“Think of a word, any word. Let’s try coconut.”
My old friend whose parents named her after a citrus gives me her instructions. She’s teaching me sense memory, like diving for pearls.
“Coconut will take you to a memory. Follow the memory as if it were a river; branch when it does, lie in the delta once you get there. And don’t think about what actually happened—that doesn’t matter.
Don’t come up for air.”
I am flying towards the Sonoran again. This is the seventeenth flight and although all the planes before this one shuddered, none of them went down. Laughing at turbulence is just like crying at ascent: gleeful destabilization, seeing the horizon start to curve and remembering we don’t live on flat ground, never have.
I haven’t been back since 2015, when I lived here with a girl with snaggled teeth and golden hair. The city was a four-month, scorching renaissance. We weren’t making much money and were eating from the pantry, so after we roasted a frozen turkey, I boiled its carcass, stripped bones to make her a month’s worth of broth, fed it to her through flu. We fell in love with the desert, or I did with her. Then we left for college. It was only there, in a small wet place, that I first felt relief as my edges stopped erasing, stopped collapsing into hers.
When I land this time, the desert smells the same: creosote, wood varnish. I teach my brother about the ocotillo which blooms a vivid, fleeting orange after monsoon and which was the favorite of the girl with snaggled teeth. We were never there for monsoon, and I never remember it raining at all. But even in the desert, it must have rained.
I know I am older now because when I think of her teaching me to push my boot into the clutch, how she always did it better, less clumsily, than I did, danced less clumsily, too, dove straighter in chlorine pools, I don’t call her hair golden, just strawberry blonde.
This marks the end of the girl I was at nineteen, but it is also a sign of mourning, rather than persistent melancholy: accepting loss, passing on.
Coconut. I woke early to it in a sweaty apartment in an almost-mega city with the smog filtering in. It was finely shredded in cups of rice and I ate it while bumping elbows with the girl I slept alongside on a hard pallet, our backs touching. Sometimes in the morning, I drank coffee with heavy condensed milk. Those were the nights I could not sleep.
They took good care of me in Hanoi, my teachers and the woman who let us call her mother, who cooked rich food, batter-fried pork, beef tossed with pineapples. She plied us with durian. And still, my hands trembled, incapable of stillness while my mind flitted towards home, towards someone I met in a red house while I thought I still might love that girl with snaggled teeth. There should have been many ends to this, after months seven hours ahead, or one back.
She once traced the maps of our lives with her index fingers, slender birds in the air between us. They came together all of a sudden, never meeting, perhaps parallel – then they whipped away again. Seventeen flights and still never converging.
Now, seven thousand miles away, she was perfectly silent. A bus west to a mountain village where I slept under nets, rain on a tin roof, and I texted unfair you’re unfair
and she texted yes this is unfair, though neither of us texted it like that at all.
The real end didn’t come for a year. Down the street from the beginning, in a beige house rather than a red one. By then, I did not think it was living, just a kind of waiting, this habit of lying around in dirty sheets that would never be shared the way I asked them to be.
Waiting, and rising to tidy again, dust every inch in a city where dust gathers while we sleep. I knew that in the end none of the dustlessness would matter, and none of the gifts either, hidden in drawers since my return from warmer climes.
Perhaps it just needed to happen and be done with. That it was another experience I must live through, but once lived, I could pass on. But she read Anaïs Nin in Paris and Nin wrote no—that this experience would lead to a second, the second to the third.
I knew my stomach would churn once she came, especially while eating side by side since that’s when one realizes the hunger, the gnawing, has nothing to do with one’s stomach and everything to do with an empty more chronic. That I’d sob when it was done with, especially nights, biking home alone except for the fuzz of cigarettes on my skin.
Surely some of the time had been sweet. Brown beauty marks by bay’s edge, long letters written, whatever. But I might have been projecting, something I’d read about lesbian relationships always being described as having a “superior tenderness,” the sex having a “gentleness” to it. As if we were wounded birds. I wondered who wounded who more, and whether it mattered.
For instance, in one letter from an island, she ate a grapefruit and remembered my tenderness, and this made me angry since I was not a bird. But even then I wouldn’t have known whether she liked to add sugar to sour fruit. She was not a bird either, but what did I know of her, outside silhouette?
Submerged in delusion, torpid in cars crossing Rhode Island islands when the bridges in the background were fogged out so I could only see in strips. Before she came, I unfortunately dreamt of a misty bridge every night for a week. After she came, I did not dream anymore. I wept, for the pain I was not yet used to losing.
The American left but left his Oxfords behind. He apologized since they were the ones he wore to the beach the day we biked there and he stepped in ripe dog shit, so they were a rude gift to leave on my doorstep, but I forgave him. He’d get them next trip. At the beach we arranged shells in neat rows around the exoskeleton of a dappled crab, husks of June which I took home to dry out on the sill.
Silly, how he called it luggage—those objects we carry, ruinous souvenirs—since English is his second or third language.
The American read me the letter his mother sent him in German about a woman named my name and whether she is his girlfriend and if so, his mother is so pleased for him and hopes the couple is happy together. I liked how what he wrote to me in this language, my grandfather’s, came out scrambled like this on translator apps, overly formal with phrases like bear fruit. But he said he disliked being called The German, so here goes.
A day too late and the stairwell stinking, I sat to pick the shit out of the cracks of his Oxfords. Did this mean anything? Besides this, we have still done nothing for one another. I suppose I washed my sheets before he came; I suppose he took an endless bus to come. But I never thought this qualified as proof when showing someone—a stranger in a separate city—you loved her. When you’ve never even said you do.
That’s a brutally calculated study. There is no proof, and even when there could be, it would be entirely unwritten, just a thick thing suspended between breath. My citrus friend, her name is Clementine, says sometimes my rationality comes across soulless. Tonight, Clementine texts me from Paris (come! you can be my dumb american friend, and I’ll be yours) and tonight, I protest.
Have you heard yourself talk about her?
But I never knew how much I loved her.
Have you heard yourself talk about any of them?
But maybe I never loved any of them, as I insisted I did. Certainly I was not kind enough to them, and unkind to myself by letting them be unkind to me, and thus I must not have loved them, or myself, or loved myself too much.
Midnight, sitting on Lola Loening’s porch down Power with the moon blood and huge and hanging off lead-ridden rooftops. After dinner, Lola pressed a child’s blue tattoo of a dragon onto my left arm. That was tender.
And with three hours left, Clementine is cranky and telling strange men to meet her at the cafe before she leaves for Charles de Gaulle. While she waits, she texts: Not over him. Don’t really think about him. But definitely in love with him.
Clementine mistook the tattoo on the man she loved, a dragon on his bicep, for red. Turns out it’s blue, and I wonder what that means, to mistake blue for red. Blue: out of, or a moon. But tonight’s blood moon? Blue or red?
I have wanted to keep things like that, namely, nameable.
Her flight must be taking off now, into a grey atmosphere. Lightless, she once called the absence over Paris, over its shingled roofs, its toits. This week autumn arrived and our own toit gently sank from the accompanying rains.
So the hollow walls of this house swell. When we put our fingers to them, they come away chill and damp. Perhaps all the ceilings will cave, but I don’t know, I only dreamt they were crumbling after falling asleep in the afternoon on another bad-news-day. Outside rain was flashing down in white.
Flooded, I test that sense memory meditation. Dive in, struggle in our mud. Surface with nothing smooth or lustrous in my palms.
There are some things, however, I am trying hard to remember clearly. Only the light streaming soft and clean, how the sky’s the bluest it’s been in months. I must remember that. How there was a singing cricket on our toit. I closed the window, but not before rain ran down my hands into the bath, where the fecal debris from a boy’s shoes lingered.
Tonight I also went out in a rush to meet Clementine, who is home now, and I left the doors unlocked. But Rae left blood in the toilet and Paloma, whose name means dove, left rotting cauliflower in the fruit basket. The whole apartment stinks again.
Some rain and some shit, like turbulence, I must laugh about, for they remind me how alive, how waterproof my skin. Some parts are still raw, they’re a hot wire inside that you cannot touch. If you held your finger to the wire, it would burn—I know that. That is also called tender, and that’s alright, we can’t always blame ourselves for tender.
But anyway, this particular story is one you can touch. It’s just a laughing story on a school-night, so take it like that. I’m giving tonight so please baby take it, and why don’t you hold it so I don’t have to hold it any longer.
LILY MEYERSOHN B’19 is still hunting for pearls.