If, page 12
He tenderly stroked the scarred side of my face with the side of his thumb.
“So, how’d they take it?”
“About as badly as they could. They tried to forbid it, but I was already legally an adult. So they said they wouldn’t support me financially, and I expected that.”
Ash didn’t say anything, but I felt him nod, and he lilted back and forth ever so slightly with me in this arms. It felt safe to keep going.
“It’s not that we just declared one day we’d stop talking. Sure we argued, but everyone argues with their parents. But before I left it was explosive. It felt like they were trying to hurt me. And it’s just that . . . I’m hurt. I’m angry. They don’t believe in me. And I know it has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with my face. They are just like everyone else out here. Of all people, I thought they would see past it. And I know they don’t want me to get hurt . . . but I needed their support. I needed them to tell me that it was okay to follow my dreams, but they told me I would fail. They told me what I believed about myself was wrong. They made me love dance and then they wanted me to forget it. So I left it all behind. And now it’s not just a dream, it’s proving them wrong. They cut me off, and I feel betrayed and they feel betrayed and I won’t go back until I have something to show for all of this. They want an apology, they want me to run back to them and tell them I need them and that I’ll go back and be the lawyer or the doctor or whatever.”
“You think you’ll reconcile?”
“They’ve tried, I guess. But it always comes with a condition. ‘Come back home, we’ll pay for you to go to school.’ Never once have they just called to say they were sorry and they respect my decisions. I’m not accepting that. It’s so hard out here. So hard. Soul-sucking, pride-swallowing, physically exhausting. I don’t have space for anything but hope. I’m not asking for their money. I just want their support.”
A peaceful silence descended on us. It was nice to just sit wrapped in Ash’s arms, his warmth contrasting with the cool night air. In a city full of so many people, at this moment, in this spot, we were the only two people. I understood why he liked late-night picnics on the roof.
“You’re gonna make it, Bird.”
“No, you’re gonna be successful beyond your wildest dreams.” He said it like it was a fact.
I looked up at him and smiled wistfully.
“I should mention, my sister has always backed me through it all. She worries about me being alone here, kind of like your brother does with you. What about you? Did your family support your talents?”
“Yeah. More than I could have ever asked for. And I was different. My dad was military, just like his father. Lots of type-A’s in my family. And here he had a son who was seeing rainbows in sound and who loved art and music. It was probably interesting for them to say the least, but my parents encouraged me.”
“That’s nice. Do they still?”
“It’s not relevant.”
“I changed. I don’t see my parents these days, either.”
“Things aren’t the same with my family anymore. We’re broken up.”
“No, my sister died.”
“Oh my god.”
“And we just aren’t the same. Nothing is.”
“How old was she?”
“Fifteen. I was in college, studying art, and Miller was already finishing up law school. She was the youngest.”
“What was her name?”
He paused. I felt his breath catch in his throat.
He said her name like it physically hurt to utter it. I could tell he was done talking about her. A silence lingered after he said it, an emptiness that reflected her absence.
I thought about asking how his sister died, but he didn’t offer the information. Ash was smart. It was a deliberate omission. It didn’t feel right to ask yet. There would be more nights on the roof or in my apartment for those sad details.
“Your brother, I assume he’s older?”
“Yeah, seven years. He’s married, a lawyer. Used to work at the DA’s office, but now he’s in entertainment because the money is so much better.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, my sister is a lawyer, too. She doesn’t practice. She pretty much married and had kids right away.”
“I assume your parents are happy about that.”
“Does she dance?”
“She’s a terrible dancer. I mean it’s excruciating. I am convinced it could be used as a form of mental warfare . . . maybe an interrogation tactic.”
Ash threw his head back in laughter. I realized that for the first few weeks of our friendship, he didn’t laugh, I mean really laugh, at all.
“I guess it doesn’t run in the family.”
“I wouldn’t know as far as genetics. I’m adopted.”
“Well, your parents are lucky to have you.”
“Sometimes I wonder if they think they made a mistake.”
“Don’t do that. They’re caring in the only way they know how. Even if it’s the shitty way. We’re all just trying to make it, right?”
“It’s funny,” Ash said. “When I was a little kid, I imagined being twenty-something and having all the answers. Like it was the peak of adulthood. Here I am, and I still feel like a kid. I wonder if that feeling ever goes away.”
“I don’t know. I have a job and an apartment and I still feel like I’m playing house. In a much crappier house, I might add.”
Suddenly, I felt Ash pulling me back onto him as he lay down. I screeched playfully and turned over so that I was on top of him.
“Oh come on, I wanted to show you the beautiful smog overhead.”
“How romantic!” I swooned sarcastically.
“You are a dream personified.”
I bowed my head and shook it softly. He could be so poetic. Ah, the plus side of dating a sensitive artist.
“You are. And one day, little girls are going to see you on stage or on TV and dream that they could be you when they grow up. I think you should float. I don’t think the ground deserves for you to walk on it.”
“Stop,” I said, feeling overwhelmed. “Don’t put me on a pedestal like that. I’m destined to fall from it.”
“You will forever be on a pedestal, just like those little ballerinas in a jewelry box. Your parents are wrong. You are the reason I can paint again. The fact that you even noticed I existed, when all I was trying to do was hide . . . you are blinding color in a world of beige.”
It was like Ash was trying to fill me with the hope that had been beaten out of me a little at a time with each rejection since I had arrived.
“What about you, Ash? You’re like a superhero. You have the closest thing to a super power I have ever seen. And just like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, you can try to hide it, but your talent will find a way to show itself to the world. Your gifts are not meant to be hidden on some roof. Your parents were right.”
He pulled me in and kissed me like maybe he didn’t have all the answers yet, but he knew he wanted to be with me.
We officially turned the tree house into a love nest, surrounded by swirls of color on the black tar floor, out in the open, with no walls.
Afterward, I lay wrapped in the blanket, but Ash was reinvigorated. I wondered how he found the energy. How could this be the same guy who stood there and let himself get pushed around weeks ago? How could this be the guy who hung his head every time I tried to steal a glance?
“I can’t wait until you see this when it’s done,” he said. His voice floated overhead as he paced the roof.
“Me neither,” I said, drifting to sleep. My eyes slowly closed, and I thought we should head back downstairs. We had to be discrete about hanging out on the roof. I sat up and
I didn’t understand why Bird was freaking out about me walking on the edge of the roof. It was wide, I was fine. If I was walking on that same ledge a few feet from the ground, the thought of me slipping wouldn’t have crossed her mind. I liked the feeling of looking over the edge on one side, then seeing her on the other. Exhilaration on one side, safety on the other. The world was spinning fast, but Bird still grounded me. I felt great. I felt fucking great.
I wasn’t going to fall, I just wasn’t. In fact, teetering on the edge was the definition of living. This roof was mine, everything that mattered was here in this moment—my art and my girl. I had so much to do, there was no way I could die. I could fall off this roof and hit the floor and I still wouldn’t die, because I couldn’t. I wasn’t finished here.
I laughed at first when she freaked. I thought she would think it was funny once she got over the surprise. Then I wobbled a bit, trying to make her laugh since she didn’t the first time.
She told me to get down, and I balanced on one leg with my arms out to the sides to show Bird I had it. Then I wobbled some more to tease her.
She started to cry. I didn’t understand. I didn’t mean to hurt her. I was just trying to show her how she made me feel like I could rule the world, how I could conquer anything.
I jumped down and tried to reach out for her.
She asked me if I was crazy. She said it wasn’t funny. She stormed away from me.
I didn’t understand. I did this whole thing for her and she was crying. I tried to kiss her, but she pushed me away. She said what I did scared her. She said she cared about me.
The ever-burning torch of energy running through me felt like it was being snuffed. Her tears were extinguishing the flames.
For the first time in days, I started to feel a little tired. As pink sun rose, her sniffles peppered the skies with sharp black angles. I tasted licorice. Millions of microscopic needle points poked my fingertips as if they had fallen asleep.
I thought we were having fun, but she said she was done and she wanted to go back inside and sleep.
I didn’t understand.
WE WERE SUPPOSED to watch the sun rise together, but instead she cried and her tears darkened the pink and orange glow of the sun coming up on the horizon. I watched her sleep next to me. I felt restless, wanting to jump out of my skin. I had lost track of the last time I had slept for more than a couple of hours, if at all. At first, that restlessness felt refreshing, like a superpower had been unveiled, but now it felt like an inescapable itch. I wanted to sleep and forget how I upset Bird.
I just wanted to make her laugh. She said she was fine, that she was just tired and wanted to rest and to never do that again. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how she begged me to come off that ledge, as I kept trying to make her smile, and it only made her more panicked.
The dead silence of the room is interrupted by drops of water. I look over at the source of the sound. The window. Water is leaking in through the seams. There is a single crack in the pane and I watch in confusion as the crack spreads in different directions and then the window bursts.
Shards of glass cut into my skin as a violent rush of water floods the apartment. We have to get out of here. I shake Bird, but she won’t open her eyes. She is bleeding. She has no lavender aura. She is dull. I scream her name, but she lies limp. I have to carry her out, but I can’t move my legs. The apartment is filling fast, and I scream for help. I watch as water overtakes Bird first, and I scream for her. Then the water consumes me and I scream again. This time there is no sound, but agitated water erupts from my mouth: foamy, white bubbles.
I feel arms grip me and pull me away from her. I try to take her with me. And then I lose consciousness.
I open my eyes again. And this time I can’t move at all. I feel like I am being gripped in a powerful hug, but as I move, I hear the gentle clinking of buckles. I look down, and I’m hugging myself, forced to do so by a white jacket. I look around to get my bearings, but I am in a room with just a tiny window at the door. I use the padded wall to slide up to my feet, and I call out through the tiny window. Then I slam against the door, over and over, until my shoulder is numb. The room is small, and the water will be coming after me. I need to get out of this small room. If the water won’t drown me, this jacket and these walls will suffocate me. I hate fucking walls. An invisible hand clenches my throat. There’s not enough air in this room. The walls are keeping it out. And then the ceiling and walls begin to come closer from every direction. The hand grips tighter.
I jumped up, panting as I looked for Bird. I had to make sure she was alive, that the water hadn’t consumed her, but she wasn’t in the bed. My head hurt like hell, a hangover I didn’t earn. I was so tired, only waking up because of the nightmare.
“Bird?” I called out, my voice full of rasp and confusion. There was no answer. I stood up drunkenly and walked over to the kitchen. There was a note.
I had to go to work and I didn’t want to wake you up. You need the sleep. I’ll be working until 11pm.
I searched for any object that would reveal the time. It was two in the afternoon. Shit. I remembered the night before. I remembered the roof and how I scared her. I knew her tears and the much needed sleep broke my high. I reached into my bag for my pills, I had been taking a lower dose for several weeks, the lithium sometimes made my hands shake and lowering the dose almost removed that side effect entirely. I was enjoying my painting so much more that way. Even at the lower dose, my synesthesia was dampened, but at least I had better control over the brush. I told myself this is what Bird wanted—for me to love creating art again. She pulled me in, she got me the materials, she made me remember that lost love. For years, I had been trying to avoid the temptation, and stew in my guilt and pain, tucked away in the lonely alleyway on 5th. But there was no willpower that existed on earth to resist the feelings I had around Bird. It was like blaming someone for not having the willpower to resist drinking water or breathing air.
The pills were the only thing that kept me from riding the recent high all the way. They dulled my synesthesia, and they also dulled the high.
I swallowed back an extra pill. Maybe that would stop the inevitable low that I felt approaching from deep in my gut, just like that feeling right before the big drop on a rollercoaster. Mood stabilizer my ass.
I trudged to the sink and downed a glass of water. My stomach twisted in hunger. I should go grab food, but I blew all my money. I had maybe a couple of dollars left. Fucking typical.
Though my stomach growled, I didn’t want to eat more of Bird’s food. I didn’t want her to provide for me, but fuck I was hungry.
I slammed a fist down on the counter in frustration. The money I had saved for months was gone. I had saved it so I never would have to starve or eat that shitty soup kitchen food. I could call my brother now, but I didn’t like to ask. I only took when he left me some money on the kitchenette counter in the guest house. Those paintings were some of my best work in a long time, but they wouldn’t feed me. I had all these grand plans in my head for many of them, but now, all those plans seemed like childish fantasies. Now I was looking at reality: I was broke, I was hungry, I had no way of obtaining any money, my head hurt, my stomach hurt. The only thing that felt good was that I knew I could see Bird later. Except that I made her cry last night in the final throes of my high. I would have to find a way to explain to her that I was just kidding. I know it seemed like it was cruel taunting, but I was just trying to ride the wave of indestructibility I felt when I was around her.
I found the crackers, cheese and juice I got for our picnic and I devoured every last crumb.
In the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of my face and torso in the mirror. I had definitely lost some weight this past week. Even my face had thinned a bit. Bird brought me food from her
I needed to get out of the apartment. The weight of the walls around me slowly increased so that I felt they could collapse and crush me at any moment. I needed to get the fuck out of this place and figure out how I was going to ride the low. I didn’t want Bird to see this. It was pathetic and sad and she didn’t need that in her life.
I used a last resort to get some money: plasma donation. It gave me just enough cash to get a cab to Miller’s and a small bite to eat. My goal was to slip into the guest house and do some laundry, maybe find some food in the fridge there. Honestly, I was too tired to make any complicated plans. I was just trying to get there and then figure it out.
When I got there at about five, no one was home. That was a relief. I didn’t feel like small-talking with Ella. She was polite, but her resentment simmered just beneath the surface. She married the good brother, the successful brother, and I was just an anchor on him. I was the black sheep. I was using him. I was the bad guy.
I slipped into the guest house and I didn’t even bother to turn on the light. Any plans to be productive ceased to exist and I slid onto the bed and slammed hard into a deep sleep.
A voice murmuring in the distance awoke me. As I rolled over moaning from the headache and disorientation, I realized it was Ella. She wasn’t loud, but she had this pitch to her voice that seemed to carry through any solid surface.
I didn’t know how long I had slept, but I was still tired and there was still light out. Tired isn’t the right word. Exhausted isn’t either. Because this wasn’t just a case of lack of physical rest. I wanted to disappear into the nonexistence of sleep. There, I wouldn’t feel pain, self-loathing, or despair. I would feel nothing. My brain was changing in a way that isn’t fully understood yet. It was taking me for a ride and I had to choice but to hang on. The first part of the ride was fast, wild, and frenzied. The second part was treacherous, slow, and arguably the most dangerous.
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