I lay myself down in between you
You do not smell like home
Like they said you would.
You smell like old pine trees and the mud they root themselves in,
And I inhale again.
I begin to weep and you ask me why;
“You smell like land unconquered,” I say.
“You smell like a dream.”
The oddest thing about this new land was the blandness of things constructed by people. She remarked on her first day that all the houses were more or less the same colour. They were brown or grey, or varying combinations of brown and grey. Occasionally a house would have a colourful door. She learnt about a third colour, beige, that described most of the houses in her new land, and she decided it was also the best way to describe the food.
All the food was varying shades of brown and beige. Potato. Bread. Noodles. Meat. Repeat. All brown or beige. Sometimes there were splashes of red for things that were supposed to taste like tomatoes, like this sweet concoction ketchup, but it really didn’t taste like tomatoes at all. Apparently there were colourful foods in this new land too but someone told her that not everyone could afford them.
By far the best thing about this new land were the colours in the trees and on the ground. In summer, there were so many shades of green. It seemed almost a shame that there was just one word—green—to describe all of these magnificent colours, as if a mere word could capture the magic of this land of forests. Back home, all the trees and bushes were the same dull matte green covered by a thick film of grime. In retrospect, maybe her old land was best described by that new word, beige, when it came to the flora.
She was pleasantly surprised by the explosion of oranges, reds, yellows and purples that came in autumn, another new word, and was amazed by the new textures of the leaves which crunched beneath her feet. When winter came, the newest word of all, the white was blindingly beautiful; she wanted to touch it all the time, except that it was cold and afterwards her hands would turn red.
The white stayed for a very long time, much longer than the greens, the oranges and the yellows. She could tell her parents were getting impatient with the white and browns. How dull this was, especially next to the brown houses and the brown food, they complained. They missed the colourful houses, the colourful foods. They missed seeing plants all year round, even if they were dull matte green and covered in grime. Sometimes they were so sad they would cry, or yell at each other, or call family back home to cry and yell. She thought about how happy they had been when they first arrived, when the colours were there to welcome them. She was certain that there were still colours out in the woods, and she decided to go collect some to make her parents happy again.
Down the road from her new brown-and-beige house was a little pond covered with a thin layer of grey-white ice. The ice, which had previously been solid white-blue, had begun to turn into lacey webs, peeking through to still dark grey water. She peered over the side of the pond and spied some reds and oranges. The leaves from autumn! They were still there, in the dark grey water, just beyond the thin white ice. How lovely it would be to rescue the trapped colourful leaves from their cold wet prison, and bring them home to make her parents happy again. She would dry them off and make a bouquet, she decided. Slowly, she shifted herself down, sliding her purple boots onto the grey-white ice, over to the edge of the dark grey water, when she heard a CRACK beneath her feet.
The local newspaper tweeted the next morning: “Illegal immigrant, aged 6, dead in Greenpoint Pond.” The comments read: “serves them right anyway, they get what they deserve,” “now deport her family before they get on our EI.”
From the author: Aside from the ending, the rest of the piece is actually based entirely off of my own personal experience; even though I was born in Canada, I moved abroad to Peru when I was a baby (thus the inspiration for the “beige” land, since Lima is very dusty) and moved back when I was five years old. So, even though I’m “Canadian” I still feel as though I’ve lived through the “immigrant experience” since I had to learn the language and get used to the new food and customs. I wanted to write a piece that conveyed the mixed emotions of arriving in a new country: the excitement of discovering new things but also missing certain things from home. As a kid, that also meant watching my parents work through those emotions too, which I partially conveyed here. The jarring ending is a second commentary on my experience as a “kind of immigrant”; most of the time I love living in Canada and have a great sense of wonder and respect for it, but this is occasionally jolted by rude comments from strangers who don’t think that immigrants belong. The juxtaposition is meant to show the reader how jarring these comments can be, as they often come totally unprovoked and with no context.
You said you couldn’t remember the time we almost ran away. Do you really not remember? It’s funny how I assume you must. You were about six, I think, and Hen made me think we were going to do it. It was while we still all shared a room. Do you remember that?
There wasn’t much to run away from, you’ll probably say. Our bedroom was pink and musty. We had a dresser drawer full of magazine clippings, mainly boy band members, and also some prayer cards with the pope’s face that one of us had probably stuffed in there while cleaning up. Hen had the wide bunk under mine, and I could slip down the ladder at night and lie spooned with her there if I didn’t wake her. Sometimes I’d find you with her already. I wonder if you remember that.
Your hair was very red back then. I was jealous of you for it and mean about it. You and I were the young ones, to my chagrin, but we pretended a lot together. Whenever Hen pretended with us, the game would become wonderful.
“We are in Arabia,” she told us once, as we made our slow ascent of the staircase, which was a sand dune that day. “We’re riding dromedaries.” I thought it was an animal she’d made up. I imagined something like a Chinese dragon. When my dromedary started to fly Hen said only, “He hasn’t had a drink in days, remember. Don’t let him wear himself out.” So I had him land and plod obediently behind her. It took us three hours to get up that dune.
You were sometimes a little behind in the games. I know we’d take that out on you. You wanted to know the rules but the rules kept changing. Sometimes I changed them on purpose to make you feel small. Sometimes Hen got sick of our smallness and left the game without warning, leaving me bewildered. I’d be cruel to you then, I think.
But I thought I always knew when she was pretending.
• • •
What happened was one afternoon I found her curled in her bed with her face to the wall. I lay down beside her and pressed a hand into her back. She sniffed hard and I understood she’d been crying. It all seemed very real.
She rolled toward me. Her face was very close, her eyes red. She said, “Cindy, we have to run away.”
Now that I write it I realize it was not so simple as I figured afterwards. Then I felt only that I’d failed to understand what was real and what was pretend. It made me feel stupid and little. But I wonder about it now. I think perhaps Mum and Dad had started fighting. Or there may have been something else. I always wondered if there were something else. Maybe you know.
She said, “We have to run away,” and my mouth went dry. I stared at her. I wasn’t altogether opposed to running away, as long as we were running toward something nice, but the seriousness of her face frightened me.
“Where?” I asked.
I don’t think it was the question she’d expected. It’s not the question I’d ask if I could go back and be eight years old again. She swallowed and looked at the ceiling for a minute.
“To the woods,” she said.
This made me feel a bit better. I loved the woods. I liked to imagine living there. The woods were just a block away and we’d built some forts in the bushes already.
I said, “Okay. Tonight?”
“Yes.” She took my hands. “Tonight. Don’t tell anyone.”
“Not even Sammie?”
“We’ll tell Sam. We’ll bring her too. But you can’t tell Mum and Dad. None of your friends.”
I wouldn’t, I promised her. But I was a bit disappointed about bringing you. For a moment it seemed like a wonderful adventure I was going to have with Hen, just the two of us, which was something that never happened anymore.
When I found you I took you to a corner of the den, made you stand right against the wall, and I told you, with hard low words, “We are going to run away.”
I saw you grow frightened, more frightened than I’d been. I thought you might cry and I put a finger under your nose. “Don’t you dare cry, or Hen and I will never speak to you again.”
Everything in me was grim. Everything in you seemed terrified.
“But why?” you asked me.
It was the question I should have asked Hen and I didn’t know the answer. So I said, without thinking, “We’re in serious danger, and everything depends on you being quiet.”
And you were quiet. You watched me all through dinner and hardly ate a thing. Hen stayed up in our room, I think. I don’t remember Mum or Dad saying much at all, but I was stuck in my own head that evening, wondering what would happen next.
Right after we turned the lights off in our bedroom that night, Hen got up and said, “I’ll be in the bathroom.” I watched her disappear, a silhouette cut out of the brightness through our door until it swung shut behind her. I couldn’t remember if this was part of the plan.
“Cindy.” Your voice out of the dark. “What’s happening?”
“Shh.” My heart was thrumming. For reasons I couldn’t guess, I felt sick. I remember thinking faster than I’d ever thought. “We’re supposed to meet her outside.”
I said, “We’ll climb out the window.”
It was something I’d often thought about but never done. The trellis reached almost to our window, after all. I got down from my bunk and wrested the sash open.
“You go first, Sammie,” I whispered.
I can’t believe you don’t remember that. I have never felt more outside myself than in that moment. I was pretending as hard as I could, as if believing it fiercely enough could make it real.
Though you were across the room, I could feel somehow your small body tense and shaking in the dark.
“You’re littler. You won’t break the trellis.”
Maybe you forget because it didn’t feel real. For me it didn’t feel real. I was watching a girl tell her sister to climb out the window and wondering what each of them would do.
You came up to the sill beside me. I couldn’t hear you breathing. I put my hand on your back and whispered, “Go, Sammie.”
And you went. Little body out the window like the wind had caught you up in its hands.
I was frozen for a moment, and then I leaned out. “Sam!”
“I’m here,” you said. You were only a voice. “I fell part of the way but I’m okay.”
Which meant, unfathomably, that I had to climb out too. If only that unreal feeling had lasted. Everything was much too real in that moment. But what could I do?
I remember the windowsill rubbing rough against my thighs as I swung my legs out, shaking. The paint must have been flaking off on the outside. I slid down on my stomach, arms stiff as death as I gripped the inside edge of the sill. One of my feet found the trellis and I thought, for a second, that this would be fine. I leaned my weight on it. There came the snap like stepping on a twig in the woods and then I was tumbling through the air.
I landed in a bush. Maybe you’d landed in it first. I remember the moment I realized I was not dead: it was the moment before I realized my ankle was broken.
My screaming brought Mum and Dad out, of course, and Hen. The rest of the night was cars and hospital waiting rooms, delirious cups of hot chocolate sometime around bed at four a.m. In the midst of this, naturally, our parents asked me what had happened, but before I could say anything, Hen told them she’d put us up to it. It was a game, she said. We were pretending to run away. Only she hadn’t realized how seriously her little sisters would take it—she felt sorry, she said, for seeming dishonest. She would be more truthful about our games in the future.
I remember the look on her face when she said it: she was like a medieval penitent, stretched thin by the pull of remorse. So what could I do but believe? I was an idiot; I was a child; I didn’t understand a thing. I fell asleep crying that morning, but only a fraction of it was from the pain in my ankle.
It was very soon after that that Hen convinced Mum and Dad she needed her own room. I don’t think she played with us much afterwards. I’d load you, as my donkey, with a laundry-basket saddle when we climbed the staircase, which was the Grand Canyon, but Hen would be locked in her own little room, doing I don’t know what. And of course not many years after that she left us, suddenly, for good.
• • •
It was kind of you to ask me about this. I’m glad I’ve thought it through and written it down. But I reach this point—and I realize I don’t know if you meant it when you said you couldn’t remember. Write me about it sometime, you said, as we left Mum at the hospital. But you had that look, too—I ought to have learned to notice that look. Did you want me to remember it? Did you want me to tell you my version of things?
I really don’t know anything, Sam. If I could slip down some ladder and cuddle into a warm musty space beside you, and beside our Hen, I suspect there would be less lie in that than anything I could write to you. And I don’t mean that we lie to each other, really. It’s just that the truth is a very hard thing to tell.
break plans like a scorpio
unto the skin
film by Hasselblad
caught the ersatz moon
like this unboxing
a recession upside:
nothing for plastic
surgeries i envisioned teenaged
stranger yowls shaped brows
awaken faces unlike siamese
cats’ ecstatic sealed ones
cooled with breaths
as though eyelids or testicles
in gemini ascendant
The off-whites of your apartment
The buzz of your kitchen lamp
The halo it casts around your red hair as we wait for your friend
The fewer days you have to leave, the slower it feels
The two people you must say goodbye to.
The books to return. The one to get back.
The borrowed transit card. The money you owe.
I leave like I came
Moving alone through the city
Promises spoken lightly
turning to finishing nails in my pocket
To have your body be struck by a force that comes from completely within itself
To know that you cannot save yourself from it
That in every silent second lurks a light that will hit you between the eyes from behind your forehead
That cold will come in waves and shivers will grate the underside of your skin
That something will gurgle up through your trachea until you are sobbing not because you are sad but because the sobs have always existed inside you and want to see day
To try, desperately, to stave it off, to force it down with anything that you can grab and pull into yourself, through mouth and eyes and nose
So that it explodes in the seconds between: the moment when your feet touch the ground, before you have reached for the curtains
Light brighter and sharper than the sun you were trying to let in
Assaulting your eyes without your permission
Shaking your body like a silent church organ
This thing that is you now
That feels like it will not leave
Clamour away in my stomach
Creating a burdensome, sinking feeling.
Brings the collision of emotion to a halt.
But terrifying uncertainty
The impossibility of backward motion haunts me
A cry for help:
Today called myself an idiot a lot.
It’s fine. I’m fine. They and we’re fine.
When wise, I delete my posts
but generally settle for clever. At work
I’m perpetually perfecting an expression
that affirms I had nothing to add. I joke,
“Whaddya mean end-of-fiscal? My
calendar says it’s March thirty-fourth.”
I colour code what’s to be done.
My white noise play list skips.
“Whaddya mean end-of-fiscal? My
calendar says it’s March thirty-sixth.”
I used to get angry with myself for getting drunk at bars, in dimly lit clubs, at bad house parties.
I was 21 the first time my drink was spiked. I threw up in front of Tequila Jacks while my friends complained that the bouncers would never let them in as long as I was with them. I went home alone in a cab.
I would rip my tights from falling down on concrete, throw up in hotel bathrooms with pristine white floors, cry in groups of friends I’ve since unfriended, and have a smoke outside for good measure.
I’m so much more careful now with the company I keep, the liquor I avoid, the bars I go to.
DJ Emmett plays the Spice Girls for me on request. Winston buys us tequila shots at Babylon. We down Jägerbombs at Zaphod’s and regret it, but not too much.