So, the orchestra's tuned, the popcorn is warm in your hand, the idiots have left long ago- and the Apocalypse came and went without robbing us, like Pandora, of that curse called hope. That hope is story, it is myth, and for me, it was started really with my great grandmother, who I already mentioned. Or rather the story was carried, mouth to ear, from her to I, leapfrogging a generation, and calling back to archetypical memory the foggy recollection of the world before the apocalypse she experienced.
Apocalypse is literally about revelation, the shapes and shadows that cling to the wall when your world is blown to ash.
When I was a girl, she told us that birds are the carriers of dead souls. Nadja had odd stories, always for everything, but when you're a kid you listen to these things, and she had such a glow to her back in those days when she would spin a tale and had an audience. She also lived through the holocausts in the Ukraine, she would shriek in her sleep and chomp her teeth blood red, and this - well it's not nice to say but the other children called her a wicked witch. Because I had been named after her, then, I was by some childlogic also a witch, and like much older witches, I spent much of my time alone.
She wasn't wicked, but otherwise, I think they were right about us both. Children see more than we give them credit for, they just don't know very much. (By the time adults have filled their heads with nonsense, they often have neither sight NOR knowledge.)
When Nadja told stories of birds carrying people's souls, I took this very literally, as children are prone to do. I tried to imagine how this might work exactly. I drew contraptions on napkins, and Nadja would cackle when I would ask her questions -- how big was a soul? -- how many could a single pigeon carry? --
And, most concerning of all: what kind of world these "souls" might be taken off to...
It should come as little surprise that my first life encounter with death was with Nadja herself. (She of the dried roses and mysterious note.) So she had tried, in some way, to prepare me for her passing, and because I was so young and she so old, it's like the two ends of the ouroborus. We can almost understand one another, and while much is lost in translation, it is between the very young and the very old that a certain kind of myth can perpetuate itself, whereas between the mouths of two individuals in the midst of life, very different stories prevail.
Timing, like I said, is everything.
I cried for hours at the funeral. It was the first time I can remember crying, and the last time for many years. Looking at her waxy face, for some reason I was reminded of sitting with her, lit only by candlelight (she hated electric lights, television, radio, "socializing" online was so alien that the internet may as well have been on Alpha Centuari). Her fingers were like knobby, knotted wood, polished to a shine, almost indistinguishable from the bones that she would hold between them and inspect, sometimes for many minutes, her face also a wooden statue, fixed in some far-off contemplation.
I would try to still my childhood desire to fidget. Never once did Nadja scold me. Never once did she even give me a harsh look. But I wanted so badly to be the cause for a rare smile on those worldworn features that she never had to. I knew that if she was quiet, she wanted me to be quiet. If she was still, then I too was meant to follow suit. We never exchanged words about this but I knew that it was because she was teaching me to be like her. A witch.
The bones would rattle in the box that she put them in, and then they’d clatter to the floor. I’d peer at them in the flickering light, and try to fathom what she saw in them. If she wanted to she could tell me what I had for dinner the previous night with those bones. At least it seemed that way, though she only once played a parlor trick like that for me, and it was because I had given her a dubious look when I finally couldn’t conceal my impatience anymore and had put my fingers in my pockets. It was freezing in that room -- she also didn’t believe in using the thermostat, or air conditioning in the summer, which was something she would have constant fights with my parents about. This was possibly the one case where I ever sided with my Mother. Just because I was going to be a witch didn’t mean I had to freeze to death. But Nadja would just wrap herself in a blanket. And when I thought about what little I knew of what she’d lived through -- hiding in the forests, blanketed in thick snow, with no food at all but what you could trap in Russia in winter, wondering if a former neighbor or even friend might find you and have you shot. It made little sense to me. I was no fan of History. But I knew that there were three sides and that my Nadja had chosen to take no side at all, but rather to disappear into the woods like Baba Yaga. How she had remained alive, I don’t know. She never spoke about it -- I only knew what I did at that point from fragments that my mother had told me, and usually in passing in ways like, “I know it’s crazy to freeze like this, but you have to understand what Nadja went through” -- and then she would use the few words that she knew in our Mother tongue, as she had been born in the wilds but grew up here in the city and had no desire to return to that awful place that nearly killed her mother, that hungry graveyard that ate the two others that would have been her brothers. My Mother, from what I could tell, hated the Ukraine. But I would later ask Nadja what those words meant, and Nadja would shake her head, and teach me a great deal more about our language, but she would say not a word about the past, except this: “the past should stay in the past. But I still loved my home. This land is cursed, and one day it will be soaked in the blood of those that stole it." It was when my Grandmother said things like this that I remembered that there was a menace that lurked in her shadow, thorns and brambles wrapped around her ribcage.
Thankfully, those barbs were not for me. I tried to understand what she had said. Well, our past should stay in the past. But when does it? I heard a saying once: “I’m through with my past, but my past isn’t through with me.” I don’t know where. But whoever said it was right, I think ...
Why throw those bones?
I wondered. Despite all reason, when I wondered that, she had said aloud, “the bones give a piece of the future, and we have to guess the rest. They are not the past.” Then we would squint at them some more. More truthfully, I would squint. Nadja was nearly blind but somehow she just knew. And she always looked like she was squinting, because the skin around her eyes was like the rippled edge of a sea shell.
“Don’t see the bones,” she would say. “See your self.” I didn’t know what she meant but was too afraid to say so. “Speak up!” she said, which is funny because I was fairly sure I hadn’t said anything at all. “You speak with half words and think so quiet I can’t hear you. Think loud. Speak loud. Make your presence known!” and when she said this her voice, her whole demeanor changed, and for a moment I almost felt like I could see how she had survived those harsh winters. "Make yourself a force like the wind, the rain. Like the night that wolves shroud themselves in. Your self is out there. Not this little person, this little body." She patted my head, kindly but firmly. I thought she meant that one day I would grow up to be an adult, but now I know different. You have to die a human and come back something different.
Most of the time Nadja was quiet, hunched, and somewhat passive herself. It seemed that she had left some part of herself in that past that she never spoke of. She used to call me "time's little gift" and "her wyrd-child." Both made me happy because I could see they made her happy, but it took half a lifetime to understand. What of her lived on in me got to have that satisfaction, though.
See, time doesn’t move in a straight-line, it is a spiral. It was actually the bones that first taught me that, though I couldn’t explain to you why in a straight-line, rational kind of way. That’s not how magic works, and it’s not how the world works.
Why did she throw the bones?, I often wondered. I know now. It was for the future, as she said. But what she didn’t say was that I was her future. She hadn’t left a part of herself in the past. Her entire self died there. The Nadja I came to know was a mere echo of that person, an echo that existed to imprint itself in me. I was for her, and she was for me.
The other adults, drinking buddies of my father would make fun of us from the other room, though I could hear fear in their voices. I held my gradmothers finger in my own, and felt some connection to a place, a people, that was home. We were both exiles together, beings out of time.
I think it was when I thought that when the tears really started pouring down my cheeks. and I was wracked with sobs that come from the very core of your being, puking up feelings uncontrollably, the kind of sobbing that is like being gutted in slow motion with a serrated knife. You want to die with every shuddering gasp and your body won’t let you so you just have to suffer like everyone else. But not the other people in that small, awkward group. I was the only one crying. My Mother -- not far off from the grave herself, though of course none of us knew that then -- was looking out the window with a far off look on her face, watching the snow-fall on the Brooklyn streets. Listening to the honking of horns and bustle of the city, her thoughts lost in some recollection that I wasn’t privy to. My Father sat straight-backed, his feet flat on the floor, his face completely emotionless, but when I passed him later I swore he smelled of whiskey.
I felt that I would never be understood by another human being for as long as I lived.
And that was the hole that I lived in for a while. It wasn't until years later that some kind of story cohered out of the careless fragments of identity which, themselves, had not been tempered into a singular being through some kind of will. For years I just let things happen, drifting aimlessly through time like a ghost. It's a little like landing in an airplane, when everything goes from this abstract mosaic of colors to- tree, car, street- and it all makes sense. Ok, ok, I said it was a little like that. There were the birds and the puzzle of souls and the afterlife, there was Nadja, though just a shadow or reflection, her dead soul leaving a final note right on my young soul, but I was too young yet to understand what the message signified. There wasn't my parents, most notably, but rather a paper-cut out hole where they belonged and some anecdote about Korean men. (My father. Always so serious! Alright, I guess they got in there a little but I clamped my little eyes and fists and heart shut and tight as I could, they barely got in at all except in passing.)
There was the smell of Mr Angelsons bio lab, like chemical kimchee or something. I imagined that it had to do with the newts whose lives consisted of basking in the noontime sun, and the dead cats that were shipped by the dozen. Mine had something inside it when we cut it open. I was told to stop but I reached inside and pulled these shriveled little piglets from the incision I had made into its mother, held them all in my hand. “Are you OK?” my teacher asked, rushing over. I wondered to myself why it had been fine to cut open all these dead cats, but then when I found kittens inside everyone got so worked up. I just remember having two thoughts, almost one atop the other: why did kittens look like pigs before they were born, and if they were crispy or deep fried and didn’t smell of chemicals, everyone in this room would probably have no problem chowing down. (Truth is my lab partner and I think like half of the class went vegetarian as a result of that incident, but it really didn’t phase me.)
I could go on like this, but you see, this isn't a story. It's a series of place-events. There was this, and this, and I was in them. There was the feeling of my foot connecting with head when I win the top medal in Tae KwonDo, and standing victorious with a slight dab of her blood on my gloves. This was just another place-event like the others. I felt this tingle I'd never felt before, not with boys, not when fantasizing about girls or other boys. I should have known right then that everything was going to be different, but you never see it coming, even when you're the one that-- well, you'll see.
Everyone else was clapping and I was still staring down at the girl. Her hair clung to her sweaty face, her lips puffed out a bit already. She was dazed but conscious, and I could see frustrated hunger in her eyes. Years of training, Senior year, you don't want to remember it from the mat.
Everything had this trancelike quality or maybe I did. I reached down to her in what must have seemed like a gesture of Sportsmanlike (woman, I must remind myself) conduct, but really it was to find out if this electric thrill I felt came from winning, which I'd never much cared about before (much to my Father's disdain - delete delete) or of it was something else, because something very strange had happened whenever we made contact throughout the match. I was supposed to hit her so that’s what I did but it felt almost like I just wanted any excuse to touch her.
She smiled, a curt curl that just worked its way up one side of her face, and accepted the gesture. I realized then and there that I wanted to fuck her so viciously that we both died in the process.
Inside that viciousness was this little kernel of the most gentle thing in the world. It was a world of its own, a little bubble that had nothing to do with this dimension. That little space between our sweaty palms was it; after we’d fucked each other to death I wanted to curl into a ball and sleep inside that gentle world for all eternity.
Of course, we only had a second. The throng was closing in and I was supposed to take my victory lap or whatever the hell it is you do after winning the Championship. So I did one of the bravest things I think I've ever done. Before getting her name, and after knocking her to the matt with a solid roundhouse--probably the best I'd ever thrown--I kissed her. It just happened to be at the very moment that the camera flashes all went off. Poof. And proof: No denying anything.
Which is, of course, where all the problems begin. Tomboy, freak, lezzie, I could see it all, their eyes like daggers, tongues dripping whatever cliche venom they could muster, and all because of predictable envy--because we were going to be the sexiest things that had ever graced this Earth, together. Well, that’s how teenagers think anyway, cocksure and terrified all at once, but that didn’t really matter because I was right, and anyway, once I’d given it that much thought I realized I didn’t give a damn what they thought so long as she was in my arms.
I can still remember that infamous moment so clearly. It was as if the universe split into a hundred pieces. My father's world was so fragile that it never really recovered. I was his only daughter, only child at all, and he had always felt that I had been cursed by his dead trophy wife's insistence that I be named after her crazy mother. But this word that I had given him, “lesbian”... he would never be able to live with that. It would enter his world and sap of it of any vitality that it had left until the arrow had buried itself to the hilt in his shriveled little heart. His face went solid and then, splitting into shards itself, he turned and walked away, and all that was left by the time I went away the following summer before we went away was the faintest wisp of a shadow. He died soon afterward. I killed my father with that kiss, and I could care less. I hope he is roasting in hell on a spit alongside those kitten piglets that had no right to be there, but they were because that’s just the unfair, fucked up kind of world that we live in, when you get right down to it.
My coach, on the other hand, was fated to soon quit coaching women's martial arts. The fantasies were driving him mad, the fact is he had always driven himself by sublimating his desire in a way that made him an amazingly effective, if seemingly distant, coach. That appearance of distance was actually the sign of what had to follow. I saw it all in a flash of his eyes. I’d seen him slipping glances at us showering since I started training. For some reason I didn’t care. I think I might have even gotten off on it a little bit because I knew he was harmless -- he would split himself open before he ever actually crossed the line. And I had a certain wickedness in me about the desire that I elicited in men that I didn’t myself desire. One way or the other, I knew that he had to quit soon or he would have a schizophrenic break. With the same clarity I saw into the future of every person standing there, as time hummed by at a barely perceptible rate.
I saw so much more in that moment, but none of it mattered. All of my attention was still living in the sweaty hole made by the space between our interlaced fingers. When her second breath came, she stiffened as if to pull away from me. I opened my eyes, still so close I could feel hot breath across my eyelashes.
"Will you be my friend?" I asked, when she finally relented, and would go no further with the kissing--I swear that in that moment, if she had let me, I would have fucked her right there in front of everyone.
She had cute freckles and the complexion of a redhead, though I hadn't noticed until I was this close because she dyed her hair black.
"I, um," she said.
"I bet your natural hair color is beautiful." I ran the fingers of one hand through it, imagining her in a thousand sexual fantasies, all mashed together. I objectified and Othered her in every way that postmodern feminist manifestos warn against, and it was delicious. She was my Amazon, my slave, my master, my sister, an object that I used however I felt like, and a companion that I trusted implicitly in our dangerous missions together. I have an amazing imagination and they were all just thoughts. The only reality was the unbroken universe between our other hand. Don't taint that, I thought. Never. That is sacred.
If I had more time I might have thought about erotism, the sublime, and the sacred, but all of that would have been, at that moment, a kind of idolatry.
Everyone else was standing around us really awkwardly. There was no social protocol for what was going on here. I had just torn the script in half and lit it on fire. And I really had no plan, except that I had to run with it from now on. I had committed myself to this story, whatever it was.
"You're really strange," she said.
"Don't let their awkwardness into our bubble," I said. Then I kind of winked involuntarily, which must have looked almost like a nervous tic.
She smiled. “Ok, crazy girl. Tell me something really strange. I want to know how strange you are right away. No boundaries. No games."
“I sometimes think I can see the future.”
“We all do.”
“No, I mean, I can sometimes talk to birds and they tell me who is going to die soon. Sometimes I know what's going to happen to someone for years because of a facial expression.”
“Oh yeah? What about me?”
“I can't do it with you,” I said. “I...want too many things now. The more connected I am the less I can see.”
“So if we weren't friends-”
“Don't even joke!” I said. “You know how hard I can kick.”
“I was holding back.”
“I didn't want to mess up such a pretty face.”
“Raging Bull?” I asked, hoping that had been a Scorsese reference.
And that's how I first fell in love with Red. I insisted that she never tell me her birth name, and though it was inevitable I'd hear someone else say it, they were all wrong. She was Red and that's all there was to it. The space between our fingers, that little world, was finally destroyed when I searched under her sports bra.
This finally sent ripples through the crowd, I could feel someone was about to break us up, though it wouldn't be the coach--he was already putting on his jacket, his face dark and inscrutable. But they had misunderstood my motive. Much as I was curious about her breasts (I couldn't reach my own with my mouth. Was it really so pleasurable to have your nipples sucked? Why did I want to suck them myself, and not her elbow or nose?) I was reaching for her heart, and the beacon it sent with every thrum. I believe in a deep interconnection between all things. But there is something different about a lover held in your arms, and sitting uncomfortably on a 737 headed the opposite direction. I had read about Bell's Theorum earlier that month, I was constantly reading. The idea of all particles being in contact forever after their contact is poetic, but like so much math and science, at least for me, it does not have the reality or proximity of the thumping heart of some Other being that one has suddenly found so ...important.
By the time my fingers found her breast, I felt like all of my own insides had been ripped free and scrubbed clean. I wondered, suddenly, how many moments Nadja had like this when she was a young girl. Sparks, cast up from the fire, and then lost.
“Red,” I said, for the first time using my name for her aloud, “I've never cared about anyone else before...I'm scared.” I of course left Nadja out. It seemed inappropriate to relate Red with my Grandmother. This was different. Nadja's love was distant and expected, like the sun's warmth. Equally predictable.
This was... Well. Without planning for it, without even knowing what I was doing, I had just jumped off a cliff and expected the stranger standing next to me was carrying a parachute. She would be fully within her rights to freak out, tell me she doesn't like girls. Or to never speak to her again. But I felt that if she rejected me I would die right there. So what I had said was quite true.
My story had begun, and it was fucking terrifying. But each time she stroked my cheek, it made me wonder how I had gone through life before that point without caring, without vulnerability, without meaning.
Before her, there had been boys, and there had been a sense that, for the most part, they weren’t what I wanted, but I had still been in that ghostlike trance that I had just knocked myself out of. It was kind of awful, what I had done up until that point.
There was a page from my journal from a few weeks before that point that I found, written in a handwriting that I barely recognized as my own. But, as is often the case, a lot more makes sense in retrospect than it does at the time. That’s one of the reasons that Nadja taught me to throw the bones. But I hadn’t caught up to myself yet, I hadn’t learned how to know what I knew.
Got a new lipstick shade today. They say it’s a shade darker then their last shade of rape, though what do I know? 11 and lucky. I know that I don’t know real invasion, no musty uncircumcised hobo forcing himself on me just that moan I dream you might tear out of me, what I wanted you to make me feel, feel like anything at all, so that I can deny it later. “Plausible deniability,” that’s what I’ll call this shade. That dream that made me say “hi” to my sexy imaginary friend in the first place, asking you to please force me to feel what this shade says about me as a woman. I’ll dab it off, try another on these little lips, wiped clean, another plausible deniability (I didn’t like that shade) — I learned age 12 I didn’t like hide and seek, catch me if you can. Who got caught feeling, hoping, cheating, this time, lover? Could you deny it? I could. Age 13 I knew that shame between my legs first when my sister tickled till I peed myself, the first time I felt wet down there, shame as my knees knocked together, became a familiar feeling age 14 brown blood staining my fingers, yelled at like my body had done the betraying, shame, my knees knocked together, age 15 I have a real life boyfriend now but let’s be honest, someone needs plausible deniability and this time it sure as fuck isn’t going to be me. These layers of shame add up like pieces of our anatomy, another, another, age 16 now and it’s fake blush - simulating what it was like when I saw the first sharp implements that I WANTED to penetrate all these layers, and in the eyes of a woman two rows behind you, my lover: she was the one that made me wet, made my knees knock together and I thought, like a stupid girl- is this rape, letting you do this when I want her? Just think about her, it’s her hands doing this. My cheeks flushed and I ran away, ran from her and from you and that shade of my cheeks- now I simulate it, lay it on thick and I think rape because you aren’t the one I want, you never were though I’ve dreamt of other cocks before, as if they were doppelgangers that could replace yours, and so this shade, the same shade as when you hit me, the sting not from that weak slap but instead from all these layers built up and suddenly knocked away to reveal the truth that no matter how much makeup I use to cover an absence of desire, there it is staring me in the face: raping myself time and again because the I only thing that ever got me off when you were inside me was this act of violence against myself- knowing I could never have what I wanted, never deserved it because shame, because plausible deniability- most of all because we are broken so completely that only our masochism brings any pleasure. Age 17, I am ready to be anything for anybody to get anything because I don’t see anything when I look in your eyes. Age 18, I got a new lipstick shade today, it was red...
Ironically, now that I found Red, all that fell away. I just wanted to dance naked in the moonlight with her. I’d give anything for that. But of course, when I realized that I was hit with that wall of terror, and so I had to go through this predictable, tedious process. Maybe you know it. I had to demonstrate that in which I was afraid of ("you don't want to be around me", "this is a terrible idea,") which could later be referred to as exhibit A, B, or C at a later point, should Red break my heart (which invariably she must.) I had to find a million stupid ways to test if she really loved me - this girl she had just met - looking for some slip up, some proof that she had somehow planned to trick me all along, even though I was the one that grabbed her and kissed her right after cracking her jaw with my shin.
[drawings of hypothetical futures- left for a boy, abandoned out of boredom, ...] None of this, of course, in any way pertained to who Red was. Standing between us was this wall of imaginary betrayal constructed out of nowhere, appearing just as unexpectedly and suddenly as she herself had.
It was hopeless. I was too stubborn for myself. She only needed to wait, and I would tire myself out. I would also discover that she was surprisingly patient for a redhead. (Maybe that's why she hid her true colors.)
I mention all of this by way of skipping past months of broken-record paranoia and self doubt that served the story even less than it served me. Months of this self doubt can now be sliced away and tossed in the bin.
My fears were replaced with a very simple thought: a train with Red. A train with Red that led anywhere but here. Never look back. Never return.
And that’s exactly what we did.