I narrowed my eyes in an attempt to remember a time when I actually enjoyed Dostoyevsky. My pupils darted from the dirt covering the sides of my loafers to the -kovs and -kovas that dotted the dog-eared page in front of me. The burden of the words had bent me over: elbow on knee, palm spread across ear, thumb and forefinger toying with the skin tag at the nape of my neck. It was already my seventh attempt at reading the page in front of me. To my right, the doors parted, and a little black girl sprinted forward. A haggard mother lumbered behind the child, her hands fruitlessly struggling to seize the small sequined figure.
I could’ve gotten off, but the dirt on my shoes had recaptured my attention. What appeared to be mica had lodged itself comfortably within the rubber soles. I hated being so dirty at the end of the day. Try number eight. I had forgotten what Raskolnikov was up to. In fact, I barely paid attention to the last few chapters. The conversation I had had with Nnena was why the dilapidated copy rested in my hand in the first place.
“Try reading it again. I swear it’ll be better this time around.”
I straightened my back and closed the soiled pages around my left thumb. It had been a year, and I still heard her voice, her drawn out r’s. Did she hear me? Was it possible that she still perceived me through the expanse? My aorta rasped and sent her name pulsing in my ears. Had my own name become an inaudible whisper?
A figure in white inched close to me.
“Uh. Ha. Yeah. Typical Dostoyevsky.”
I had not meant to be so ineloquent, but the lips around the unfamiliar voice curved and replied with a smile.
“I loved the movie. The really old one. It had Peter Lorre in it. He was such an odd man. Curious voice, curious mannerisms, everything. He made Rask-yada-yada a much more captivating character.”
Her eyes had rolled back in her head when she said “yada-yada,” and I was forced to laugh. The lips around the voice closed and parted again.
“Anyway, it looked like you weren’t enjoying the experience. Your face was miserable.”
She shifted in her seat, and forced her hands to her side. Excess air in her large white coat hissed loudly. Laughter rang from her chest.
“I hate this coat. I hate this weather. I look like a marshmallow.”
I removed the book from my thumb, and transferred it to my right hand. I didn’t quite understand why I was getting nervous. I watched intently as she rubbed her eyes. The skin on her eyelids stretched and creased with each stroke of her hand. The same hand then pushed coarse and unruly hair behind her ears. Silver nail polish adorned pinky, ring, and index fingers. Unfortunately, it looked like she had attacked her middle finger, there was barely any varnish left.
“Don’t you dare look at my nails. Ha! I still haven’t found an affordable nail salon.”
I chuckled again, but I was appalled by my uncharacteristic silence. She was as curious as Rask-yada-yada. Her features created irregular shadows against her skin; her lips curled up towards her nose. They looked bee-stung and supple despite the weather. Instinctively, I bit my own lips, inspecting the dermal damage. I needed to stop by the bodega; I needed chapstick. Sequins, light-up shoes, and a swollen belly passed me again. The pair stood to my right, and a tiny face peeked outside a metallic hood boarded by unnaturally colored animal print. The face stared at me so intently that I had to acknowledge it. Her nose glistened with mucus, but she wiped it away with a pink cheetah print sleeve. Soon after, the doors parted and her mother dragged her small body across the platform.
“Do you have kids?”
I jumped slightly. She was still next to me. Now, her hands were in her pockets. She was right, the marshmallow resemblance was striking.
“Nah. The little girl? She reminded me of someone is all.”
Her head tilted in what seemed like incredulous approval. She sighed deeply, and her left hand rose to pull at her curls. She blinked once, and looked at me. Her irises were dotted. She pressed her eyelids close and open again, and the specks swiftly disappeared.
Jay Street Metro-Tech
“This is my stop.”
As she stood, her right hand brought forth a black and gold knitted cap. She furiously worked her hair underneath, and the floor lurched forward. I grabbed her elbow, and I watched her gilded nails clutch the wool lapel of my coat.
I tried saying it with a comedic lilt. Was she embarrassed?
“Thank you. Hell, even if I fell, I swear I wouldn’t feel a thing with this on.”
Air rushed past my face, and a streak of white pushed away from me. She was gone. Pages of my paper back bent at unnatural angles on the floor. “FYO-” was all I could see of the cover. I picked it up and tried smoothing the newly formed wrinkles, palm against yellow page. As I moved my hand across each sheet, I felt small granules underneath my skin. My right hand stung slightly, as if it were asleep. I shook it, and brought it closer to my face to inspect what could have been causing the sensation. Nothing. I twisted in my plastic seat, only to catch a reflection of light from my periphery. Sheen was painted on my left shoulder.
The LED table clock silently screamed its red numbers: 9:45. It was too early, but I was exhausted. I crossed my legs under my down comforter. It was old. The inner lining had worn away, and now, tiny quills pricked at my thighs: pleasurable pain. It wasn’t even pain; it was pleasurable discomfort. My left hand stretched for my phone, and my thumbs worked it to life. Messages. I scrolled past dinner invitations, messages from Daniel asking for rent, Mom’s weather advisories. My right hand scratched at my old basketball scar. NNENA was written against the blue screen. Next to her name, her phone number taunted me. 314. 314. I pressed her name anyway. I did not need to be reminded of the last message. I already knew what I was looking for.
“You promise to delete everything?”
In between her eyebrows were alternating folds of skin pressed together in distress. There was a smudge of black eyeliner that traced her eyelash to her temple. Her cheeks were moist with tears, as she picked a scab on her forearm.
“I think it’d be best. You know how things are nowadays. Please?”
I managed to spit out a, “Yeah. Okay.”, as I leaned on a piece of wall. It was the only thing, my only barrier, that kept me from collapsing. 8/23/2014, I had found it.
Where are you?
At work, why?
When are you coming home?
Almost done. Soon.
UHH. I need youuuuu. Bad.
My left hand clutched at the elastic band of my boxers. I remembered how she kissed my shoulder blades. I sat up abruptly. I wasn’t going to do it again. I slapped my phone against my bed, and the pressure made the covers hiss. The sound reminded me of something. I swung my legs to the side, and the plantar surfaces of my feet were chilled by the wooden floor. The boards whined as I paced to my closet. I had forgotten to buy chapstick, so I’d walk to the Yemeni brothers two blocks away. I wouldn’t have admitted openly, but I actually looked forward to their greetings of Assalam saturated with the permanent smell of chewing tobacco. I impatiently dressed myself, and braced my body. Despite quick mental preparation, the cold air made me tremble uncontrollably. I wondered how fast I could walk without looking questionable. Once I jogged to the piece of illuminated concrete, I barrelled myself inside. The heat of the store accosted my frozen face. My sight followed the checkered floor to reveal Frank sweating over a large, elevated stove in the back. He resembled a mad scientist, a mad Arab scientist that insisted his name was Frank whenever I heard his brother call him something else.
“ASSALAM! My cracker!”
That was George. I coughed and laughed at the same time. Their offense always failed to anger me.
“Whaddup G. Frank, my man! What’s happenin’?”
The smell of lamb gyro was enticing. Unconsciously, I moved towards towards the steam and crackle of cooking meat, but my steps were mirrored with hisses.
Wide set eyes and a wild mane gawked at me.
“Hey! How are you?! You live around here?”
She nodded emphatically, as she peeled off thin leather gloves.
“Je suis muy bien. Yeah, not too far.”
She was as odd as I remembered. Curious voice, curious mannerisms, curious everything, and yet, I couldn’t help but stare in return. She partly unzipped her coat to reveal a delicate décolletage. Now freed, she inhaled deeply. Her body rose and almost glowed.
“Doesn’t it smell wonderful?”
My eyes darted towards the assortment of potato chips in front of the glass barrier that entrapped Frank. I desperately hoped she hadn’t noticed my concentration.
“Of course! Frank makes the best lamb gyro. AM I RIGHT FRANK?!”
Frank yelled, “Hell yeah!” while raising his knife in the air. The metal blade caught the light of a ceiling fixture and reflected it against her cheek. Her eyes squinted, and the flecks returned. She turned to me and grinned. Slight crows feet embraced each corner of her face; the whites of her eyes glimmered.
The first time I kissed her, my lips brushed against her nose. She threw her head back in amusement, and her mirth floated above our urban cacophony. My lips buzzed with a palpable sensation. She tightened her grip around my waist and leaned in. Reflexively, I encircled my hands around her unruly hair. Our skin felt sealed together. Her pulse melted with my own. She was more than tactile; she was grey matter. When we parted, the sharpness in my right hand returned. She looked away. She appeared to be acutely aware of the street lamp that bathed us. I wanted her to turn to me. I wanted to hold her again, but the soreness in my hand tickled along my arm, skipped across my chest, and settled in my jaw. I clenched my mandible and immediately felt the crush of stone against enamel. Gingerly, I used my tongue to move the particles to one side. The discomfort had doubled me over, and I spat pellets of opal out unto my outstretched hand.
“Who was Nnena?”
Had I mentioned Nnena to her? I did not remember telling her, although I probably did. She had an opiate effect on me. I felt suspended within her wild eyes. Where were we? In her apartment again. What day was it?
“She was my wife.”
“And? Ha. She left me. She took our daughter with her.”
“I thought you said you didn’t have children.”
“She wasn’t my biological daughter.”
“You miss her the most.”
“Your heart. I can feel its residue. It shines, it shines of your daughter.”
When they saw us, Frank and George’s whoops and wails followed us out of the store. George had tried to persuade her to leave me. “A beautiful woman like you deserves better, habibti.” I swept her away from their smiles, and they erupted in raucous cackles. Outside, the heat of our sandwiches warmed our hands as we marched back to my place. Not until we sat across from each other did we realize how malnourished we were. We talked for hours, feasting off of each other’s intellect. When it was her turn to speak, she traced her eyebrows with her thumb. It was her display of focus, but the effort did not last long.
She was Brownian motion personified. The pit of my mind knew what she was, yet I did not understand how she managed to love terrestrial beings, myself included. Familiar grooves appeared on each corner of her lips, as she noticed that I was transfixed. They deepened into a smirk, and she threw me a suspicious glance. How dare she question how alluring she was. It wasn’t until we rested in the darkness that I realized her skin was always burnished. In that moment, my lungs contracted. I was left mute. Our intimacy was solidified in silence. Gradually, my breaths returned, along with a crippling sense of nostalgia that constricted each follicle of my arm. Terror leapt up my vertebrae. I realized that her gaze never exactly held mine; it always positioned itself a few dimensions beyond this realm. I knew she was lost to me, even when she was right in front of me.
I stood and walked to my bedroom. Once I entered, I crossed the threshold into the bathroom. I did not feel like myself. I needed to see my face. I had to know if I still reflected the same person. My left hand fumbled in the shadow for the switch. My right hand gripped the sides of my sink. I furiously searched for light, any kind of illumination. The alarm clock screeched and jolted me out of my panic. I stepped back into the bedroom. The numbers wailed ‘3:41’ in quick succession. The sound was deafening, paralyzing.
I ran towards the fluorescent red, but my legs buckled beneath me. I writhed, rocking myself from side to side. I gasped and gritted. As I lay incapacitated, the grain of my floor began to resemble ctenophora. Linear pulses of light congealed around me, and grew ciliated appendages that burrowed themselves into my skin. The torment intensified. As they dug deeper into my tissues, my attempts at tearing the luminous roots were easily defeated. They reached my ears and began to hiss in unison. I saw her feet pass me to my left. Each metatarsal glowed under translucent skin.
She sat atop of me. Her thighs wrapped around my pelvis. Despite my misery, I still wanted her: pleasurable pain. We moved together, and my fists clenched at her sides. I tried to advance my hands along her body, but I couldn’t move them. Rhythmically, she swayed, oscillating back and forth, offering herself exposed. She revealed golden breasts and a golden spine. The air in my lungs convulsed into a wail, but I couldn’t hear my voice. I saw that my hands, each phalange, had stretched and contorted into her ribs. They coiled into sinew, into a nerve net that percolated her face. Maniacally, my diaphragm contracted and expanded. Her physical body had dissolved. A membrane was all that remained. The cilia of light penetrated my marrow; they fused themselves within the canals of my spinal cord. I felt my blood vessels hemorrhage. Silicated fluid trickled from each orifice. I felt myself heaving, asphyxiating; an elixir crystallizing around me. Between feeble gulps, I pleaded.
Her voice rang as if it were emanating from a metallic cavern. She spoke.
“I was always listening.”