“Don’t you ever fear, I’m always near
I know that you need help.”
Weezer, “Buddy Holly”
February 9, 1996: Pittsburgh, PA
The city looked beautiful, a winter white jewel of a place nestled among three rivers that pulled life to this place at the beginning. From far above, it is easy to note that the roads parallel the three rivers, crossing and intersecting into odd shapes in the downtown areas and other places far beyond the reach of the main city sprawl. People know this city for those intersections of roads, and not the intersection of like-minded people. In some places, cars can travel exactly parallel to each other for miles, only to nearly collide upon getting close to their destination. It is a place teeming with movement, inhaling with the rush hour traffic that clogs the intersecting veins, exhaling with the subsequent rush into the arteries a few hours later.
It is easy to lose track of time in this place where life itself appears to stand still in the drone of the blue-collar work ethic. The lives here are extraordinary in a quiet way, more intense in their silence than in their screams.
I am proud of it.
“Memories are gone
All in the wind…”
Weezer, The Prettiest Girl in the Whole World
To Mara, it seemed she had been born the moment she moved to Pittsburgh. There was no true memory of life before, only recollections shared with her by the occasional classmate and the few members of her foster family that struggled to keep contact with her. Her sharp mind only saw from the wall of her move forward, everything else laid black and inaccessible.
Mara moved smoothly through her spacious apartment as she fixed her morning coffee and warmed a bagel in the toaster. She turned the hot water in the shower on full blast and waited for the bathroom to become laden with steam before throwing her chilled body into the torrent of hot water. Her eyes were half-closed with pleasure as the water ran down her skin, tinting it pink with its warmth. Behind her warm, gray eyes were thoughts of the reports at work, the meetings she set up, and a lunch date with her fiancée, James, at noon.
She reached her hands towards the shower head, tempted to peek at her hands as the water rushed down the well-defined bones beneath her soft skin. She sighed, tilting her head to the side, hot water flowing down her neck.
She couldn’t think of a time before Pittsburgh, a city she loved as much as the life she built there. Sure, she knew the vital stats. She had the chance to know her foster mother and father well before they died, but the only reminders of anything before Pittsburgh were photographs. The unkempt pile of pictures she kept hidden away in a box included one of two men she understood to be her father and brother, but she couldn’t remember the sounds of their voices or even what they were like. Not even here, where the heated water sent her head buzzing like the marijuana she smoked in college, could she recall anything before dormitory life. Here she only thought of the water, her skin, the sensual reality she built for herself in that moment. She grasped the shower head and directed the water down the line of her spine, smiling as a tingle shot up in the opposite direction of the water.
She wished she could make time dilate and stay there to feel the water as it slid around the curve of her hip and flowed down the back of her legs, but she was a busy woman. Every day she had to be on her way faster than she wanted. Instead of dwelling on that permanently rushed feeling, she dumped vanilla-scented shower gel onto her loofah and scrubbed gently at her skin, languishing in the soft smell and harsh heat for mere seconds before moving outwards, forwards, towards her bagel and large goals built in the castle of her mind.
In those moments, she couldn’t imagine that she would return to that shower, but it would be an entirely different experience. She rushed through her apartment, pulling on pantyhose and thinking about charts she should make, buttoning her shirt and pondering religion, sliding a skirt around her hips and looking forward to seeing James. She glanced at herself in the mirror, a trim figure in slate gray staring back at her, grabbed her briefcase, and left a whoosh of air in her wake that startled her pumpkin colored cat, Eeyore, awake.
“Excuse the bitching
I shouldn’t complain
I should have no feeling
‘Cause feeling is pain.”
Weezer, “The Good Life”
Jason awoke and realized the numbness had moved from his right arm into his neck. He sighed and ran his left hand through his hair, marveling at how the electric blue dye had changed its texture. The party last night had left his small efficiency apartment in shambles. He glanced at the calendar that marked off days until his graduation and mentally patted himself on the back. Two more months until victory. All he had to do was get through today. The date also had “Dr. Harding” scrawled into the neat box. He dragged himself out of bed, his limbs feeling stiff and sluggish, his mind working even slower than usual. His left leg was aching, shooting sharp tentacles of pain into his thigh and calf. He rubbed at it, frustrated, until it moved a little easier. He pressed his hands to either side of his head, putting pressure on it, hoping to relieve the headache. His eyes closed tightly and he pushed more and more on his temples. He nearly tripped over Sugar as he shuffled towards his bathroom. Sugar mewed softly and moved away from his feet. A couple of stray beer cans clinked and rolled away from him feet as he turned the shower on full blast and walked away in search of coffee.
Open, empty pizza boxes cascaded down the table he used as a kitchen table. He ruffled through them, hoping for just a morsel of crust, but came away empty handed. He dumped some coffee into a filter and shoved it into the coffee maker, and noticed with a grimace that his hand was trembling as he filled the reservoir with water. He shoved the switch to ‘on’ and shuffled back to the shower.
As soon as the blast of hot water hit him, his limbs started to jerk to life. His lips twisted into a grimace, and he reached for the shower head with his right hand, grasping it tightly, hanging like from it like a limp ornament. His arm trembled. Bright lights strobed through his headache, piercing his eyelids. He opened his eyes to slits, half expecting that the lights in the bathroom would match the pulse of the impossible pain.
To keep the pain at bay, he thought of Sarah. He was sure he wanted to marry her, as sure as he had been about anything else in his life. His hand slid down the slick metal of the shower head as he thought of her smooth body. He shook as he let go, his body curling and distorting itself like it had during the spinal tap last week. His body instinctually moved itself away from the aches and pains that made themselves more obvious with each passing moment. He turned his back to the water and thought of her smiling at him, a wave of dizziness rolled up through his body, enveloping his head. He swayed to the left, only slightly, yet only his tight, strong quadriceps muscle pulling against his hip kept him upright.
He still felt he didn’t deserve Sarah. He knew she was special the first time she helped him dye his hair in Schlag their freshman year at CMU. He saw that she focused on his hair as much as she focused on the manuscripts she wrote, her brow twisted as she kept the red dye from falling into his eyes. Her fingers massaged his scalp and sent a wave of tingling pleasure downwards, infusing his body with desire. She talked while she worked, and he was too overcome by awe to speak. He smiled slightly, water sluicing off his body, his mind flooded with thoughts of her.
He had been planning how he was finally going to ask her for months. He had thought through every angle. He had scrimped and saved enough to buy a small diamond, and had his eye on a couple of wedding band sets that would put the tiny ring to shame once he was out in the job force.
He smiled as he dried himself, the cool air enveloping him. The dizziness and nausea faded ever so slightly as he ran the rough towel over sore muscles that protruded angrily through his skin. He dried his neck as he walked out into his kitchen, and glanced up at the sculpture that was nearly finished, the sculpture of two people twisted around each other gracefully, whose arms would hold the tiny white jewel towards the light once he had everything set up.
He’d tell her “Brown for yes, Blonde for no,” and it would be that simple. He would have to practice it again and again to keep himself from shaking out of nervousness. He started mouthing it to himself even then, with his planned date over a month away. His headache roared behind his eyes as he poured himself his morning cup of coffee.
“Every attempt to…is filled with holes
It reads like a polygraph I’m told”
Get Up Kids, “The Long Goodnight”
Kevin opened his eyes and grunted. Another day, another dollar, he thought to himself as he stared at his stark white ceiling. He sighed and flipped his legs over the side of the bed. He had fallen asleep watching Night of the Living Dead, and it’s certainly how he felt as he woke up. “Braaains,” he said to the empty room, laughing slightly at his own joke. He wiggled his toes on the carpet next to his bed, stroking the knap absently, grabbing at individual strands. Zombie, a cream Siamese with blue tips, jumped on him from on top of the dresser. Kevin landed on his back with a loud thump and painful exhale.
Kevin relaxed under the cat’s gaze and scratched him behind his ears. “Mornin’ Zombie,” he said. Kevin’s eyes fell on the collage of photographs from the lab of Africa that filled his bedroom. He wondered absently if maybe it ever affected his dreams, if sometimes he dreamt of hunting food, using his large powerful jaws to tear the fresh meat from a zebra. “You’re getting to me, kitty,” he said, laughing only a little.
Kevin had never been to Africa, but working in a photo lab at least helped him to get close. He wouldn’t steal the pictures unless they were unclaimed, and he always paid for the reprints he had made. It had taken him years, but the apartment he coated the walls of his apartment with a collage of photographs featuring exotic locales he always wished he could see. He rubbed his knuckles against Zombie’s chin. Zombie greeted him with a deep, humming purr. “One day, Zombie, one day we’ll go to Africa and you can have some yummy zebra.” Kevin stopped rubbing the cat’s chin and Zombie jumped off him, and then went about his morning ritual of cleaning.
Kevin sat up again, almost catapulting himself off his bed. Africa changed into Florence as he moved into his living room. Zombie padded behind him and jumped into the burgundy papasan to catch another cat nap. Kevin snorted at the cat’s laziness as he made his way into London to make some coffee. It was back through Florence and down Alaska to get the shower started before he headed back out to pick up some of his garbage from the night before.
He glanced up the wall of Florence as he crumpled up the paper plates he grew fond of out of utilitarian laziness. A couple pictures at the top of the collage were working themselves loose, and he made a mental note to grab some tape before he left work to fix it. He impulsively walked up to one of his favorite pictures, of a woman looking up at a great gray statue, an unshed tear glistening in her eye. He wondered for the thousandth time who took the picture, how the photographer had known her, if he had known her, who she was – a thousand questions battered his mind as the image refreshed the one already burned into his memory. A frown infected his full mouth for a moment, and he could feel a momentary pulse there that pulled his lower lip out ever so slightly.
He closed his eyes and turned away, wondering if it looked dramatic. He shook his head and walked towards the kitchen to pour a mug of coffee, slapping the power switch on his stereo as he passed it, the room suddenly filling with the banter of the local morning deejays.
He stretched upwards, his fingers curling into claws that curled towards the sky. His shoulder popped and relaxed, evoking an almost-contented sigh. His deep brown eyes rested on Big Ben as he poured the cup, they fell on Buckingham Palace as he grabbed the half-and half from the refrigerator. Big Ben, Buckingham again, and he walked back into his favorite, Florence.
He sipped his coffee slowly, his eyes rising and falling across the statues, buildings, and people that inhabited a place he never thought he’d see. He had never really made an effort. Such things were for the extraordinary. He felt barely ordinary.
He put his coffee mug on the coffee table that only his mugs found their way onto, never had they buoyed the weight of a guest’s coffee mug, maybe a little heavier than his with the sugar. He rubbed at his temples and Zombie crashed his side into his right leg, rubbing his head up and down for a second.
“Ew, you’re gonna make me stink like you, cat!” Kevin said with a laugh. Sometimes he’d take it a bit further, tell Zombie it was his fault he couldn’t get girls, but he had a feeling it was the sharp smell of photo developing chemicals that saturated his clothing that might help a little there. He picked Zombie up and looked into his big blue eyes. He nuzzled Zombie’s face with his nose before putting him back on the floor and heading towards Alaska and the shower.
His shower was quick and efficient. The water almost seemed to run down his back to the pulse of ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ that called to him from the radio. He tipped his head up, his eyes closed, so that he could feel the torrent of water hit his face, and wondered if it was what a monsoon rain felt like. He stayed that way until an eyelid threatened to come inside out, and then laughed a little at himself before climbing out and getting ready to face his day.
“I’ve had a hard time leavin’ this town
I’ve been losing everything that I found.
I’m gonna search the sky, kiss the ground,
Build it up and tear it back down.”
The Clarks, “Born Too Late.”
People in every city joke that ‘you can’t get there from here.’ Nowhere is that more true than Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can take your finger and trace a route on a map, and links that exist on the world of the map don’t exist in the reality of roads. There are bridges that lead to nowhere, circles of traffic that will keep the occasional traveler and tourist looping back on their path for hours.
The spider web of Pittsburgh seems to be missing major supporting strands. Where other cities had urban planners and architects, Pittsburgh was quickly grown out of necessity, from existing routes used in its steel days.
It is steel that gave this city its spine, its flavor of rural urbanization. When the steel left, the city didn’t die. I built it out of something tougher than mills that were running out of money and moguls whose philanthropic endeavors would never erase the cruelty of a mill worker’s life.
“Every word you say to me
Takes me one step closer to the edge”
Linkin Park, “One Step Closer”
Mara’s meeting had run over, there were just too many questions that had interrupted her presentation. Luckily, at a break in the action, she had managed to excuse herself to the bathroom, when she actually called James to try and reschedule some time with him. He hadn’t sounded happy, his voice was edged with unspoken anger that she had never heard from him. She tried to explain to him that she just wouldn’t be able to see him until after work, but there was that edge in his voice again. He told her he’d stop by with something for her to eat later, followed by the audible click of him hanging up the phone.
She was distracted when she went back in to the meeting, but she was able to mask it with one of her favorite masks, joviality fringing on flirtation. Her job relied on her to finesse her way through any situation, and she always came through.
By the time the meeting was finally over, the Chinese food James brought her sat cold and stale-smelling on her desk. Carolyn peeked her head around the door as Mara plopped the food into her garbage can.
“James seemed fit to be tied,” Carolyn said.
Mara’s head twisted to the side. “Oh?”
“Yeah, what did you do to him?”
“Tied him up, I guess,” Mara supplied with a shrug and a smile. Carolyn chuckled and shut the door behind her.
Mara checked her email and stuck her tongue out at some of the messages waiting for her. If this job had its way, she would be there 24 hours a day, a shower installed directly above her chair (converted into a toilet). She sighed and ran her hand through her hair, about to go back to work when James burst through her door.
“Where the hell have you been?” His handsome face had the high color of someone who had been running through the winter weather that swirled outside the window.
“I told you, James, I was in a meeting.” Mara stood to give him a kiss, but paused, her body half-way poised over her chair when she saw his hazel eyes flash with anger.
“What’s up with you?”
“Maybe you should be asking what’s up with us?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s supposed to mean, I give you a goddamn ring, and I never see you anymore.”
“James, you know how -“
“No, I don’t know fucking anything, Mara. All I know is that you’ve been to dinner with my parents at least a dozen times, and yet when I ask to meet some of the people from your life, you completely shut me out.”
“Is that what this is about? I told you, I was in foster care my whole life. What does my family have to do with anything anyway?”
“Everything, Mara. If we go through with this, they’re going to be my family, too.”
“What do you mean, if?”
“I mean, if I don’t start getting some answers from you, no deal.”
“You’re looking at this like it’s a parcel of prime land in one of your real estate deals.”
“Yeah? Well you’re treating me like a client who almost went with the competition.”
“James, that’s not true.”
“It IS true, and you know it.” James took a step towards her and Mara dropped back into her chair.
James was in front of her in an instant that had moved too fast for Mara to comprehend. “Mara, why is it when I did some leg work and found your foster sister, she told me your foster mother had died?”
“People die, James, it’s a fact of life,” Mara said, her voice flat and cold.
“No, I want to know why I had to hear from her, and not from you. It happened since we’ve been together. You didn’t even ask me to go to the funeral.”
“James, is this about a missed lunch date or your missed chance to grieve over someone you didn’t even know?”
James grabbed Mara by the wrist tight enough to send a sharp pain down the side of her arm, and puller her upright. “This is about you not being willing to share anything with me.” Mara thought of the dangerous closeness of the window behind her for one long, dull moment.
“What? The funeral? I didn’t think you’d really want to go.”
“Mara, it’s not just that.”
“What, are you going to say I’m not willing to share my bed with you now? You know that’s not true.”
James’ face twisted in rage. “Isn’t it?”
“What exactly is this about? Missed lunch, missed funeral, or missed fuck?”
James’ face turned a bright red as his hand snapped up from her wrist to her jaw. His index finger hooked itself under one side, and his thumb pressed against the other.
The fingers on her face exploded the wall in Mara’s mind. That touch, with its angry pressure on her jaw, triggered a flood of memories. She lived eighteen years in less than eighteen seconds. If James had been able to look deep enough, he would have seen the images flash rapidly on the gray mirror of her eyes. Mara moved her eyes sluggishly as her mind reeled, backing away. She could barely recognize the wrist protruding from her jaw as James’ as the first memories of her father bled through. She could taste the alcohol on his breath, could feel the rough texture of his hands down her throat. Time dilated.
Mara closed her eyes and began to tremble, and she felt James pull her to him roughly, a miserable moan escaping her throat on an exhale, only to be sucked back up on the inhale.
“Get away from me,” she whispered, pushing her hands out, closing her eyes, not sure who she was pushing away but knowing she had to protect herself somehow. She was so small. Another memory stabbed through her, remembered pain echoed by James’ rough grasp. She shot her left hand out, punching blindly, cutting James on the side of his face with the diamond. She sobbed as she remembered different skin moving against hers, hearing weak, childlike cries coming from her throat as a father only known through a picture moved against her.
Time stopped as she straddled two moments, unsure which would overtake her mind. Mara slid the ring off her finger, feeling a hand on her breast, suddenly feeling dirty and ashamed. Angry eyes flashed above her closed ones, and her right hand dragged itself over the phone, knocking it off its cradle. She felt a slap and then a thick jolt of pain as he entered her and she opened her eyes in time to see James’ pale face edged in blood on one side float in front of her. His lips were moving but she couldn’t hear him at first, distracted by the stale scents of Chinese and sex thick in the air around her.
She could hear someone saying her name like a mantra, but she wasn’t sure who and pushed James towards the door, wishing the girl she was could do the same to the rutting monster in her head. “Get out,” she said, her voice unheard by her. “Get away from me, get out of my life!” she screamed, shoving him into the closed door. James spun to face her, to try and stop her, but was met with a shower of weak pawings and punches. “Get away from me!” she gasped, her mind years away.
“What’s a matter, babe, are you feelin’ sick?
What’s a matter, what’s a matter, what’s a matter you?
What’s a matter babe, are you feeling blue?”
Weezer, Buddy Holly
Doctor Harding was late, and Jason had already finished his reading assignment and moved on to study the walls. Jason grabbed a couple of exam gloves for Sarah, thinking that they’d help keep the dye off of her tiny, pale hands the next time she was helping someone with their hair to make ends meet. He wondered then what stopped him from taking another step before the engagement. Both of them were, after all, within months of graduation, and both were struggling with bills until that hopefully day when they would be unleashed into that mysterious plane of “The real world.” Jason laughed slightly to himself and tried to find something else to keep him occupied, other than curling up on the exam table like he had for a spinal tap a week ago. His head remembered the piercing ache, an ache that permeated every neuron in his brain with intense, blinding pain.
He had come here the first time because of the numbness, that strange feeling that came more and more often. Not the normal pins and needles that could be explained by the head of the love of his life resting on his arms for hours as they talked, but the kind that came with no explanation at all. He could just be standing still and all of a sudden an enormous swatch of skin would flash into numbness.
It had been Sarah who told him to call his parents and get them to help him pay for a visit to a neurologist. He felt horrible doing it, but they were more than understanding, even though he could hear the disapproval in their sharp tones over the telephone when he had called. Already he had wracked up at least a couple thousand in medical bills, all over a bit of numbness.
On top of it was the fatigue. He could sleep for ten, twelve, fourteen hours if he let himself. Last night was the first night that he had pushed himself beyond a 1 AM bedtime. At first he thought maybe he had caught mono, but Sarah had already had it in high school, and he certainly didn’t go around frenching everyone in sight, so that was out.
He tried to swing his legs over the side of the table, but his left leg was still stiff and sore. He rubbed at the muscle absently, marveling at the thick, dense feeling it had. Doctor Harding knocked on the door and Jason straightened up on the table. “Come on in,” he said, his voice sounded strange to his own ears, and he felt a sudden, unexplainable flush.
“Hello, there, Mr. Trip,” Harding said, extending his hand and pumping Jason’s hand lighter than usual. “How are you feeling today?”
“Somewhat like a pincushion,” Jason said with a shy smile. He liked Harding, but sometimes Harding’s forced cheerfulness was hard for him to take. He understood that Harding was a neurologist, that the patients he saw were usually at least 40 years older than Jason was and usually in horrible shape, but he didn’t understand why the man insisted on acting cheerful for his patients when it was easy to see that type of bedside manner was not Harding’s forte.
Harding nodded, biting his lip slightly as he looked through the folder with “TRIP” written on the side of it. “How’s school going for you, Jason? You’re majoring in what, Electrical and Computer Engineering?”
Jason nodded. Harding commented on his major and his school at least once a visit. Being accepted to Carnegie Mellon University for ECE had been one of his lifetime achievements, but the workload had worn the glitter off that statue in his mind long ago. “I graduate in April, you know.”
“Yes, I know. Congratulations.” Harding sighed and took his glasses off. He rubbed his hand on his head and his face flushed. Jason pulled his head down to see Harding’s face easier until his neck seemed to lock into place. He winced and rose up again.
“Mr. Trip, I do have some good news for you. We shouldn’t have to run anymore tests, I’m pretty sure I can make a diagnosis from what we had.”
“Thank God,” Jason said, thinking of his parent’s wallet, and that it might stop the endless floods of “if you’s…” followed by parental advice. Jason sighed a bit, remembering the curling pain of the spinal tap, the fearful echo of the MRI, not too distant memories that could now die. “Thank God,” he said again.
Harding pulled his glasses off the bridge of his nose and set them on the top of his head. They glinted, reminding Jason of old war movies featuring the Red Baron, complete with flight goggles perched on the top of his head. Harding was looking at him, waiting.
“Well, what’s the diagnosis?”
Harding looked at Jason and sighed, his eyes narrowing to slits. “This doesn’t get any easier,” he mumbled. “Both the MRI and spinal tap showed significant levels of demylenization.”
“Myelin. The stuff that coats neurons?”
Harding nodded, his face grave. “Both tests showed significant lesions.” Jason’s lip curled at the word. “I suspected the diagnosis, the fatigue, the dizziness, the spasticity followed by laxity, it was all there. I just didn’t want to tell you until I was sure.”
Fear wrapped itself around Jason’s esophagus as he waited for the shoe to drop.
“You have multiple sclerosis.”
“‘Cause I can’t even look into your eyes without shakin’
And I ain’t fakin’
You bring home the turkey and I’ll bring home the bacon.”
Weezer, “El Scorcho.”
Kevin was surprised by the volume of work just like he was every other day. He had his standard break snack (one package of Skittles and one cup of machine-made cappuccino), ate his standard lunch (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a pint of whole milk and a bag of Lay’s potato chips), and spent the rest of the afternoon emptying the photo albums that housed customer prints that had been mixed up over two years ago.
He was dumping a set of standard family Disney vacation pictures when his phone buzzed. He glanced around at his supervisor, who hunched over her desk, her large hips falling over the sides of the chair. He scowled to himself, ran his hand through his short, curly hair, and vaulted towards his desk.
“Qualex, Kevin speaking, can I help you?” He wasn’t used to talking to customers, and the greeting sounded forced and hollow.
“Kevin, it’s Libby. There’s a woman here who wants to talk to someone about her mix case.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. It was rare that he had to come face-to-face with customers, but the off-chance of such a thing happening was exactly the reason he had to dress in business casual, even though the clothes would be ruined by the chemical smell. He sighed into the phone. “Can’t Peggy do it?”
“Her phone’s busy. You’re the only one I could get a hold of up there. Besides, aren’t mixes your responsibility?” Kevin craned his neck over his cubicle wall and noticed that the other three reps were, indeed, on the phone.
“I’ll be right there, Libby.”
He walked down the back steps that were plastered with signs meant to boost morale and trying to encourage an employee, any employee, to pick up the 2,000 page Best Practices manual, and reminding them that customer’s photos are customer property. He snorted a laugh as he thought of some of the nudie shots in the lockers of the splicers and cine operators.
He turned the quick corner to the front office. The woman who greeted him made a blush crawl up from his groin to his face. She was very small, easily mistaken for someone much younger than an age of consent. Her hair was dyed a deep maroon color that picked up some of the rich tones in her brown eyes. He swallowed, hoping it would relieve some of the tension.
“Hi, you must be Kevin. I’m Julie,” she said, sticking her hand out and revealing fingers coated in sterling silver.
Kevin took her hand, shook it, and nodded. “How can I help you?”
“I know it’s kind of unconventional for people to come here, apparently,” she said, shooting a look over her shoulder at Libby, who had her back turned. “But I was really hoping I could help you look for my pictures, especially since I couldn’t even remember what they were.” She laughed softly.
Kevin was shocked. It was the first time a customer seemed to have a vague idea that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t psychic and he couldn’t figure out what they had on the junk roll that had been mixed up with someone else’s prints. “Uhm,” he started, feeling his face start to grow hot, “follow me.”
He took her up the front stairs so she could see the enormous machines on the cutting floor. Her reaction was what he had hoped it would be.
“Wow, what do those do?”
“They’re the cutters. They cut the prints and negs,” he said, passing the time clock and opening the door to the offices for her. “Go up the stairs and I’ll swipe us in at the landing.”
“They’re pretty protective of this stuff, huh?” Julie’s soprano voice echoed through the stairwell.
Kevin nodded, then realized she couldn’t see. He hoped his voice didn’t crack when he said, “Those cutters cost a pretty penny. Some of the equipment up here is even more expensive.”
When they made it into the office, Kevin’s supervisor shot a strange look at him over her shoulder. Kevin asked the standard questions, the date she sent her pictures in, the envelope number, and he handed Julie one of twelve books from that month.
“Wow. There’s a lot of pictures here,” she said, flipping through the pages.
Kevin nodded. “Yes, there are,” he said, wanting to hit himself for correcting her grammar without a thought. She didn’t seem to notice, instead she flipped through more of the photographs of families in parks, graduations, and Christmases.
“All of these have been mixed up somehow?”
Kevin nodded. “Yup.”
Julie sighed and rubbed the back of her neck with her hand. “How sad.”
“What do you mean?”
“What if this is the only way someone remembers anything, and it’s sitting here in this book?”
Kevin sighed. “I do try to do my job.” It came out shorter than he wanted. He wanted to tell her that he cared whether or not he could give people their memories back, that he cared how well he did his job even though sometimes it frustrated him so badly he wanted to scream and shove his hand through his computer monitor. And all that came out was “I do try to do my job.”
Julie looked up at him, her eyes bright. “I didn’t say you didn’t.” Julie sighed. “I don’t see my pictures anywhere in here. Could they be somewhere else?”
“Yeah, with the customer who got them by mistake.”
“Oh. You mean, someone, somewhere could be looking at my pictures?”
Kevin nodded. “I can give you a comp roll of film and free developing.”
Julie frowned. “No. Thanks.”
“Hey, if I find something, I can always give you a call or something?” Kevin asked, hoping she’d agree. She seemed exactly like what he needed, someone extraordinary to make him feel less ordinary.
Julie shook her head. “It’s okay. I guess I’ll just go without.” She slid her chair back and almost collided with Kevin. “I can show myself out.”
Kevin thought she vanished into thin air those moments moved so fast. He scowled at the open book of pictures. What could he have said to make her stay? What memories could he have shown her, what pictures could she have seen to make her curious about the whole process, him, his job? Could anything have made her stay?
“Emptiness again, left alone again
Left to question all that’s happened
And no one cares and no one cries
All that’s left is the will to die.”
Deftones, “Will to Die”
The supporting strands are gone only in the present. I can see them in the past, I can see their replacements in the future.
Mara, Jason, and Kevin were on the road before they thought they would be, their minds reeling from the distractions of living life. They walked the streets, barely noticed by those around them, their eyes blank and lifeless, their bodies limp and exhausted from weight that descended on them from the stars. People filled the streets, and yet they felt alone. They didn’t notice the cracks in the sidewalks, the bums in the doorways, the silent pulse of the city around them. The only rhythm they noticed at all was the feel of the concrete slamming against the bottom of their feet with each step, the metronomic tap of their hands against their hips, the cold breath of the wind on their faces.
Mara passed Jason, and felt something beyond her own pain. She looked into his eyes for a long, painful moment of recognition tinged with fear. Kevin passed them, watching them, wondering what was passing between them, wishing he could share it without recognizing that he was.
Pittsburgh was living around them, without them, and they moved on.
“Watch me unravel, I’ll soon be naked.
Lying on the floor, Lying on the floor! I’ve come undone.”
Weezer, “The Sweater Song”
Eeyore scraped his smooth body against Mara’s leg as soon as she walked in the door. She looked down at him but was overcome by a strange, disembodied feeling of dizziness. She covered her face in her hands, pressed her fingertips against her brow until she thought she could feel the ridges of her fingerprints, and bent in half. A feral cry of pain crawled from her gut, ripped through her vocal cords. Eeyore jerked back and sniffed at her feet, wondering what the smells meant, wondering where she could have been to pick up the strange, thick smells. She tried to say his name, but sucked it back in with a sob.
She felt dirty. She was still straddling two times, unable to see either with clarity. She staggered under the weight of new memories, bumping into the bathroom door. That it wasn’t her fault didn’t seem as important as the events that were playing through her head. She looked for ways she could have prevented it, she ached for a way, any way that she could stop living with this new-found, horrible knowledge.
She didn’t remember getting undressed, she didn’t remember starting the shower, but she was there, the hot water slamming against her skin. She shook as she took the loofah to her skin, grinding it into herself, wishing she could crawl out of her skin to get away from the awful feel of his hands on her. The loofah felt sharper, rougher as she dragged over herself. She left long, red webs of tiny scratches as she scraped it over herself.
Her breaths tumbled from trembling lips and shuddered with her shaking body. She wondered if she’d ever feel warm again, if she’d ever feel clean again, if she’d ever feel anything again and not have it tainted by the unbelievable corruption she was witnessing again and again behind her eyelids, on her skin, echoing in her head.
She sunk into the tub and curled away from the relentless beating beads of water, matted and wet hair covering her face. She wrapped her arms around her breasts and pulled her legs under her, shaking with wordless, soundless sobs. She pulled at the wet mass of hair that began to stick to her face, wishing she hated herself so badly that she could yank it out. She wished he would have done anything to her, beat her, locked her into a room far away from any society, broken every bone in her body. Anything other than what he did, anything but that, anything but dooming her to remember the stench of him as he pressed into her.
It triggered another wave of memory where he yanked her hair out by the handful and told her about her whore of a mother, how she deserved no less, how he was going to teach her to whore right. He called her bitch, cunt, he pressed his hand into her mouth, threatening to smother her with that hand that smelled of blood and sex, promising to crush her with the weight of his body. She watched years later and passively helpless, wishing she had never fought against him to live a moment longer.
Her pupils constricted as the memories flooded through. The previously unremembered sound of his voice droned on in insults and slurs. She pounded her fists against the porcelain, wishing that with each loud thud would come the crack of her own bones. If he didn’t break her, she would do it for him, she’d rather she had never existed than to have to live with such torture. She’d rather break herself physically than be forced to watch the horrors that had lurked in the corners of her mind for years.
Only a few other thoughts were able to trickle past this unbelievable flood of cruelty. “Why couldn’t they tell me, warn me? How could I forget? How can I forget?”
“Say it ain’t so a-woah-a-woah.
My love is a life-taker.”
Weezer, “Say it Ain’t So”
Jason threw the packet labeled “Living with MS” across the half-darkened hole he called home. Pizza boxes clattered from the table to a heap on the floor. The tears he willed from his eyes with Dr. Harding came. “Sarah!” he moaned, knowing he couldn’t subject her to what that manual outlined. A life with a man who would seem forty years older than he was? With someone who may experience sexual dysfunction, who may never feel every bit of that wonderful, soft touch she had? Someone who wouldn’t be able to feel every inch of her skin? He couldn’t do that to her. No, he could, if he were selfish, if he wanted to doom her to eternity with an old man living in the skin of a young one. He wouldn’t do that to her.
He hung his head until he felt that dangerous, awkward pull in his neck. His breath hiccupped in his throat and Sugar came out to investigate. “Get away from me,” he said quietly. He couldn’t exorcise the thoughts of Sarah from his mind. He stormed into the kitchen, his feet slamming against the ground so hard that Sugar jerked away from him and cowered under the table. Before Jason knew what he was doing, he was smashing through the clay statue he had made for Sarah, smashing through every sculpture he had ever done. He’d never be able to mold clay again, not if he was going to jerk with every moment or have his muscles not listen to him at all. The statue shattered and shards of the baked clay embedded themselves in his hand. He looked at it in wonder, he could feel it, the deep searing pain of tiny cuts. It reminded him there was still enough feeling to torture him, remind him what numbness would really mean. He slammed his palms flat against the cabinetry with a feral cry that was uttered out of instinct and emotion. He bent his head down again and felt the quake start in his arms. Frustrated, he screwed his face up and trudged into the bathroom.
He turned the shower on full blast, peeled off his clothes, his mind wondering how long it would be until he couldn’t dress or undress himself, how helpless he would be rendered by nerves that wouldn’t convey any message except for depression and bitterness. He nearly tripped over the side of the shower as he jumped in. The hot water did its work, reducing him into a trembling, numb lump on the floor within seconds. He pulled himself up on arms that felt tight and hard like concrete, and reached for the medicine chest. His hands were slick with light-pink water as he clawed at the front of the medicine cabinet and pawed at the bottles he found there. He grabbed the peroxide and dumped it into the sink, only to reach his arm to the point of staggering bright pain to retrieve it.
He poured it over his head, scratching into his scalp, clawing at his short hair, coating his head in it while dragging his body away from the endless spray of water. He would never ask Sarah. He had the answer he needed.
“Lonely (this loneliness consuming)
Searching (I’m searching for the answers)
Will you do the same?
Try…try to find peace”
Deftones, “Will to Die”
Kevin slammed his back against the wall and slid downwards, dragging loose bits of Florence with him. They fluttered to the ground next to him and Zombie sniffed at them, his whiskers tickling Kevin’s hand. “Zombie,” he whispered, his voice tinged with the tears he never wanted to fall. One traced down his cheek and he brushed at it angrily. “How is it I deserve to cry? What have I done that could possibly even hurt?”
He thought of Mara and Jason (he would never know their names), and that long, dilated moment on the street as they looked at each other. That was something extraordinary, shared by a freak with blue hair and some tight-bitch saleswoman. He slammed his fist into the wall behind him and more of Florence fell. “Something, anything,” he said, his words echoing in the room around him. Zombie put his paws on Kevin’s leg and looked at him. Kevin rested his hand on Zombie’s little head and thought of Julie. She was named aptly, a jewel, a beautiful thing.
“No pain, no happiness, no sorrow, no joy. Just nothing.” He wanted to feel something. If it took him breaking his hands on the shelves of movies, breaking his leg on a tumble down the stairs, breaking his heart on a girl who wasn’t worth it, he wanted to feel it. All those things he had tried to protect himself from, he wanted to wash over him in a flood. Zombie mewed and licked his hand. Kevin jerked upwards, tumbling Zombie off his lap. Zombie meowed and licked himself while Kevin walked into the bathroom and ran a hot shower.
He was hoping the heat would soothe him. Instead, it inflamed him, his mind grasping onto the few things that had happened in his life that might even be considered interesting. Why would any one want to be near someone like him? Even normal people had pain, and he had nothing. He didn’t have joy since it couldn’t exist without pain. He didn’t have sadness since it couldn’t exist without happiness. And without any of these things, he wouldn’t have anyone. No one except for Zombie, who would only die before he did and leave him alone again to find another creature to talk to who never gave answers. He wanted answers. Why couldn’t he be extraordinary? Why couldn’t he resemble the two people on the street, their eyes dark with pain and confusion? Why did he have to be so stupid as to feel so badly over absolutely nothing?
He sunk to the floor of the shower, his knees to his chest. He put his elbows on his knees, rested his face in his hands, and tried to feel something, anything, besides the impossibly warm porcelain that held him up. He wanted to spontaneously combust, just to have something extraordinary happen. Instead, he amazed himself with a feral cry of frustration that echoed in the walls of the bathroom.
He wondered if it would be the only extraordinary thing he did.
“Don’t you ever fear, I’m always near
I know that you need help
Your tongue is twisted, your eyes are slit
You need a guardian
Woo-hoo, but you know I’m yours.”
Weezer, Buddy Holly
Mara, Jason, and Kevin lay in beds separated by miles and rivers, yet paralleled in the veil of pain. They all cried out, “Why me?” before sleep overtook them. There’s no harder question for me to answer.
All I can do is give comfort, sleep, and time for them to seek the answers themselves. I can not protect them from the pain of the lessons, but I can help them see their way.
They all dreamt of people holding them who could share the unsharable essence of a human life, their lives. To hand them the answers would be to sacrifice their free will. To give them a dream of comfort and comraderie, a dream of peace and understanding would not impress myself on the human reality, but would allow me to move within the human psyche in that uninterfering way I promised myself I would use. To let them dream of each other is all I could do.
If they would pass each other on the street again, they would recognize each other. Some distant memory of knowing each other would pass between them before they ebbed back into the current of humanity.