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The word followed Michelle day and night. It tricked her, gutted her, smothered every rational thought. She had never asked for this feeling; she’d never even believed in it before. But now a line had been crossed, demarcating a distinct before and after. Amid the whirlwind of this terrifying after, she felt powerless against the demands of her heart.
“But it’s not that,” she said to Rivkah as they sat tête-à-tête in the kitchen.
“Well you obviously like him. At least admit that.”
Fuck you, she thought, staring her meanest stare into Rivkah’s brown eyes. Fuck this shit.
Graduation was on the horizon. The walls were crumbling around Michelle and the sheets on her bed had been cold for weeks. She was always at Colin’s place now, always wrapped in his sheets and his skin and his scent of plain Ivory soap like the simply boy he was. Why him, of all people? He wasn’t an artist, musician, or activist; he didn’t smell like booze or grass or patchouli. He didn’t even know about Simone de Beauvoir! But then a second voice in her head would invariably insist, Isn’t that a frivolous way of categorizing people? And aren’t you tired of those bohemian types, who are never as interesting as they claim to be?
One night, during a shift at the bar, she’d tried to create an equation of sorts: a scientist with the soul of an artist + an artist with the soul of a scientist = “Fine,” she said to Rivkah. “I like him, okay. So what?”
“So…maybe you should make it official.”
“That’s utterly pointless.”
“Why? You’re both moving to New York, aren’t you?”
“We both happen to be moving there. It’s a bloody coincidence. That’s all.”
“I love when you talk British now.”
It really is a coincidence, Michelle reminded herself. Colin had already accepted a position in Manhattan: a popular destination for his field and a damn good job offer right out of grad school. He’d gone to undergrad in London and grew up not far from it, so it made sense to Michelle that he’d wind up in New York. He’d even secured an apartment, rented sight unseen through a fellow genetics student whose father had recently purchased the building. Colin’s affluent parents would pay his rent until he earned enough to afford it on his own.
As for Michelle, her only option was to make it on her own. For a few years she’d entertained visions of hopping trains and hitching rides as she backpacked Europe before settling as an ex-pat artist in Paris, but the plane fare alone would severely set her back. Over winter break, Michelle had hatched a more reasonable plan: New York was the ultimate artistic utopia. New York was a dream, a mystery, a potential lover. A city of creative evolution. A city of beatnik philosophy. A city that could merge the disparate parts of herself. She imagined climbing up fire escapes, leaping across rooftops, dancing along cobblestones, and painting the burnt sun as it splashed into the polluted Hudson. She’d find an old school tenement apartment with a tub in the kitchen, or a Bushwick loft with communal meals and costume parties. Then she’d rent her own art studio, its windows exposing the cinematic sky. She wanted to chat up lipsticked prostitutes, pet purring alley cats, run through fire hydrant sprinklers, and bake lopsided cookies for bums rattling coins. She wanted to spray-paint bridges and backstroke through fountains and sneak into concerts and hold a martini in a real martini glass as she mingled at an anyone-and-everyone art opening—her art opening. She wanted New York to want her, the city that embraced both the ugly and the beautiful…or at least, that’s what she’d gathered from books and films, having never set foot on its shimmering streets.
She had tried her best to save, picking up extra bar shifts and nude model stints, hocking guitar-string jewelry and cashing in recyclables, which made New York somewhat possible, or at least not impossible. But then Colin had swept the rug from beneath her. If he moved there too, she would end up sleeping in his bed and breathing in his scent. The new feeling that possessed her would never cease its hold…not unless she abandoned him completely. She had to do this alone, the way she had always intended.
“I still don’t see the big deal,” Rivkah said five days later, as they started to pack up their bedroom. “The city is gigantic. If you don’t want to see him, you don’t have to. And if you do, then he’s right there! How could it be any better?”
“You don’t get it,” Michelle sighed. She stuffed her jeans into a cardboard box, wondering if some pricy boutique would pay big bucks for their authentic paint splatters. “And if it’s so gigantic, why don’t you go back and steer clear of the Hassidic neighborhoods? Your parents won’t even know you’re around. Especially not with the way you look now.”
Rivkah paused, nearly dropping an armful of books. “No,” she said, her voice stern. “You are not allowed to make that comparison because it’s not the same. End of story.”
Rivkah began stacking books by size and Michelle realized she was right—it wasn’t the same at all. Michelle was planning to avoid her own shithole hometown at all costs. For her, New York—with or without Colin—held nothing but promise, but for Rivkah it reeked of everything she’d struggled to leave behind. She was moving in with her wealthy uncle’s stepdaughter in Portland, and Michelle already mourned her absence.
Little by little, the boxes filled. Michelle had envisioned departing Graystone College like some giant cosmic ray lighting up the sky. Her spirits should have been higher than the stratosphere. But somehow, an imposter had snuck into her DNA. She felt disembodied, roving around campus like a lost soul. She was losing touch with reality, drowning in oxytocin. That was it: the rush of emotions that flared her blood and dilated her pupils was pure chemistry, nothing more. He was a drug; she was addicted.
Yet the question kept jabbing her: why this boy? Her little equation wasn’t enough; she felt compelled to create a full-out list. Sitting on the sunny South Lawn, she started the list in her notebook, writing as small as possible so nobody could see.
I like that he knew my hair color was natural. I like his nervous energy. I adore his accent (obviously). I like his soft hands and lips. I like how he kisses my eyelids. I like his dick. I like how he asked permission the first time we fucked. I like the face he makes when he comes—a pain/pleasure combo that is so beautiful I can barely stand to look. I like the way he moves his lips ever so slightly when he reads. I like that he keeps framed photos of his siblings. I like that he put up the portrait I drew in the library. I like that he sews and cooks and plays the piano (though he’s never played for me). I like his record collection. I like his herringbone pajamas. I like his coffee tongue. I like his cheekbones, clavicles, corrugated spine. I like how his eyes are stormy blue-gray moons. I like the scalp-y smell of his head. I like his single white eyebrow hair. I like that he’s a Pisces. I like that it takes him only two hits to get high. I like that he never loses anything. I like that he doesn’t use Facebook. I like that he asks questions, but never about how many people I’ve fucked. I like how he stares across the room when he thinks I’m not paying attention. No one has ever looked at me that way.
Her pencil hovered above the page. Should she keep going on and on like this?
Pressing hard, she scrawled one diagonal line through the litany of likes. She felt disgusted with herself. After losing her virginity at fifteen, she had vowed never to let a man consume or control her, the way her mother had done. She’d rarely slept beside her lovers (or at least not sober), let alone night after night with the same man for six weeks. It pained her to think she was acting like all the foolish girls who pinned their hopes on a budding romance, and ruined their own lives in the process.
But the word plagued her, clanging around in her head, filling the void between every other thought. The word cluttered her throat until she couldn’t speak. The word followed her like a perpetual shadow. The word rooted itself in her core, growing spiked tendrils that threatened to tear her open from the inside. She imagined the explosion: aorta bursting and blood spurting, drowning her and Colin in one great deluge.
On May 19, 2014—that long-awaited date—Michelle pinned her cap to her hair and stood at the mirror for longer than usual. Unlike all the frazzled days before, she had woken extra early and slept the whole night in her own bed. Lindsey had loaned her a dress for the day: knee length, flowing, bright red. Whoever said redheads shouldn’t wear red?
Borrowing generously from Rivkah’s makeup box, Michelle carefully applied eyeliner, eye shadow, and mascara. She never felt the need to wear high heels or makeup, never frequented nail salons or beauty parlors, but today was special—today she was becoming someone new. She rubbed on ruby lipstick and imagined Colin’s expression when he saw her walk across the stage. She was a knockout; who wouldn’t swoon?
Without their families in town, they would celebrate together, and come nightfall she would say, “Maybe I’ll catch ya in the city!” like a girl who’d done this a million times, and maybe he’d get tearful or maybe he wouldn’t, and that would be the end of that.
Graystone gave them eight hours to stay in the dorms after graduation, but eight hours wasn’t enough. Michelle and Colin had fucked and drank, smoked and laughed, then purchased an ecstasy pill from the tail end of Dave Goldman’s stash. As Michelle expected, a hot air balloon had been etched into its surface, waiting to carry them away. They cut the pill in half, swallowed it on the count of three, and packed the remnants of Colin’s room. Michelle called a cab and together they squeezed their bags and ramshackle belongings into its trunk and backseat, unloading at a Red Roof Inn for which Colin paid.
Just after closing the door, Colin unplugged one of the room’s lamps and placed his record player on the desk. “You pick,” he said, gesturing toward his blue crate. Michelle’s fingers scurried through sleeves—Brian Eno, Eric Clapton, Ludavico Einaudi, John Cage, TV on the Radio, Pink Floyd…yes, she’d always wanted to fuck to “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” She handed him the record.
“Good choice,” he said, holding the sleeve close to his face as if it contained some magical secret.
Michelle giggled at his crossed eyes and flopped onto the bed. She was still wearing Lindsey’s dress, which nearly matched the walls. She hadn’t taken it off all day, not even during sex. A seam had torn, but she figured Lindsey would just let her keep the damn thing. After all, her parents had money.
“Bands like Pink Floyd don’t exist anymore,” Michelle declared.
“No, they definitely don’t.”
“Why do you think that is?”
Colin struggled to remove the vinyl from the sleeve, his hands like a jerky marionette. Michelle laughed again.
“Not to be too vague,” he started, pushing back his shoulders the way he often did before starting some soliloquy, “but the ’60s and ’70s were such a different time and place. Back then, music was usually a collective experience. No one carried portable players or wore headphones on the bus. People listened to albums in sitting rooms or at cafés and shows, and by sharing that experience, you could feel the music in a more profound way. You could go deeper into the world around you rather than tuning it out the way everyone does now. Telescoping out versus telescoping in.”
He held up the unsheathed disc, balanced precariously on two fingers. “And also,” he continued, “I think the physicality was an important element. The fact that music is etched in here, that it has shape and weight and depth, that I can carry it from room to room, place it under the needle and listen as the sound shifts from silence to song…it’s like I’m giving it air, the way music needs air to exist in the first place. Now that it’s digital, you can’t hold it in your hands anymore. You’re completely passive, you aren’t part of the process, so it doesn’t have the same impact.” Michelle watched him offer the record to the needle. “Did that answer your question?”
“I don’t remember my question,” Michelle said, smiling, “but I know exactly what you mean. It’s like that with art, too…when you look at a painting in person, you can examine it with your fingertips, touch the dried paint, follow each stroke to figure out the artist’s technique, and it makes you feel like the piece was finished yesterday, even if it’s a hundred years old. You can’t do that by google searching an image on a screen.”
Colin switched on the player, gently setting their music in motion. “Unfortunately, staring at a screen is what most people choose to do with their time these days.”
Michelle sighed. “We’re old souls who missed the boat by too many decades. I shudder to think what the future has in store.”
“You and me both.” Colin lowered himself onto the bed and they spread out on top of the covers, a sliver of negative space between them.
With the volume cranked, an interstellar guitar revved up—slowly at first, nearly quivering against a textured backdrop. Michelle’s pupils expanded to receive it. As the backdrop receded, the guitar galloped forward. Bursts of lightning ignited her neurons. She imagined herself and Colin balanced on the galaxy’s outermost star, clutching each other so they wouldn’t blow away.
She turned her head to stare into his stormy eyes. Could he feel the music at this moment in time? And was he feeling it the same way she did? Telescoping out or telescoping in? Did he understand how, with every dip and spike, the guitar was speaking its own distorted tongue? Could he pick apart the song’s DNA, or detect its cells coiling with hers: a chimera born from their collision?
Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. A diluted voice bounced off the ceiling and Michelle collapsed in on herself…she was six years old again, holding her mother’s clammy hand as sand squished underfoot. The air tasted like Saltine crackers and flocks of seagulls cackled, their white wings reflecting sunlight. Foamy waves frolicked, sparkling like diamonds. They beckoned her to join, but her mother’s hand was crushing her bones. Like black holes in the sky. It was their only vacation, Michelle’s only time at the beach, and Frances had promised, promised, to let Michelle feel the ocean: not just on her feet but on all of her skin. She wanted to sparkle like the waves as her lungs turned to gills and her legs fused into a mermaid tail. But before she knew it she was back on the blanket beneath an umbrella, watching other children swim and play. You were caught in the crossfire…blown on the steel breeze. Her father lit a cigar and scoffed at Frances, who sat shaking and pale.
The sun was poison, Frances declared, and the ocean far too dangerous; why had Phil suggested this horrible vacation in the first place? But that day was just the beginning of her fears: storms harbored evil, birds pecked out eyes, roads derailed drivers, and technology was prone to explode at any moment. When they returned to Ohio, Frances covered the windows with black construction paper. For three years she purposely stopped paying the electrical bill, and four years after that, Phil couldn’t afford it anyway. Flames danced like forgotten brides on every cluttered table. But Sundays were special: for some reason, Frances would let a sliver of sunlight smile across the kitchen floor, and Michelle would stand in its solitary strip, as silent as a stone.
Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light. Michelle wanted to jump out of her skin, or more appropriately on top of Colin’s—weave herself through his muscle fibers or ride his hips until he shouted a string of oh my gods! But now her dress was a bulletproof vest. The mattress pinned her limbs.
What if she just told Colin everything there was to tell: all those memories brewing for years upon years? If only she could speak without threading thought to words. For words, she knew, were little white lies…even the best ones, even the one she wanted to say most.
A saxophone pinwheeled north. It trapped her in its spiraling crescendo, cutting her in half. This was her favorite part of the song—as close to sex as music could get—but now the sound oppressed her.
“Are you all right?”
Colin’s voice glided over the glistening cacophony. She nodded, feigning a smile, their bodies forming a pair of parentheses. He took her hand and placed it on his chest. “What are you thinking?” he asked. “Tell me.”
I’m thinking of how much I wish we could stay here forever, and how much I need to let you go. Below her outstretched palm, Colin’s heart purred. His beats were swift yet somehow soothing, like endlessly rolling waves.
“Are you sad?” he asked, his voice vibrating.
Am I anything? Ever? She was losing this battle with herself, with the red dress, with the next step, with knowing who she was or what she wanted. Michelle closed her eyes, embracing a darkness she alone could control. The song began to peter out, gently releasing. The record crackled like a newly lit sparkler. She held her breath.
In the interim silence between lightly spaced songs, a kaleidoscope of colors flashed—shade after shade passing by. It felt as if she were flicking her wrist, telling each color swatch Next! The second song began to swell just as royal blue flooded the scene. Radiant and saturated, barely hinting at violet, the color clung to the backs of her eyes, all but blinding her. She contemplated its depth, its boldness, and then with newfound clarity realized it must be Colin’s aura. She could see it now without even trying! Hurriedly, like an iris in a desert, Michelle drank it up. She filled her veins, pumping the deep blue straight into her heart. Blood is blue, she thought. She was allowing him to live inside of her.
A color wheel spun across the backs of her eyelids: a testament to all those hours-long art classes she’d proudly endured. If red was her aura and blue was Colin’s, then it meant they weren’t complimentary but primary. Ancient. Eternal. Together they formed an imbalanced triad with a missing link. Certainly there was a contrast: warm versus cool, aggressive versus passive, fire versus water. The two could create a magnificent hue, or remain unchanged and pristine, exactly how they’d started.
“Please Michelle,” Colin said, his words overlapping lyrics in a tangle of vowels. “I really want to know what you’re thinking.”
She opened her eyes to find his lips ajar, forehead slick with sweat, and pupils as black and strong as gravity. Her hand was still on his heart, but she’d lost its rhythm.
Why does he have to be so beautiful? she thought frantically. Sometimes without warning, a fleeting darkness would engulf Colin’s face like the shadow of a bird; Michelle could see it now. Suddenly she wished she’d never noticed him in the library, never sketched his portrait, never sunk into his skin, never discovered his vivid aura. He was safer in two dimensions, when she didn’t know his name.
“Try. One word. Anything.” He was pleading, his face closer and voice sea-glass smooth.
I understand you now, she said in secret, wondering if thoughts could transcend tongues.
“Blue,” she choked out.
“Blue is a sad color,” he whispered.
“Blue is you.”
Colin took her hand—his palm like wet clay—and carried it to his lips. One kiss, two. Then he laid the hand against his cheekbone, as if this was where it had always belonged.
“I want to see you in New York. Not everyday, of course. I’ll be busy and you’ll be busy, I’ll make friends and you’ll make friends…well, you’ll make more friends than I will. But the point is…I want to keep seeing you, Michelle. I want to be part of the life you start there.”
How could such pure, honest, articulate words perform at his beck and call, especially while high? Had he pushed his half of their pill into some vestigial organ, saving it for another night?
“What do you think? Please say something.”
She could draw her feelings, maybe. She could splash new paint against this red-walled cave, leaving prints for future scientists to decode. But their short-lived saga wasn’t worth remembering anyway—just a girl and a boy, as predictable as a heartbeat.
Michelle bit her lip. She hadn’t even committed to the word; it had simply emerged on its own free will. She’d been a yes girl for so long that no was foreign territory. But then again, no also fit like a second skin: hadn’t she crafted a nondescript no to everyone, in one form or another?
“No, we’re not,” she struggled, “doing that.”
“You mean, no you’re not planning to see me in New York. Is that what you bloody mean?” His voice had risen above the bluesy bass. Have a cigar, you’re gonna go far.
“Yes. That is…what I mean,” she whispered.
He leapt out of bed faster than her eyes could adjust. With great effort, she pulled herself up onto her elbows, watching him pace around the bed, trails burning in his wake.
“Do you have to be so fatalistic? I don’t understand you…I don’t understand why we can’t keep seeing each other. Finishing university doesn’t suddenly make you a different person. You realize this, don’t you?” Colin stopped in his tracks, exhaling audibly. “Hasn’t this been going well? Doesn’t being together make you as happy as it makes me?” Hunched over with hands on knees, he’d aged a hundred years in a split-second’s breadth.
“This is temporary,” she answered. “Trust me.”
A door slammed. A wall shook. Colin’s fast-dissolving echo now occupied the space. It took a few seconds for Michelle to discover a ribbon of light sneaking through the bathroom door, scattering like crepuscular rays. She imagined him sitting—hands still on knees, or maybe head in hands—on the edge of the tub. Surely this hotel room had a tub. The Michelle who had swallowed one half of the hot air balloon hadn’t wanted the night to turn out like this. That girl had merely wanted to fuck and talk art, fuck and talk science, then overflow the tub and use up all the toiletries.
So, so you think you can tell, heaven from hell?
“Fuck me!” she shouted. Why hadn’t she just gone with “Layla” in the first place? Now she couldn’t muster the strength to turn off the player, let alone choose a less distressing record. Each strum of the song’s acoustic guitar entered her skin like a storm of splinters. Somewhere beyond this room, straight up through the blurry ceiling, a halved moon bobbed in an inky sea—a moon that bore its own complex anatomy. She wondered if its throat was dry.
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl.
There it was, the line Michelle had been dreading: more classically heartbreaking than ever before. What kind of hellish cliché was she living? What kind of woman was Colin hoping she’d be? He must have known the truth: the predictable patterns of her particular nucleotides. He must have at least read the signs. She was not going to surrender, nor drown in his pleas. Maybe all of this was a test of her conviction.
Michelle continued to lie motionless, sweating out chemicals. Time had ceased to mean anything, the seconds as impossible to count as stars. The dreaded song ended, shifting into the album’s final track. Electric guitars turned figure eights. Those screeching sounds led into what she’d already expected: a continuation of the first track. Michelle feared that a loop in time had opened, dragging her back to the first half of their night, or back to the South Lawn on that April day, or back to the ocean her mother forbade. She reminded her brain that time was linear, still charging forward, and that life was a one-way street without dead ends. The universe would never allow such a thing.
Some time later, she was riding a revolving Ferris wheel with red and blue lights, all haloed and bright, when a finger tapped her shoulder. The music had melted. The mattress was rock hard. Her jaw felt wired shut, eyelids as heavy as tar.
“Mmmhmm?” she heard herself murmur in half-sleep.
“I’ve been thinking it over.” Colin’s body heat enveloped her, but that voice sounded distant. Maybe he was speaking from the past.
“Do what you need to do, take your time,” he continued. “And then you will find me, or I will find you, the way we did before.”
He kissed her on the forehead like the good witch of the north, and the Ferris wheel started up again, turning and turning against her will, reaching one arm into the past and another into the present while she clung to its center, begging it to stop.