I woke up again on the bedroom floor.
I’ve looked at those books that are meant to decode your dreams. I’ve dwindled away afternoons tucked in the dustiest corners of the stacks in the shitty local library, browsed through rows of books at Barnes and Noble, feeling a little childish and a little desperate. Even though I generally think that most self-help is a corporate marketing ploy disguised as serious science, I can’t help but pore over the pages of these pseudo-instruction manuals as though some stranger’s made-up mysticism contains the directions to Atlantis. I never remember the majority of my dreams but the ones that prompt this whole falling out of bed business are always connected to the visual of falling. The first time that I found myself on the floor, I’d had a dream that someone had pushed me off the top of the Empire State building. I can’t recall a face or even how the dream transpired. I remember rough hands the size of baseball mitts reaching out, the arms heavy like a silent screen mummy. I stumbled backwards, and then my body was tumbling, my clothes whistling in the wind as gravity yanked me towards the concrete. Another time, I was walking in a daze through a forest with a thousand pairs of greedy, invisible eyes. I stopped to look into the bottom of a well. It was the only thing that did not emanate light, the broken rocks like crumbling teeth. I held my breath and then glanced over the edge into the darkness. The well could have stretched all the way to the Earth’s core. Then there was the sensation of palms on either side of my shoulders. Before I could turn around, I was falling head over feet.
I woke up this morning, cheeks damp from last night’s tears.
This time, I had been with my mother. I was about seven or eight. Despite the fact that I’ve never been to the West Coast, we were at the Grand Canyon. The sky dripped with colors that can only be found in an elementary school classroom, hard-pressed reds and deep blues and royal purples mashed together to create a crude yet arresting palette. We were creeping closer and closer to the edge. Anxiety like little zaps of electricity to the temples but I knew that it was a futile feeling, as my mother was by my side, holding my hand. She hummed to herself, twisting all the notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into flat and graceless noise. She lead me to the edge and we looked down into the craggy faces of the canyon.
Isn’t this beautiful? Mom asked.
Before I could confirm, she shoved me. She was smiling like Carrie’s wicked mother in the Brian De Palma version, a sharp curve of chapped lips, charged with the power of someone convinced that murder was the heaven sent path to enlightenment. I opened my mouth to scream but nothing came out.
Then I woke up in a heap on the floor, a tangled and sweaty mess.
This is how I ended my summer and started my first day at community college.
It would have taken much more effort not to notice him.
I get to class a little earlier than planned, a miscalculation that’s the product of my mother’s attempt to engage in conversation before I’d finished my coffee. She thought that it was the perfect moment to criticize my outfit (Leggings? Why are you wearing that ratty old shirt? And those Birkenstocks? Why can’t you at least put a little effort in, Jolie?). When she realized that I was pointedly ignoring her, she shifted the conversation to her favorite topic of discussion: herself. Recently her face had broken out into rivulets of acne grotesque enough for a Proactive commercial. Additionally, her wavy hair was thinning; she left behind switchblade thin strands of Clairol Hair Dye, Black #5 like breadcrumbs all around the house. She was baffled as to why such a tragedy was happening to her, as though this attack on her beauty were the carefully constructed curse of an ex-friend. I’d told her that maybe if she’d stopped caking on the armored layers of drugstore makeup, perhaps her skin would calm down. I’d told her that maybe if she stopped dying her hair and blow drying it to straw and worshiping at the altar of the flat iron, perhaps her hair would recover. My suggestions were treated as acidic threats to her parental authority; she threw a spatula at my head as I rushed out the door.
He is the third student to arrive. Not too tall, not too short, average height. Unwashed denim, New Balance sneakers and a Celtics jersey. Pale, anemic face and sunburned shoulders the shade of a broiled lobster. Bedhead locks the color of fresh-out-the-bag peat moss and distinct cheekbones amounting to a suburbanized recklessness groomed by Kerouac and Hemingway, complete with a stoner’s bleary gaze and a hard-earned web of grimy skateboarder’s scars. His wallet is stuffed in his back right pocket and the only things he carries are his iPhone, a spiral notebook and a pen.
I know him but he doesn’t know me. His name is Sydney Fontaine but everyone calls him Trip. I could never figure out the origins of his preferred name. We attended the same high school, a nondescript, forgettable copy of the American teenage caste system. He was one of those kids who harnessed the power of popularity through indescribable leverage. He didn’t come from a rich family; he lived in a trailer park with is dad. He wasn’t a muscle-bound jock who strutted through the halls aided by the comfort of his letterman jacket. He favored tobacco and weed and the occasional pill over the adrenaline of smashing into another sweaty boy on the football or lacrosse field. He somehow defied all the unspoken rules that prevented painless social mobility, never pledging loyalty to one particular group or clique, his persuasion and charms amounting to half used car salesman and half Artful Dodger.
I knew him but he didn’t know me. I was not exceptional; I was that Black Girl, interchangeable yet as utilitarian as a barbed wire fence. I went to cello lessons and pretended that I cared about correcting my habit of hitting sour harmonies. I didn’t date because I’d never been considered a person worthy of dating.
I pretend to doodle in my notebook, watching Trip settle into a seat in the front row. A few minutes later and more people start to squeeze through the door. For the most part, my fellow students are over-caffeinated and already bored, clutching their extra large Dunkin Donuts cups as though they are VIP concert passes. A girl in a white miniskirt and money-green tank top snatches the empty seat on Trip’s right. It’s clear that she’s overlined her lips to make them appear fuller, but she’s that safe kind of All-American-Girl that never fails to enchant boys who first learned about sex via their father’s Playboy and Penthouse subscriptions. Trip devours the girl’s spray-tanned legs. She leans forward, pushing out her chest. They silently reach an agreement to fuck later in the week. It’s like I’ve never left high school.
During the third week of class, Trip chases after me, waving my sweater like a white flag. He’s wearing that same Celtics jersey he wore the first day of class. Smiling like he’s a spy that’s tortured the secrets out of the captured enemy.
“Jolie! Yo, hold up a minute!”
I stop in the middle of the parking lot. Try to maintain my cool but watching him get closer is like watching a bullet splice the air towards my forehead in cartoonishly slow motion.
“You forget your sweater,” he says. I take it from him, ensuring that I don’t actually touch his hand.
“Um. Thanks. How do you know my name?”
“Why wouldn’t I know your name? We went to high school together. And you’re like, Professor Marable’s favorite student. He’s always calling on you because he knows you do all the readings, unlike the rest of us,” he says with a lopsided grin.
When I answer, it’s like my mouth is coated in cactus needles.
“He calls on me because he knows I hate public speaking.”
“Well, I don’t know why. You’re obviously the smartest person in the class. Weren’t you in all the AP classes in high school?”
I let out an ugly snort.
“Or weed. Or both.” Another flash of that lopsided grin. I bet that grin has granted privileges both big and small, from subduing flustered teachers to soothing menacing police officers. Psychological manipulation with the least amount of effort. Smooth as a barber’s razor. I’m just like every other braindead sucker. I want to believe that because I recognize his game, I am not attracted to him.
“Both,” I lie. I smoke weed once in awhile. It helps with the racing thoughts, the sense of small town doom. The last time I smoked a cigarette was in the ninth grade in the girls’ bathroom. It tasted like the chimney ash. I never picked up another cigarette again.
“Cool. Well, I don’t know what you’re up to right now, but maybe you’d want to smoke with me? Maybe you can explain Fanon to me, give me a few tips on the assignment,” he teases.
“Right now?” I ask.
“Yeah. Right now. We can take my car. I don’t care.” His eyes take a quick peek at my cleavage and then back to study my confusion.
This makes me both proud and sad at the same time so as a form of punishment, I accept his offer. It feels like someone has dipped my bones in fire.
“Why does this feel different?” I wonder. I study the blunt. I blow out smoke. I think I hear my ears pop. I want music, I want light, I want Erykah Badu or Fiona Apple to defang my thoughts.
We’re at the beach, sitting on the rocks. Part of me wants to float on my back and soak my hair and drift like a mermaid and another part of me wants to dunk my head under and scream. I’m tired of the beach just as I am tired of seeing the same trees and the same jowly cashiers watching the clock at the grocery store and the same scowling postman hunched behind the counter at the post office, his thick-soled black shoes squeaking with each sluggish step.
I should not be here. I should not be here. I should not be here, my brain whispers, an even rhythm like the ticking of a metronome.
My best friend, a Dominican-American girl named Eva, got a full ride to the state university. Now we barely talk. Her Facebook page is an overripe homage to the torching of one persona for another, embracing the hedonistic benefits of being a rising member of the school’s buzzing sorority beehive. You can hear the vocal fry in her emails and text messages. I can already tell that she has left me behind and for good reason. Bass-quaking keg parties and boys who promise affection and freedom and the cult of college dorm life are the White Rabbit that points the way to Wonderland.
I take another generous hit before passing it back.
“The wax.” I have a vague idea but I don’t want to look like a sheltered goody two-shoes.
“Yeah, you know, wax.” He fires off a snappy lyric from a rapper I don’t know. Does everyone assume that I’m a walking card catalog of the history and progression of hip-hop.
“Oh, er — you smoke wax a lot?”
He shakes his head.
“Naw, cause it’s not easy to get. At least around here.”
We’re silent for a minute. I feel less anxious but I also feel as though all my words are sinking into my chest and I am mumbling rather than enunciating and my mouth is dry and I think I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to be here, and then I am reaching down my throat and forcing myself to say something that is true .
“I don’t understand why we’re here.”
He starts laughing, almost barking.
“Oh my God, are you really that high? You’re not going to start talking about aliens and the Illuminati, are you?”
“No! I just mean — I don’t get it. No offense, but we barely said anything to each other for four years and now we’re sitting here?”
“What’s your point?” He looks at me as though we’re both prisoners of the psych ward and I’ve only just now come to realize it.
“I don’t know.”
“Damn, Jolie, you’re a lot meaner than I thought.”
“I’m not mean!” I screech with mock outrage.
He pats my knee.
“You’re pretty cold. You go for the jugular. I think it’s cool. We’re supposed to be adults, right? Cut all the bullshit? I mean, whatever. Say whatever the fuck you want! I only like people who are real. It’s not like you’re running for Prom Queen.”
I wonder what Trip thinks it takes to be real.
Mom’s hair is splayed all over the bathroom sink like the plucked-off legs of a spider. Moisture-starved wisps that taunt her herculean efforts to battle the loss. Before I brush my teeth, I get a tissue and start cleaning up the hair. As though she can sense this act of removal, Mom barrels up the stairs with the force of an angry NFL linebacker and opens the door, then snatches a nearby bottle of hair oil.
“Have you tried this? It’s supposed to give you results in a week. I think it’s already working,” she chirps. She pumps out a quarter-sized amount of product and then slathers it on her roots. She keeps her gaze trained on herself in the vanity mirror, chin tilted up, peering at her laugh lines and dark spots like a hard-to-please queen inspecting a batch of diamonds for blemishes. My mother was born and raised in the Philippines, but she has been feeding on white beauty for decades. It’s like she’s addicted to feeling bad. She keeps chasing after the next masochistic high. When I was a girl, she bought me only white Barbie dolls. If I didn’t comb my hair or let it air dry, it was not “done.” She thinks that there’s magic in Maybelline. Even at forty-three, she looks up to white movie stars and white pop stars as though they are all-knowing fairy godmothers. She believes the slick doublespeak of Tinseltown. She is an advocate for the transformative voodoo of a head-to-toe makeover courtesy of the mall.
I often wonder how I am her daughter.
“Why don’t you leave your hair alone for a week and see what happens?” I suggest.
“This will work. I know it will,” she declares.
A strand of her hair floats to the floor. She keeps her eyes on the mirror, eyes on the prize.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t stop looking at you,” Trip says.
Why do I automatically feel embarrassed instead of flattered? Why does the embarrassment rub like steel wool against an open sore? Why do I suddenly feel like a real girl, strings snipped loose?
“Because you’re fucking beautiful. And your hair looks soooo soft. I just want to lay down in it and fall asleep,” he confesses.
He reaches out and touches my hair, fingers slipping through with the gentleness of someone caressing the soft melon head of a newborn baby. I tell myself that this is a compliment, a typical form of modern courtship. I tell myself that there is nothing practiced or rehearsed about his lines and that the CD he burned for me with all those songs that I “NEED TO HEAR” is nothing more than twelve sad sack confessions (penned mostly by male musicians and bands) that encompass one white boy’s manifestation of coddled narcissism.
“I woke up thinking about you,” he adds. His voice drenched in the syrup of a spoiled little boy coaxing his defenseless mother into buying a birthday present that she can’t afford. His hand on my throat. The other on my thigh. My stomach churning with hot coals and I am so stupid high that if he asked me to lie and cheat and steal, I would shut my eyes tight like I’m about to recite Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Tell him I’m your Bonnie Parker. Tell him that long ago, I cut out parts of myself but maybe you can see the dignity in the vulgar means of self-preservation. I want to be breathtaking and deadly like nightshade but I’m wilting and I will let him take because it’s all I let anyone ever do.
He tells me that he can’t understand why I don’t have a boyfriend, why he never really noticed me before. He tells me that I’m the “coolest girl” he’s ever met. He tells me that he can talk to me for hours. He tells me things just to hear the coo of his own voice.
We don’t have sex that night but we kiss for hours. The sunset melts down to an ember and the air gets cooler. Each time we pause to catch our breath, he rests his forehead against mine and doesn’t look away. I’m surprised that his heart is thump, thump, thumping. It’s almost surreal, like we’re living out the alternate reality I stitched together from unfulfilled fantasies and ’80s teen movies.
When he drops me off at my house, I’m aching all over.
One morning when I’m in bed, I hear my mother crying. It starts as jagged hiccups and then suddenly she is a woman made of water, bursting, sobbing, mourning all the things she wishes belonged to her, including everlasting youth and the fickle heart of Father Time.
That night, I meet up with Trip. He stares at me for too long. He rubs my thigh. He plants his lips on my neck. He tells me he wants to give me a hickey. He’s got all the right moves. It’s horrifying and exciting and he knows that I’ve surrendered. When he suggests that we go hang out on the high school football field, I don’t ask why. When we get there and he digs up a wool blanket from his trunk, I don’t ask why. I accept his hand and root myself in the moment.
You feel ghoulish, like you’ve broken the spell of some fatal medieval fever, feather light and ready to ooze through walls.
Breathe in, breathe out, hope that the forced intake of oxygen will vanquish the delirium clean.
Eyelashes stuck together like they’re threaded with cobwebs. Tender mouth and fuzzy tongue, accompanied by a sore back and stiff spine, as though someone has attacked you with a pillowcase stuffed with bars of soap. There’s a familiar stickiness seeping through your dingy department store underwear, the pair that you vowed no man would ever see, the elastic stretched, tiny rips and tears like little fish mouths in the back.
You are alone and you think that you’ve been alone for some time.
You are all alone and it’s like he never existed in the first place.
Somehow you know that you will never hear from him again.
You could throw up but it wouldn’t be anything but watery bile. In addition to the blanket, he left the roach. You take out your lighter and inhale and hope that it’ll be enough to act like a sledgehammer to your head.
You reach down and wipe off the blood. Stare at it like it’s a dead bird waiting on the dissection table.
There’s dew on the manicured grass and the sun is sparkling and you are alone.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.