Misreadings in the Garden District

By ATA.

Sundays in spring are usually pretty relaxed. Back in college, I’d wake up late, check my e-mail, maybe gloss over the newspaper. I’d go to the dining hall with my roommate, Leo, and the two of us would have a light brunch—pancakes, fresh fruit, chocolate milk, and occasionally a bagel with cream cheese or lox. Neither of us is very religious, but Sunday is a day for rest. After six days of studies, papers, seminars (and an occasional Thursday night party) Sunday is a day for laziness; for late mornings, late meals and little work.

One Sunday, junior year, I got myself into trouble. On my way back to the kitchen for a second glass of chocolate milk (I had gone for that bagel, and bagels are thirsty work) I ran into a friend. Julie and I had met through Mock Trial and the Human Values Forum, and we were taking a class together on the philosophy of law. We weren’t in the same social circles—she has soft green eyes that turn crystal blue in the right light—but she said hello. I asked how her weekend had been.

Good, she replied. She was planning a short getaway to New Orleans next weekend. It was a trip sponsored by HVF, available to all of its members. She asked me if I was interested. I wasn’t sure. I had known about the trip but never seriously considered it. New Orleans had no appeal to me. “You should come,” she said. “It will be fun.”

It was the polite thing to say, and I didn’t put much weight into it. Instead I pivoted to our philosophy class, and we started talking about Andrea Yates and mens rea. I enjoyed spending time with Julie. She has a particular smile, and I love the way she thinks. We don’t agree much on anything—she’s a utilitarian who likes jazz; I like Kant and prefer the piano—but we seemed interested in each other’s ideas, and I always came away from our conversations with something to think about. Still, we couldn’t stand talking in the dining hall forever, and so I got my chocolate milk and went back to Leo.

Alex sent me an email that night, following up on Andrea Yates. But she ended the email on another note, one sentence, simple and matter-of-fact. “You should come to New Orleans with me.”

I called her. She had been in touch with the HVF group. Only four people had signed up for the trip, she didn’t know the other three, and now she was re-thinking her decision to go. Unless I wanted to come along? I did. I could use the break. New Orleans might be interesting, and spending three days with Julie seemed like fun no matter where we spent them.

A few phone calls later, the trip was set. I met her at the Dinky next Friday morning, and with one backpack and a carry-on between us, we took an airplane down to Louisiana, arguing cheerfully about ethics and law.

We walked up and down Bourbon Street for the next three days, finding hole-in-the-wall bars, orange gardens, large, overgrown trees whose roots cracked the cement sidewalks we walked on. Bourbon Street led into the Garden District, a small neighborhood of mansions dating back to the old French South. They seemed unoccupied. The streets were quiet. It was a lazy spring weekend, 75 and sunny, and the shade under the trees made for perfect strolling.

Julie liked the architecture; I liked that she liked the architecture. At night we’d find jazz clubs and take boat rides down the Mississippi. We stayed up late, talking about other classes, our closest friends, random memories. I asked what her favorite color was, and, with a smile, she said that that was a stupid question. Instead, she told me about her pet, a cat named Walter. I told her that that was a stupid name for a cat; she laughed and blamed it on her dad. Our tastes were day and night apart, but we thought in the same way, and, from two different worlds, I thought we spoke the same language.

We found an old record store on our way to dinner on our last night out. Julie went in and started looking around. I asked her if she was searching for anything in particular. She wanted to see if they had any records by Herbie Hancock, one of her favorite jazz players. We couldn’t find him, but at dinner, jambalaya and two glasses of merlot to a local band, I scribbled herbie hancock on a napkin underneath the table.

I spotted a cigar shop on the way back to the hotel. Leo loves cigars, and I thought he deserved a souvenir. I stumbled around the shop, fingering the boxes and fumbling with the stogies. “Do you know what you’re doing?” Julie asked, amused.

“Sure,” I answered. What was there to know about cigars? You look at the curve on one end and the price tag at the other. She leaned forward and took the cigar that I was holding. “Here,” she held it to her face and inhaled, slowly moving it underneath her nose. She handed it back to me, smiling.

It was that smile. It has nothing to do with her lips—it comes from her eyes. It takes you in and makes you smile in return. You can’t help it, it makes you an accomplice, gives you sure footing in a world you know you don’t belong in.

We landed in Princeton Monday morning, and as we started heading off in opposite directions, I asked Julie if she wanted to have dinner that night. “You mean lunch, after class?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

“No,” I said, “dinner.”

She was busy.

“Maybe some other time,” I offered.

She shrugged, walking away more quickly now. We were back. I should have stuck to Andrea Yates.

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Lost

By Hannah Lee.

I felt it with the slamming of the door. I was floating in that strange limbo between sleep and consciousness when my heart seized up at the sound. I felt this cruel, acidic bile crawl up from my heart to the base of my throat, this awful wash of panic flooding my lungs, and I thought,

“This is it. This is the end.”

 

All of those terrible life choices – smoking, fish-like drinking, and one too many miscellaneous meat skewers and roller coaster rides were finally taking their toll. Dear God, don’t let this be the end. I pictured my landlady screaming her fat jowls off upon finding my stiff cold body, naked as the day I was born, my face frozen in agony. I pictured a weak turnout for my funeral. And as the heartburn slowly, painfully spread across my chest, I prayed for my soul as an atheist. And then, I think I fell asleep again.

When I woke up the next morning, drugged by a restless sleep, I found her things gone. It sounds dramatic, but considering she only kept her toothbrush and a hair dryer at my place, it was a pretty minor change. And yet, I felt like she’d cleared the place. I felt really empty about it. It was as though someone had taken something vital from me but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Like, someone had stolen my kidney without leaving a scar.

To the people in my immediate surroundings, my breakup and its emotional aftermath were as obvious as me wearing a gigantic sombrero made of lead – heavy, pitiful, and awkward. No one really knew what to do about it, and most people simply avoided pointing it out. I sensed my coworkers being sensitive to my silences. My unfocused staring at nothing in particular became a regular occurrence, and I was generally treated like an emotional ticking time bomb. I know I even looked like a sack of self-pity because a). strangers stared at me with concern, and b). if you only eat half-warm soup and sleep two hours, days at a time, you just naturally look awful. But here’s the thing – even though Michelle had walked out on me, both literally and figuratively, that’s not what I was sad about. I wasn’t angry or bitter or self-conscious. I wasn’t craving attention or condolences. The truth is I felt nothing. It was almost like I couldn’t decide what I felt. And that’s what got me down.

This went on for a month or so. And then I lost it.

There was this ring Michelle had given me as a birthday present a year into our relationship, and it fit so well on my finger, most of the time I forgot I even had it on.

Now on one fucking fateful night, I took it off to write. I’m a failing novelist see, so you’ll find me chained to my computer most days burning time with a fool’s dance on the keyboard. My desk at the time was cluttered with notes, wispy sheets of paper held down by the ramblings of a madman desperate for a good idea. Throughout the night I freely scrunched up notes, threw piles of them into the waste basket, took out my garbage when I needed a stretch, and added more notes to the rubble when I was struck with temporary genius. Coffee, after coffee, bathroom breaks one, two, three – the nights are never ending for the poor writer, both penniless and nowhere near ‘satisfactory’.

At three in the morning, when I’d given up on my writing, I turned to put the ring back on, and what do you know – it’s not there. I lifted a few pieces of paper nonchalantly, expecting it to be underneath. Nothing. I lifted piles of paper at a time. Nothing. And that’s when the panic set in.

I picked up every object on my desk and then I turned on my room. I searched with the meticulousness of a forensic team at a murder scene. I bent into impressive yoga positions so that I could squint into the darkest nooks, even though I knew perfectly well it couldn’t be there. Then I would return to places I’d searched earlier with the frenzied energy of a coke addict and the absent-mindedness of an amnesia patient.

As I searched, I cursed the ring. I blamed it for running away, for getting away from me. I then grew frustrated at myself for being careless with my belongings until it formed into the ugly, latent self-hatred I’ve had since pre-Kindergarten. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t a big deal, calmed myself, and took deep breaths, before plunging headfirst into the garbage bin on my street, digging frantically through old food and papers.

Then a single question entered my mind and it put my sanity up for interrogation.

 

Did I even have the ring tonight?

 

I didn’t have a straight answer. I started doubting myself. Mental snapshots of me taking off my ring began to flood my mind and I couldn’t pinpoint the exact time or place when I had neglected it. In fact, I even started imagining scenarios where I’d taken off the ring, but I couldn’t be sure if they had actually happened or not. The shadow of doubt grew bigger and bigger, and more frightening in the walls of my mind.

At a time like this, everything else in the world feels secondary to what you’re feeling. So I cried. It was all so futile and stupid. I cried like a bitch.

I never did find that ring. It took me a few days to get over it, but once I gave up looking for the ring, I started looking for Michelle.

I revisited places we used to hang out together. I returned to arguments and the times we’d bury our verbal hatchets and forgive each other. Or at least, I thought we’d forgiven each other. I covered every inch of our relationship before it occurred to me that that strange elusive moment in time when I lost her had escaped me.

There had to be a time when something clicked in Michelle’s mind and convinced her we were no longer working. At least I wanted to believe that there was, because I thought, if I figured out when that moment was, I could retrace my steps and get her back. Just like the ring. For a long time, I thought it was when we had that argument about visiting her hometown, because she got so upset she cried. But maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe she had felt something amiss long before that, and I just never noticed. There were too many possibilities, too many moments, and nothing certain.

I was leaving my apartment one day, and the door automatically slammed behind me with the same theatrical finality that she had given me in her last goodbye. My chest flinched in its vague memory of the chest pain, the heart attack, or more accurately, the most unpleasant of all heart problems, heartbreak.

I’m sure you know what it feels like to lose something you’re emotionally attached to. You feel regret for being neglectful, you despise time and fate and chance and bad luck. You can try and make yourself feel better by getting a replacement, and for some people that works. Some people wallow in their sorrow, and some people never stop searching, but fools like me, we wait. We wait in the vain hope that what’s lost will reappear naturally – that it will come back to you when you least expect it, or hopefully, when you need it the most.

A Goodbye Letter

By Hannah Lee.

Dear Ava,

If you could see how many times I’d written and rewritten this same letter, I’m sure you’d call me a pathetic, indecisive “poohead” (as you’ve become accustomed to calling me).

I’m sure you’d also ask me why I don’t put the same sort of drafting and re-drafting skills to my essays, which – in my opinion – have always been unfairly judged by the whackjobs who teach at this proud institution we call “university”/waste of money. I can’t wait to graduate next year and never come back. Although, knowing my luck, I will probably end up resorting to a teaching degree and be cursed to teach here forever. The irony of it would make me hang myself.

You’re lucky you get to escape this place as a fancy transfer student. But don’t you start thinking for a second that I’m jealous. Who would want to go to Paris when you’ve got the dry, barren land of Australia stretching out before you? I for one wouldn’t dream of leaving.

As you know, I’m no good at goodbyes. I avoid them when I can, and if I have to do it, they come out as weird adolescent grunts or bashful kicks of dust. My parents used to give me all kinds of shit as a kid when I refused to say goodbye to people e.g. relatives, friends, even my super hot babysitter. They thought I was being rude, but I just felt super awkward because I didn’t know what to say. As in, I didn’t know how to say a “good” goodbye.

I bet you a million dollars you’re thinking about my exes right now. Jessica, crazy Anna, Laura, and Bonnie. You’ve seen me say goodbye to every one of them, and naturally, they’ve never stayed in contact with me because of the quality of my goodbyes. But you’ve seen it all, heard it all, and I’m sure you’re psychological profile of me as a commitment-phobe with narcissistic personality disorder sort of plays into that.

You have to admit, I’m great at hellos though. Remember when we first met at that dress up party? I was Sigmund Freud, and you were a lobster. I wish we had taken a photo of that.

When you find this letter, I really hope you’re in Paris, settling in. In fact, the later you find it the better. That’s kind of why I hid it deep in your luggage. When you were staying at my place, and you were doing last minute checks around the house for things you might have forgotten, I was sneakily shoving this letter deep into the layers of shirts, socks, and underthings (excuse me) that made up your fat bag. Ps. You left your toothbrush behind.

I’m hoping that if you read the letter a bit later on in your journey, you’ll think of me despite the distance, and it’ll remind you to fucking call or write once in a while. Please.

Goodbye, Ava. I don’t know when I will next see you, but if you decide Paris is the place to be, and you don’t return to the good land of Australia, I want you to know that I will miss you. And I want to hear from you. I love you.

Best,

Michael “Poohead” Fraser

Reemergence

By Hannah Lee.

“In the seconds, minutes before I died, I remember shutting my eyes. I didn’t have the courage. I squeezed them so tightly, I thought my face was going to fold in half. I remember the man pressing the gun cold against my feverish forehead. I sensed his sweaty fingers readjusting themselves in a tighter grip.

He pulled the trigger.

And instead of the tense, panic-stricken black behind my eyelids, I saw white – the light of death. It was as though someone had changed the slides in the projector of my eyes.

With the white came a high pitched wail. It was thin, piercing, like the agonizing scream of a damaged ear drum.

This went on for several moments, but I don’t remember anything after that.”

The man in the grey jots something down on his notepad. He writes in a language I don’t understand, so there’s no point trying to sneak a read. I’m sure he’s recording everything I’m saying. Not on the notepad, but with hidden ears.

“And… is that all you remember from your first life?”

I nod.

“I need you to answer yes or no.” For his hidden ears, no doubt.

“Yes.”

“What do you remember about your rebirth?” he asks, pen poised to write again.

“I remember a lot of water. The first thing I felt was … a tickling in my ear… as though a small agitated insect had mistaken my ear for its home. I then realized it was escaping my ear. Water was being drained around me. I could hear it once the water level lowered in the tube. I felt the cold on my bare body. I lay in the empty tube for a long time before anyone came to check up on me. I thought I was going to spend the rest of my waking hours in there.”

“And how long has it been since your rebirth?”

“Seven days.”

“Do you remember your name? Who are you? Where you come from?”

“I’m not sure this is my first rebirth.”

This isn’t the answer he wants. All of his features are suddenly harder, rigid, unmoving. In a fraction of a second, the smoothness of his face has frozen with severity. He looks like a different person.

“I think I’ve been recycled.” I say. A small voice inside me tells me to be cautious with my words, but I have lost all timidity, all fear. My soul will simply enter another body if they wish to exterminate this one. It’s a guess, a conjecture, a hope.

“What makes you say that?” the man asks.

“My dreams. I see the light of death in multiple shades. I see the moments before I die, and they’re different every time. I’ve become so… accustomed to dying. I’m not sure what living is like.”

I’ve offended him. The man picks up his notepad and rises from his chair. Desperation weeps in my voice.

“Please don’t leave!” I plead. “Please!”

That night I dream of a snake. It is emerald green, calm on the surface, but seething in its tangled body. I kill it. I bury it. But it returns. I kill it again. I burn it. And thought it shrieks in the flames, it comes back as though nothing has happened. Time restarts and restarts in an endless loop.

I wake in a sweat. I don’t know where I am. My heart drops to my stomach. I don’t even know who I am.

I push myself out of a bed, bathed in the cold light of morning and find a door left slightly ajar.

A man stands in the center of the room, dressed all in grey with a gun hanging heavily from his hand. I taste a mixture of bile and dejavu in the back of my throat. He walks toward me.

I shut my eyes.

I don’t have the courage.

Monstrosity

By Beini Huang.

Beini, a talented Australian artist, submitted this book about a monster and his adventures around New York City to the Sketch Book Project. It’s pretty amazing. Thanks for sharing, Beini!

Check it out here: http://www.sketchbookproject.com/library/11598

Go to http://www.beini.com.au for more!