the evening, taking two, three stairs at a time. Her sneakers ground out each pirouet-quick turn. Everything reverberated rusty metal. She was fairly certain the gawkers had all gone home. Nothing really to see.
He was at the bottom of the stairs. Standing steadfastly, directly in front of the last stair before the ground. He offered a hand. She was so rattled she nearly crashed into him, flinging herself at the earth.
They stood without moving, without breathing. She kept space between them. Crickets spoke for them. A dog yapped from its cozy yellow-lit apartment window. A cat skittered noiselessly to her left, its shadow stretched crazily along the brick of the old building. Her eyes moved away from his to scale the zig-zag of the structure she had climbed like a madwoman to the black sky above her. A few lonely stars returned her gaze.
“I got in last night. I wanted to surprise you. I rushed over when I saw the tweets. I had come to tell you everything…”
She didn’t stop looking up, “This is one of the only romantic things you’ve ever done for me, and you’re doing it because you fucked up.”
“I’ve stopped being able to sleep. I’ve been miserable. I just wanted to see you one last time.”
“Well, is it everything you’d hoped for?”
He could only blink at her grimly.
“I’ve felt betrayed by your silence. I feel betrayed by your inability to return my affections. The cheating is just perfection. It completes my trifecta of miserable feelings.”
“What if I told you it only happened once?”
“I’d be interested to know why you didn’t bring that up sooner,” finally, she looked him in the eyes. Her neck was getting tired from the strain of looking upwards.
He appeared visibly moved. His body language was tense. But she wanted to walk away. Leave him standing there, just like that. Freeze him in time, punish him.
“You have hurt me. More than I know how to cope with.”
“I’m here to say I’m sorry.”
“I trusted you more than anyone in the world.”
“I know,” he was so obstinately sure of himself.
Before she realized what she was doing, she’d punched him in the face.
He sunk down into a squat and let a breath out through his teeth.
“That fucking hurt,” he said, eyebrows raised, genuinely surprised. He brought his fingers to his lips and peered at them in the faint lighting. “Am I bleeding?!”
“I hope so.”
Though she wasn’t a violent person, she wasn’t really thinking about that general rule about herself anymore. She lunged and shoved him hard at the shoulders, and he grabbed her as he lost his balance. She purposely elbowed him in the ribs with all her weight, and her knee narrowly missed its planned spot of attack, connecting with his upper thigh.
She straddled him aggressively and punched him in the stomach as hard as she could, before rolling off of him and kicking him in the side.
He’d let her.
Normally, he’d probably have made a smart-ass remark about how he had allowed her this. But he didn’t say anything.
She felt justified, as if she were speaking a language he couldn’t ignore or misinterpret. She stood over him for a moment before he, too, creaked to his feet, pulling a clump of dirt off his shoulder.
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t hit me anymore.”
“Not to worry,” she breathed heavily, picking a small pebble out of her elbow. She stared dully at the indentation where the skin had almost broken.
“I wish I could have given you more. But I don’t even know where to begin.”
“It’s because you don’t have anything to give.”
He was silent.
“How are you happy with things as they are?”
“You know who I am. You know how I operate. How did you ever think there could be a chance in hell that this could work out?” she turned her back now, arms crossed rigidly, trying to keep herself steady.
“Because you’re so strong. I thought I could figure it out if you were patient.”
“But then you chose to focus on someone else.”
“I wasn’t thinking.”
“You mean you weren’t thinking of me.”
“I did it to stop thinking of you.”
“Why didn’t you just talk to me? I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for a year. All you have to do is be open. Put yourself out there. I do it all the f-fucking time.”
Finally, she broke down. She sank to the ground, legs crossed, and wept into her hands. She didn’t want him to see her face. Her hat got in the way, so she took it off and threw it.
This is how infidelity ended a relationship. Without resolution. In the dirt.
She turned to glare at him after this thought, “All of this is such a cliche. I think I hate you most for that.”
He wiped dirt and tears from his face, “How can I make this right?”
“I’m going to leave now. You’re not going to try and stop me. Remember exactly how terrible this feels, and never do it again to anyone else.”
“Please don’t do this…” he began, but it was too late.
She was gone.