Chimana seldom eats alone. When she eats alone, she lights a candle. The city offers itself to us like a halved pomegranate. I want to stick my tongue in it, she says, when I see old rusty bridges and their beams like lace I understand the woman who married the Eiffel Tower.
Chimana has a voice that’s low and rumbling. It rises an octave when she answers her mother’s calls. I sit on her windowsill, feet resting on her fire escape, and I rub my eyes until phosphenes constellate behind my lids. Outwardly masculine, Chimana has kind, supple eyes like a doe. She is harmless/the most harmless person I know, but unlike most people this doesn’t make her uninteresting. She speaks to her mother in French as I sit, placidly smoking a joint. She comes to the window and places a hand on the small of my back, her other hand still holding phone to ear. She is silently listening. She catches my eye and rolls hers as she grins. She says goodbye to her mother and I gently blow smoke in her face. Her hand roves up and down my back/my posture softens into her.
Earlier this morning: all tongues and redemption. I would cringe at myself if Chimana and I didn’t already have a history of colliding like this. This morning, I rose early and made breakfast. After we ate, I found myself under Chimana’s arm as we half-heartedly watched the AM news. I didn’t know what was acceptable; it had been years since…
But, I was feeling transient and bold. I couldn’t ignore the sudden pounding between my legs: a second heartbeat. I moved my hand to Chimana’s chest and pushed her shirt aside. Without pausing to gauge a reaction I grazed her with lips, tongue. Chimana inhaled sharply as her nipple hardened between my teeth; “Let’s go to my bed.”
Kill your heroes. I nap on her sofa. I dream about an overweight Chimana with her hair falling out. I wake to a resort commercial. People on vacation: they’re vulnerable; they don’t know how to act. They’ve been told this is it … the zenith of relaxation, the pinnacle of their long days and canyons of boredom. Me? I’m never On Vacation — I’m just a perpetual wanderer and I’ve noticed that sleeping in different beds helps wring out the dreams; the ones that were clogging and blocking other inroads and revelations. I sleep soundly in strange beds. I feel my grey matter being cleaned, excess is sloughed. Some nano construction worker drills down, down to take a core sample. When I wake up I feel closer to the truth.
It didn’t happen to me. It didn’t happen at all. The only way is to fissure. It’s a splitting. My memory is a tumor, or maybe an impacted wisdom tooth … it must be removed. Or, the other option is to replay replay replay until the film reel of the event loses its salience and becomes absurd. It didn’t happen to me. Something like this would never happen to me. This event is not a territory that I own. Some people flaunt their trauma like a badge and this disgusts me. Brand yourself “victim” and then behave as though you are allergic to the world. This disgusts me. I want no part of a community that affects gentleness and coos and steers around rocks deemed “triggering.”
I rub my eyes with the heel of my palm.
I stand up and approach the woman behind the glass panel. She hands me a clipboard. I sit back down. I can’t speak because I’m thinking about this morning. I crossed the street because there were more than two men walking together. My friend was assaulted in a spa. No place is sacred anymore. By sacred, I mean safe, because those two words are, for me, two sides of one coin. The muscles in my shoulders tighten sometimes when I walk past clusters of men. Should they look at me … should they say something …
I fill out my intake forms with neater handwriting than usual. I slip my feet out of my flip flops and cross my ankles. My palms sweat. All the loveless nights. Pungent and cutting like vinegar. Chemistry by design. Free will in a vacuum bag. Fuck.
I feel bile rise in my throat. I think of everything that is not pleasant.
The clock ticks too loudly. I shift in my seat, and that is also too loud. I take small sips of air because my breathing has suddenly become amplified.
“You were in Brattleboro? Love that town.”
This remark alarms me; it seems flippant. At the same time, I know his candor is meant to relax me, and it does (by inches, no millimeters). I’m inside myself, looking out through the wrong end of a telescope. I try to inch forward, bloom toward the surface of my skin.
“It’s beautiful this time of year.” There! You did it. You did it.
He grins toothily at the clipboard. “It really is.”
He’s nice-looking, and young. He reminds me of the well-meaning grad student in high school who tried to help me with my blushing. His name was Brad; he was tall with long hair and a beard and one day he set up a camera with a tripod. He taped some of our sessions for his professors. He reported back that his professors found me very articulate and self-aware. He also reported that upon being asked if he himself ever struggled with blushing he — paused for dramatic effect — blushed! (What did I do? I blushed!) I never went back to see him after that.
“So Brynn, how’s it going today?”
“It’s going … well?” I don’t mean to phrase my response as a question, but my tone curves upward.
“Anything on your mind?”
Probably yes. Everything.
“I’d prefer to talk to a woman.” These words escape my mouth before I even realize they were there.
He nods. “I understand. Wanna just give this a shot for today, and if you feel the same way at the end of our hour we can see who else on staff can see you. How does that sound?”
I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m not trying to make a scene. I wordlessly leave. I should have made that clear from the beginning. He doesn’t call after me. He understands. I knew he would understand.
I don’t fill my lungs until I’m out on the street. Finally. The current of people washes me. I am caught in it and I am anonymous again. I like noise and unrelenting daylight. I walk three blocks to Central Park. This city is like a boat. No matter where I am I can orient myself. No matter who I am I can orient myself.
As always, my nails are bitten to the quick — cuticles raw and pulled back. I wait for Ainsley by the duck pond. I watch a couple take a selfie by the water and smirk to myself.
“They look so stupid.”
I close my eyes and nod. I’m used to her sneaking up on me. She has quiet steps and quick eyes.
“Can I braid your hair?”
She runs her long nails down my scalp and plaits my hair. It makes me shiver. Ainsley reminds me of friends I had in grade school — we can coexist silently for hours, inhabiting the same imaginary world. Today though, she breaks the silence more quickly than usual.
“I’m not going this year.”
“To Sturgis?” I turn around to look at her, and she twists my head back around. I watch the selfie couple walk back to the path, their arms wrapped around each other’s waist — some sort of egalitarian but affectionate display.
“You’re going to ruin the braid, Brynn.”
I keep my neck straight. I stay silent, hoping she might continue. She’s silent until she finishes the braid.
I give her my wrist. When she’s done, she sits next to me, pulls a loose cigarette from behind her ear, and places it between her teeth.
“Do you have a lighter?”
I shake my head. She knows I quit.
She stands up and scans our surroundings. I scan too. I don’t see anyone smoking, but Ainsley beelines toward a group of teenagers standing thirty or so feet away. One of them, a lanky blonde with a large septum ring, produces a white BIC from the breast pocket of his button down and lights her cigarette. I turn back to the pond and look at how the sunlight catches the scum.
“I would make out with him.” Ainsley’s back. She sits next to me and takes long drags from her cigarette. The wind is blowing gently from the southeast, so she sits to my right, and blows the smoke over her shoulder so it’s carried away from us.
“I bet he’d make out with you too, but he looks seventeen.” I run my palms over my jeans. Out of the corner of my eye something comes into sharp focus. I feel a slight panic rise in my chest. Ainsley is oblivious but it’s not her fault.
“Why but? There’s no need for a disjunction here. I’ve made out with a sixteen year old before!”
“Yeah, when you were twelve … c’mon let’s walk.”
I say that with more urgency than I intend. She snaps her neck to the left and looks me square in the eyes. I’m silently hoping she doesn’t see. I want us to leave this spot … I want us to leave now …
“Oh, Christ. Are you kidding me?” She stands up. I notice her clothes: She is wearing a grey V-neck, black leggings, sneakers, and has a flannel tied around her waist.
“Ains, let’s just go,” I say through my teeth.
She’s not listening. She flicks her cigarette butt and strides toward the man who has been looking at us and masturbating.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” There’s no stopping her now. Part of me wants to turn around and watch, but there are parts of this scene I don’t care to see.
I don’t hear him respond. Ainsley continues, her voice rises.
“You know that porn is free, right? GO SOMEWHERE WITH WIFI YOU GODDAMNED PERVERT.”
I hear a choked noise, like a cough. I feel Ainsley’s hand on my arm, pulling me up.
“He just came in his hand, let’s go let’s go — fuck this.”
We walk to the path, past the group of teenagers, past the selfie couple, past trees, past grass, past rocks. I feel motion sick.
“I hope someone reports that, ‘cause I’m not about to … unless you want to.”
I don’t say anything. I’m trying to just walk.
“Brynn? Do you want to find a cop?”
I manage to shake my head.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure… let’s just keep walking.”
My brain is working, so is my body. I register that we’re crossing the street, avoiding bicycles, cars … white stripes under our shoes. Downhill … we’re going down a hill now. To my right is the grassy spot I used to lie in and read with my running shorts rolled down and my tank top folded up. There are children hula hooping. I’m confused. We keep walking; we’re almost to the edge. I feel as though we are about to emerge from a forest even though the sun has been beating down this whole time. We get to the lip of the park. Ainsley pauses.
“Where do you want to go? Do you want to get soup or tea or something?”
“Okay.” She takes a breath, then leads me to the left. We’re walking uptown. We weave through extended arms shoving CDs at us.
“Heyo check out my mixtape.”
“Wow … you’re beautiful!”
“I’d like to make you ladies feel real good, if you know what I’m sayin’.”
We don’t check out their mixtape.
“Alright! Stay frigid.”
We stay frigid. We keep walking … past the Met and the fountains, past the food trucks and their lines. We turn right and cross the street. We walk east. We keep walking east. I feel numbed to the noise, the light, the traffic, the people. After a few minutes I realize that Ainsley is taking us to her
“Is your roommate home?”
“I don’t think so … but we’re not going there.”
“Where are we going?”
This apartment belongs to Chimana’s cousin. He floats through the space wearing a silk floral robe, watering his plants, which seem to cover every available surface. I sit on a floor cushion.
“Brynn, what kind of tea do you want? There’s green, chamomile, lemon ginger …” Ainsley looks at me from behind the small counter, kettle in hand.
“Uhh, lemon ginger.”
He places his cup of water on the chipped coffee table and places one hand on his hip, the other on the back of his neck, rubbing it.
“I’ll have green, baby, thank you.” He rolls his neck to the left, then the right. It cracks audibly. He turns and faces me.
“Sweetie, I’m bein’ so rude. I’m sorry, these plants though….” He gestures grandly around the studio. “They’re so needy … they’re like my children.”
I nod. “Of course.” The apartment is small, but feels palatial somehow. In the corner by the window, a collaged dress-form stands sturdy. A rhinestone studded cowboy hat hangs on the mannequin’s neck.
“I like the mannequin.”
Braden smiles and sits next to me. “Thank you! I just finished modge-podgeing her … mostly newspaper clippings, and cartoons from the New Yorker”
I grin. “Nice!”
He leans in conspiratorially. “You can go have a closer look whenever you like.”
Braden seems gentle, like Chimana. He has the same doe eyes, with long lashes. He has a gold hoop in each nostril, which creates a nice symmetry when I look him straight on.
“Brynn, I’m so glad to meet you finally. Chi and Ainsley have talked about you so much I feel like I know you.” Ainsley gives us our tea and seats herself on the other side of the coffee table. The table is the only furniture I see; floor cushions surround it. I also spot the corner of an air mattress, obscured mostly by a folding screen.
“Do you mind if I smoke in here?” Ainsley sets her mug down on the coffee table.
“You can do whatever you like, there’s an ashtray and a lighter over there.” He motions to the window.
Ainsley gets up. Sometimes the pace at which she changes levels dizzies me. She stands, she sits, she kneels. Sometimes I never know what my level should be. I stay sitting, of course. We’re not leaving yet.
“Want me to crack the window?”
“Please.” Braden takes a slow sip of his tea. “Yours should be good to drink now.”
I stare at the mug in my hand. I’d almost forgotten about it. I bring it to my face and feel the steam rise to my skin. It feels pleasant, it smells pleasant. Ainsley comes back with her cigarette. She places the ashtray next to her mug on the coffee table.
“I talked to my friend, and he say he thinks he can have that fabric to you by Friday, at the latest.”
Braden smiles “You’re an angel.”
Ainsley tosses her hair back and flutters her lashes “ … well I mean …”
They both laugh as she ashes her cigarette. “Brynn, Braden designs. Do you remember once at that party Chi was showing us those dresses she said her cousin made?”
I smile. “You’re that cousin.”
Braden chuckles. “I am that cousin … I’ve been out of the game for a while though. People are …” He scrunches his nose. Ainsley nods emphatically.
“Tell her what you’ve been doing though.”
“I’ll do you one better. I can show you”
He reaches behind him and produces a mini dress form, no higher than twelve inches, adorned with a green wrap. “Couture for the home.”
He hands it to me and I run my fingers over the silk.
“This is beautiful.” I say. It feels beautiful between my thumb and index finger. “Wow …”
Ainsley grins. “I think it’s such a good idea—I’m going to go and get some things we can make dinner with,” she declares, wiping her nose. “Any requests?”
Braden shakes his head. “Whatever you want. You know what’s in the cabinets too. We can use whatever is here.”
She nods. “Brynn?”
She grabs a set of keys off Braden’s counter and lets herself out. I’ve been in many rooms after Ainsley has left them. I’m never quite prepared, though; there are always a few silent moments. A pause hangs in the air, out of respect it seems. Or maybe it’s because when she leaves a room she takes my breath with her.
“Look, Brynn … you’re such a good friend. I know you and Ainsley take care of each other.” Braden takes a breath and looks at me over the coffee table. “I hope you don’t think I’m overstepping here, but when I heard what happened it made me so … so angry”
I look up and it takes a moment to register that Braden’s talking about me. He’s talking about what happened … to me. I feel cornered and exposed. I wonder why I couldn’t have gone to the store too. I never know how to react to these expressions. I’m angry too. I’m angry all the time I just don’t show it. I silently hope for both our sakes he doesn’t use the word “brave.” I don’t think he will, but I set the intention just in case.
Braden looks at me for a moment. I want him to understand. I don’t think he’s rude and I’m not offended. His posture relaxes a bit and he scoots toward the table. I notice, for the first time several rings on his fingers. One is a large, uncut piece of turquoise. I focus on it.
“This might seem strange, but would you like to color? I just got a 64 pack of crayons today on a whim.” He laughs. “I don’t know what I was thinking… but it seemed like a good purchase.”
“That’s a great purchase, what are you talking about … I love coloring. I had a fractal coloring book in college, it helped me stay sane during midterms and finals.”
He looks at me, his lips curve. “Really.”
He produces the crayons and a coloring book. This book is a selection of mandalas. It’s the same brand as the one I used to have.
“Did it look anything like this?”
I laugh. “Yes! Same brand … get out, that’s crazy!”
He thumbs through the heavy book. “You pick one.”
I select a page and smooth the book open between us. He takes an orange crayon out of the box and pushes it toward me. “Alright, miss thing, let’s get to work.”
We start coloring, and I feel a familiar calm wash over me. I lose track of time, I switch colors twice.
“I love the city,” I say.
“For I while — I wanted to leave. I thought about leaving and never coming back…but then, I didn’t know where I’d go. This is home.” I lean in to the coloring book, so close my hair touches the table.
“I know what you mean. There’s no place like here.”
“I felt — brutalized. I wanted to change my hair, my name … I wanted to get out of here.”
Braden pauses his coloring, listening intently, but he doesn’t look at me.
“The worst part, I think, right now, is that his family tried to reach out to me. They want to meet with me…” I’ve started putting more pressure on the teal crayon, the waxy residue gets darker and a few clumps form. I go over the same spot again and again.
“You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to do anything.” Braden is looking at me now. I look up, into his eyes … supple eyes like his cousin’s. He is familiar and I trust him.
“Thank you.” I’m not sure what I’m thanking him for, but the words taste right in my mouth. “Thank you.” I say it again.
He looks surprised and amused. “No, thank you. Thank you for coming over this afternoon … I was in a bit of a funk before you ladies showed up … now I’m coloring and I feel fabulous.” He smiles and I notice that one of his canine teeth is gold-plated. I smile too.
“Guys … you won’t believe who I just saw!” Ainsley wiggles her way through the doorframe.
“Well … are you going to make us guess??”
“Shut up! Was she carrying her Oscar?!”
“No … she was wearing sweatpants.” Ainsley grins as she places a paper bag on the counter. She pulls out a bag of kale and two sweet potatoes. She holds up one of the potatoes. “This one is so curvy,” she says, running her finger over its side. It is curvy; it looks like a bottom heavy woman with a small waist and tiny head. She props it against the paper bag. “Bradey, you should make a dress for it,” she says, laughing.
Braden stands and re-ties his robe, rolls up his sleeves after securing a double knot around his waist, and strides toward where Ainsley stands. “I will do no such thing. We are going to eat that potato, and this kale, and the can of chickpeas that’s been sitting in my cabinet since before I could marry….”
Ainsley smirks “You know I was always down to get married … for the tax benefits.”
Braden rummages in a shelf behind the counter then emerges with a large skillet. He pulls a sympathetic face “Ains, baby, you know you’re not my cup of tea!” he catches my eye and winks. I feel startled. It’s as if an actor has just decided to go off script and speak directly to the audience. The fourth wall hovers somewhere between this floor cushion and that counter. I watch them move deftly around one another. A cutting board and large knife appear.
I think about offering to help with something, but the rhythm of their movement seems choreographed, and the space behind the counter is small.
I remember the mannequin in the corner.
The window next to it leads to a fire escape. It reminds me of Chimana’s window, Chimana’s fire escape. I intend on looking more closely at Braden’s collage work, but my attention is pulled suddenly by the small space between dress form and window. The afternoon light is deepening. Ripe shadows splay on the corner of the walls. These two white walls, and their unity. There is always something dissonant and sad about dusk. Even in those weekend dusks filled with anticipation and possibility — I feel, I feel suspended. I have no time for dissonant feelings or people who unravel my spine. I want to be drenched in urbanity. Light a candle for those who who who cannot join you at your table. And yet, time and space ground me more than any person I know. No one has ever offered everything to me as intimately and gently as light does. Thank you … thank you.
Emily Duffy is Punch Drunk Press’s first featured writer this October. She is the space between snooze and the next alarm. A kaleidoscope of radical softness, vulnerability, feminine strength, and play feeds her poetics, pedagogy, and outreach work. As a second-year MFA student at the Jack Kerouac School, she consults in the Naropa Writing Center and teaches an undergraduate writing seminar. Her creative work has appeared in The Lantern, Aux./Vox., BEATS: A Naropan Periodical and Iron Horse Literary Review. She performs as Agent Sauvage with Boulder Burlesque and is the editor and publisher of Tooth n Nail: practical advice from and for the everywoman.
Learn more about Emily by reading our interview with her.
Featured Image by Emily Duffy. Author photograph by Kid Neon Photography.