Naked

Claire walked around her apartment naked simply because she didn’t care. Cooking, cleaning, reading– all naked. She was on the ninth floor and left the windows open. She could have a hundred people watching her every day, a creep could have started recording her movements and posting it on the internet. Probably did. But none of it mattered to her. So what.

She thought she’d never see any of them in real life. A thousand people could watch her doing the most private thing and it would make no difference to her because they were all strangers. Plenty of days she would go out on her balcony and look down at the world, waving to tourists who happened to notice, and she’d smile and think, “Yeah, get a load of this. Here’s New York for you. We don’t give a fuck.”

But then one day somebody recognized her in the grocery store. She was in the dairy aisle picking up milk and lunch meat when a man with dark eyes and blonde hair put a hand on her arm and said, “Hey. You’re the woman on the ninth floor.”

She just looked at him.

“It’s you. I’m sure it’s you. I see you all the time,” he said.

Claire pulled her arm from his grasp. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, boredom dripping from her voice. But when she got home and put her groceries away, she left her clothes on until she went to bed.

The next morning she woke with the sun on her back. She sat up, realized she was late for work, and ran around her apartment in a flurry. When she was almost out the door, she realized she forgot her coffee mug on the kitchen table. She ran back to get it, but when she got to the kitchen she stopped and walked up to the window. She looked out at the city, at the mass of people and buildings spread out before her.

In the building directly across from her, a naked man stood in a window holding up a neon orange sign that said: I SEE YOU. He had blonde hair and was smiling. For a moment she was caught in his gaze, a line that tethered her to him in a sea of faces, and she smiled back across the vast cavern between them. Then she took a sip of her coffee, turned around, and went out the door.

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Indians

Down there by the river is where all the boys from 801 West End would play “Indians.” We used to play the good old “Cowboys and Indians,” but one of the older boys, Lucas, had an unhealthy obsession with Indians (he had a collection of arrowheads and pointy sticks) and convinced us that they were cooler than cowboys because they could peel the skin off people’s heads. So no one wanted to be a cowboy, and it turned into just “Indians.”

That bench is where the homeless guy was sleeping when we decided to rob him. It was a bright, sunny Saturday and we had nothing better to do. Whose idea was it to take the man’s shoe? Victoria’s, of course. She was the only girl in the group, and had earned her reputation as one of the boys many times over.

We all usually met in this field at around noon, or whenever our mothers got tired of us watching cartoons and kicked us out of our apartments. But on this day, no one was in the field. Instead they were huddled in a circle on the sidewalk, bending half-over and whispering in each other’s ears. Shit, something’s up, I thought as I jogged over to them. Secretly I wanted to say the word out loud just to see the look on Vicky’s face.

I was thinking about how to work the word into a sentence (Hey what shit’s up you guys?) when Vic locked eyes with me and said in voice that made everyone else quit their whispers: “We have an enemy in our territory.”

“Shit,” I said. (It was a testament to the seriousness of the group that no one reacted to the word.)

“Yeah,” she said, “We must eliminate him.”

It was lucky for us that he was out cold and didn’t stir a bit when Lucas pulled off his shoe and we high-tailed it down to the river. We were also lucky when we stole his other shoe the next day (it was me that time). One of the boys got daring and jumped on the man’s shopping cart and rolled away with it. We whooped, pressing our hands to our mouth over and over like the victorious Indians we were, and then we donned the various grungy clothes and threw his plastic bottles at passerby in celebration.

Lucas silenced us soon enough though, saying that he wasn’t truly defeated until we had scalped him. He came back the next day with a pocket knife, and it was Vicky’s idea to chop his long hair off. She knelt at the edge of the bench while we watched, slowly sawing at his hair till there was a pile of it below the bench slats. He smelt so bad that she had to cover her nose the whole time, which made for slow going. But when she was finished, we each took a lock to keep in our pockets, as a symbol of our bravery.

Tuesday though, luck wasn’t on our side. There were three policemen standing around him. We looked on, pinching the locks of hair between our fingers, ready to toss them away, but it turned out we weren’t in trouble. He was just dead. He had been all along. Go figure.

Even if it Didn’t Last Forever

You stare up at the small orange globe hanging from the branch. It is shiny and bright, perfectly round. The first you have seen this season. You are not yet tall enough to reach it, so you walk under it, into the shade of the tree, and pull the branch down until the heavy orange hangs within your reach. When you stretch out your hand though, you cannot reach the orange without letting go of the branch. You shake the branch violently in hopes of dislodging the fruit, but it is young and strong and holds fast to its lifeline.

At that moment your father comes up and takes a hold of the orange in one hand and the stem in the other. He rips the orange free, a bit of the skin still left on the stem. In the sunlight you can see mist floating in the air from the separation, and the scent drifts to you. You let go of the branch and it swings up to hit your father in the face. He laughs, which must mean he is in a good mood. You come out from under the tree.

“Thanks, Pa!” you say. You take the orange from his hand and smell the new hole at the top of the fruit. Seeing all the segments underneath the skin is like seeing the ripped corner of a wrapped package. You are tempted to stick your finger in the natural hole that forms where all the segments meet at the top.

“That is quite a prize you’ve got there,” your father says as he crouches down to your level. “What are you going to do with it? Eat it?”

You shake your head.

“No? But is must be so juicy and perfect.”

“I am going to give it to Mama,” you say.

You waddle over on your three-year-old legs to where your mother sits on the patio smoking and listening to the Beatles on the radio.

You hold out your prize and run into her legs, exclaiming what you brought for her. She sets her cigarette down and lifts you into her lap for a hug, then turns you around and lets you make a mess of peeling the orange for her.

Your father has turned his chair away from the table and sits in it facing the yard, but he is looking at you. When you think you have peeled the orange, you hold up the pulpy chunk proudly.

“Would you look at that, Paula.” he says, “We have a natural orange-peeler on our hands.”

“We sure do,” agrees your mother. She leans down to kiss your cheek from behind. “Our little boy is getting to be all grown up.”

“This calls for a celebration,” your father says. He gets up and returns with three plates, then pulls up a third chair. “For you,” he says, and then makes a flourish. Your mother lifts you into the chair. Together you split the orange into three parts and eat it. Everybody’s faces and fingers are sticky, and everybody gives each other sticky kisses. You remember your father’s smile and the color of your mother’s sunglasses, the feel of the orange pulp in your teeth, and the cold metal of the seat under your pudgy legs.

And that is about the only happy, normal memory you have of your father. After that it is sickness, cold beds, smells of vomit, and your mother’s tear-streaked face.

An orange is a memory to you, a happy memory that you are grateful to have. People look at you and say how tragic you had it, that you didn’t deserve to lose your father so young, but you reckon that that’s life. People have had it much worse than you. And that’s why you don’t hate oranges. You love them actually, for their sticky-sweet tartness, the pulp they leave in your teeth, and the occasional bitter seed you can bite into if you are not careful. You are glad to have had something so precious, even if it didn’t last forever.

The Day After

The day after Marla finds out that her older sister is engaged, she has a dream that Cecilia is eaten by a falling star.

They are collecting stray peacock feathers in the orange grove like old times, except that the oranges are glowing on the trees like fireballs. There is no sun, so everything is cast in an eerie orange light from the glowing fruit.

‘Look at this one!’ Cecilia calls out to Marla, and then she reaches down and picks up the largest peacock feather Marla has ever seen. She starts walking toward Marla, but then she stops when she feels a tug and realizes that the end of the peacock feather is tied to a string.

Marla feels she knows something bad is going to happen, so she holds out her hand and tells Cecilia to stop, but Cecilia doesn’t hear her and she pulls on the string.

The world is ripped away and Cecilia and Marla are spinning and holding onto each other by the ends of the huge peacock feather. They are in space and the stars are streaking by in a way that makes Marla dizzy. She looks at her sister and tells her not to let go, but then an orange ball of light comes up and hits Cecilia on the cheek. She lets go of the feather and Marla watches as Cecilia tumbles into the crooked-toothed mouth of a giant orange-and-red mottled star.

The star’s eyes are green like poison and they are so bright that Marla can’t look at them.

‘Mine now,’ it says to her in a deep, raspy voice like an old smoker. Then it laughs as Marla pukes her guts into space.

 

She wakes up before the sun rises and joins her sister in bed.

‘Not now,’ Cecilia says to her, but then she rolls over so Marla can climb in. Marla watches her sister’s face as the room turns from black and white to blue in the morning light.

‘Do you really love him?’ she asks her sister.

‘Mmmm,’ says Cecilia. Her eyes are still closed.

‘It’s okay. You can tell me,’ says Marla. ‘I won’t tell anyone.’

Cecilia opens her eyes to slits and lets the corner of her mouth come up in a smile.

‘Yes, I really do,’ she says.

Marla lies back down in bed and puts her head on her sister’s shoulder. She plays with the ends of Cecilia’s curly hair, which she remembers she used to suck on when she was a baby.

Marla thinks about what it will be like at home with her sister gone. She wonders who will help her with her math homework and who will take her to the market on Saturdays to sell peacock feathers. Surely, it won’t be her parents, what with the work to be done around the grove.

 

When the sun rises and Marla can hear her mother making breakfast downstairs, she tickles Cecilia’s neck and whispers in her ear to wake up. Cecilia doesn’t move and Marla panics, thinking she is dead, but then Cecilia jumps up and shouts, ‘Tickle monster!’

She pins Marla down and tickles her until she screams from the pain of it. Then Cecilia rolls off the bed and throws open the curtains. She opens the window and the scent of ripe, ready-to-be-harvested oranges drifts into the room.

Cecilia turns to Marla, who is watching her sister from the bed, and asks her what they would like to do today. Marla gets up and goes to the window. It is sunny and the clouds look like bulbous white skyscrapers. She wonders how many more days like this she will get with her sister.

‘Let’s do something different,’ Marla says. ‘Something new.’

Then she takes Cecilia’s hand and leads her out of the room.

When Life Gets You Down

Yesterday I was coming home from work when I found a spider on my door handle. I almost didn’t see it.

But when I did it was when my hand was close, like almost touching it and the door handle. So I threw my keys at the spider in surprise, and they clattered against the handle and then the door and then the ground. The spider fell next to the keys, its legs brown and twitching in the air.

And so as I was reaching to get the keys, I saw that the spider’s abdomen was crushed, and it was still alive. It was pretty gruesome actually. I gagged as I swept it off my doorstep with a leaf.

But when I went inside to kiss my husband hello and make myself chamomile tea, I got to thinking, ‘God, how many people would look at this spider and not give a shit?’

I wondered if there were more spiders or people in the world, and what it all really meant, our pain. How could I value the pain of one species over another?

Later that night, I went out to my doorstep and retrieved the crushed spider. I put it in a stray cardboard jewelry box and buried it next to my dog Lars and my unborn child from two years ago. I knelt in the dirt and told God that I understood why he would not acknowledge my pain. But then I prayed twice as hard for him to listen to me anyway.

The Longest Voicemail in History

“Hey sis, it’s me, Marla. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately, and about what you said on the phone the other day. Now that I’ve been thinking about it, it makes me—well, it’s sitting pretty heavy. I’m sad that you feel that way.

I just wanted you to know that, you know, good things happen here too, and you know, we all miss you: Dad, Mom, and I. We really do want you here.

Oh, and I just have to tell you—the most amazing thing happened the other day!

Now I know you may not believe me, because well let’s face it, you are the older, wiser one that is always right, but seriously I can’t lie to you about this one because the whole town saw it.

So, get this—a star fell from the sky. No joke. You can ask anyone. I think the Sentinel even wrote a story about it.

Anyway, it happened a few days ago, during the meteor show. I was outside on the roof, sitting on our old spotty blanket that we used to keep under the eve of my dormer, you know, and Mom and Dad had gone to bed—it was around three a.m. I think—and the brunt of the shower had calmed down.

I was just chilling out there, thinking about things, about you mainly, and about Corey, which I’ve decided that he’s not really that into me because I saw him in the halls the other day and he didn’t even say ‘Hi’ when I passed him so really it was all just a fluke, but then—ah sorry off topic—then it was like there was this one huge bright streak that I swear burned my retinas.

I closed my eyes for a second and rubbed them to get rid of the spot, and when I opened them I was thinking at first that the spot in my eyes had actually gotten bigger, but then I realized that the star was still streaking across the sky—but then it was falling, and at first I was like ‘what the hell kind of dream is this?’ but then it just kept coming, and getting bigger, and it was happening so fast that I didn’t even realize until it had already fallen that it was right there in the Roberson’s yard—like right there—and it could have hit me.

But you know, I don’t even think I was thinking that at the time, because you know what? Luke was in the yard. And you know what he did? He caught it. He caught the flipping falling star.

I swear, sis, I can’t make this stuff up.

At this point I can’t even tell you what I was thinking– I don’t even think any of the usual curse words were running through my head. I think my mind was just kind of like beep, like you know, when a heart monitor goes blank after somebody isn’t breathing anymore, and I couldn’t pass a single thought through my mind. I just watched, eyes boggling and buckets of drool pouring out my mouth I’m sure, as he lifted the star, which was still glowing a dull red—like mom’s glass right when she takes it out of the kiln—and ate it.

I saw the glowing, pulsing—thing, star, whatever—slide down his throat, down the ribs of his esophagus, and into his belly. The night was late and it had just rained so it was like, completely silent except for the occasional dripping from the trees.

Luke turned around and went back inside and that was that, and if my eyes hadn’t been half-blind, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Now I know you must be thinking that I should have called out to him, asked him what the hell he was doing, but I just couldn’t. It was like how we always wondered what we would do if someone broke into our house, how we would say that we would grab this and that and lock the door and call the police you know? But then, when something really huge like that happens, I don’t think we’d really be able to do anything. I mean, this big thing was happening right in front of me and I didn’t do anything.

It was like someone had turned off the switch to the real world, like ‘jokes, you aren’t a real person and you are now in the Matrix and we just pulled the plug on your body ha ha.’

You know? I wonder if you felt that way when you got in that accident with Luke last year. I always meant to ask you about that, whose fault it really was, or like what the other car looked like, but I was afraid of what you would say. I’m sorry now that I didn’t ask. I would like to know now, if you would tell me.

Anyway, I was just sitting there on the roof, a puddle of spittle making the blanket all soggy, when twenty minutes later a car came down the cul-de-sac, driving slowly, and then it turned around and was gone. And then there was another car a few minutes later, and then another car came and parked in the Jacobson’s driveway. The people got out and wandered around for a bit, but they didn’t really come by our house so I couldn’t hear what they had to say.

But, you know, I bet they were looking for the star.

Okay sorry I guess that’s kind of the end of the story and I didn’t mean to tell you this all on a message but as you probably see, I’ve called you like three times already and I just have to talk to someone about this. I mean, I know I can probably just go to Mom or Dad and they may or may not believe me but at least they would listen. But I just felt—after our conversation—that you would like to know. I just want you to know that I want you to know. And that I miss you.

And, well, I guess it hasn’t really cut me off yet, which I find surprising, but whatever I guess that isn’t the end of the story.

The end of the story is that there isn’t one.

The next day there were some official people in the neighborhood, going from door to door asking if anybody had seen the star. I just stayed in my room when they came by. I don’t think I could hold something like that in. I mean they looked so official, with their suits and badges, I just think I would go all fish-faced and they would cart me away for electroshock therapy or something. You know?

I wonder who was home next door. I wonder if they all know about Luke, whatever he is, if they are all like that. I wonder if… I mean, you used to spend all your time over there. Did you ever notice anything weird? Like them having extra toes or being glow-in-the-dark when they sleep or having light shine out of their eyes or something? I just wish I knew more.

I just wish you were here.

Anyway, after the suits had left some reporters came through, a man and a woman armed with a notepad and camera. From what I heard from mom and dad over dinner—I just stayed in my room all day on the window seat—apparently a lot of people got photos of the meteor as it was descending to Earth. I thought it was weird because it was like—something that was so private to me and I guess Luke. And then, it was like, a phenomenon to the rest of the world. Everybody saw it, but they didn’t.

You should go look up pictures. There were some really cool ones, like somebody got one from up on a hill where it was like this huge green streak over our neighborhood. I think that was how they located where it should have landed.

To me though, it was really only that image of Luke, swallowing molten glass, nothing but rain dripping in our quiet suburban paradise. And, can you believe it? Nobody could figure out what happened.

The reporters eventually left because they couldn’t like, take a picture of anything besides some old Victorian and ranch-style houses with unexciting paint colors. There was no point of impact after all.

And so now it has been reduced to just that weird thing that happened last week, only a few days ago, and people are already talking about something new in school– like apparently Justin Beiber cut his hair or something– and I can’t help feel that, you know, more things like this happen all the time, and nobody really cares. I mean, the world is a strange place, right? Why question? Why ask anybody anything? Because nobody really knows the answers.

And that just makes me think of you again. I’m sorry that you have to listen to this, all my word vomit. You probably won’t understand the half of it. I just wish– I just wish you would call me, and maybe listen. I’m sorry I never asked you about things before.

Aw man. I can’t believe I’m leaving this all on your answering machine. How it is that when people get a job and move to a big city they just don’t have time anymore? They are like, ‘adult,’ and have bigger things to do in life besides talk to their family. I hope you don’t feel that way. I know that yeah, you may have felt a bit underappreciated, but now I just want you to know that you were not. We all really think that you are a wonderful person and we care about you. Really.

I want to hear about that. About your life now. Will you call me back? I’ll listen whatever you have to say. I swear.”

Two Truths, Ten Thousand Lies

Today I burned a spatula, the only spatula that I owned. I was cooking rice (really just boiling the water) while I was on the phone with my brother discussing the finer points of the salinity of a salt-water aquarium (he was just starting an aquarium business out of his home).

I walked out of the room, pacing on the back porch, watching the fireflies run themselves into the screen, and then I heard the beeping of the smoke detector which I did not yet know was the smoke detector because I had never before burned anything.

I ran inside, still with my brother on the phone (I had him on my headset) and into a cloud of smoke that was bright orange. The spatula I owned was green plastic, so I was doubly confused because I did not yet know that the spatula was even burning until I reached the stove and saw a puddle of goo on the burner next to the pot with the water.

Too late, I realized I had turned on the wrong burner and the spatula had been resting on the stove. I went to turn the burner off, but by then I had a good face-full of orange smoke so as I was reaching my hand started to tilt sideways and I missed the dial completely. I tried again and missed, and then tried again and missed.

I laughed, and then I realized my brother had been trying to get my attention. “Candace if you don’t say anything I’m calling the police and sending them to your house!” He was saying. So paranoid, always paranoid he was.

“If you do, then I will hug you until you die,” I said, and then laughed at my wittiness.

“Seriously, what is going on?”

“Oh, just the spatula I think melted and now my face is too,” I said because I thought it was true. Really though, I reached up and could feel my nose sliding down along the cleft of my lips, as if it were a track to steer my nose into my mouth. My tongue could touch my left nostril and it had never been able to do that before.

I laughed.

“No lie,” I said. “Come over and see for yourself.”

And so, thirty minutes later, when the smoke had dispersed into a haze that made my kitchen and living room look as if they were lit by a sandstorm, my brother showed up at the door and I let him in.

He started laughing immediately and then held a hand over his mouth. He took a picture with his phone and turned it around to me. It looked like my nose had lowered about half an inch on my face.

“I think it looks better, actually,” I said. He nodded and then asked me what it was I had been cooking. I told him I was making some rice to go with the leftover lime chicken I had made two days ago. I invited him to stay for dinner.

He looked at the orange tinge of the room, which before had been painted blue with teak wood accents.

“Actually I think we should go to the Lotus Room,” he said, which was our go-to restaurant when we were kids, and before… before. It was Thai that you couldn’t beat.

I didn’t want to go out at all, because I had finished making the rice for my chicken and had cleaned up the spatula goo and had a lot of work to do tonight, mainly cleaning, and I had to be up early for work in the morning (I was an online teacher of English).

But as I told him all these things he just shrugged and opened the door, letting the orange dust get sucked out of the doorway like a vacuum in space.

“That’s not really a good enough excuse. It’s just dinner, Candace.”

He cocked his head to the side.

“You really do look better with your nose lower like that. I didn’t realize before how high it was, but now it looks just right.”

He smiled, as if he knew exactly what he was doing.

And so, with trembling fingers and a new(ish) face, I took his hand and he pulled me across the threshold of my house.

So simple, but that was really how I left my house for the first time in two years.

It makes me realize that I need to learn to make more mistakes.

 

Shits and Giggles

On the day the mountain shed its winter coat, we were sick with the spirit of adventure.

Go up the mountain, they said, but it is recommended that you take crampons. Okay sure, we said. And then we went up the mountain in sneakers. No gloves. No hats. No packs.

We were young. Student aged, some would say, but stupid aged, more accurately, is what my father would call us. It was always dare this, dare that; we would bet each other that we could jump off this rock and not break a leg, that we could chug this whole pitcher of beer without puking, that we could slide off this moldy roof with Mike’s mattress and land in that kiddy pool we stole from the neighbors no sweat.

Shit like that.

Sure, it was cold. Sure, there was ice stuck to our lips and mud slick on our shoes. Sure, we were only wearing snow jackets and sunglasses. But we’d handled worse. Right?

When we saw the first avalanche, we got it on video. YouTube that shit, we said. And then there was another one, when we were halfway up, fighting a blinding snow field, sunk to our knees, hands red claws.

Shit, we said more quietly this time, watching it slide by. Then we kept climbing.

You see, when we start something, we can’t stop. We go and push each other too far and we can never be the one to sit on our ass first, because then we might, maybe, not be a real man, if you know what I mean. We might be like, gay. Or something.

When we had almost reached a crest, we looked up and saw the curve of the moon resting against the peak. The night was harsh, the stars slivers of glinting metal. Our lungs were heaving and we tasted the cold, clean air on the backs of our throats.

We watched as the snow bank above us shimmied and slipped from the rock, no one around to tell us what were doing was stupid, no one around to save us if we fell. The only real thing was the cold in our bones; not the snow, not even the mountain. That’s what made us so young. So stupid.

Don’t Touch

Marsha would blow glass in her garage, and I would watch her. I was fourteen in the summer and I believed that I could see my future and the stars and all things beautiful within her glass. She would blow many colors, and then set them out to dry, looking like a rainbow oozing slowly– candy that was too powerful and too sweet to touch. It would burn your tongue off if you tried.

I spent every afternoon watching her because I had no friends but could not waste a beautiful day inside. I believed it was a sin to God to stay inside on a sunny, temperate day. I would paint my toes bright candy colors to mimic the colors of her glass sculptures as they came out hot and glistening. I would long to touch the molten shapes. But Marsha would push me back and say:

“Not if you want to be a lady, Tess. Ladies have fingerprints and the skin of porcelain. You will burn yourself.”

“So give me the gloves,” I said. “I won’t drop it.”

But Marsha would only shake her head and turn her body so it blocked my view of the kiln.

Silly to think that a fourteen-year-old was so concerned with the making of delicate things. But that was before I realized the power of the female figure. Now, I imagine men look at me the same way I would watch the smoldering, flowing shapes of Marsha’s glass.

Don’t touch, I tell them with my eyes. You will burn yourself.

Now I realize how grateful I am to Marsha for her lessons.

The Eye of the Beholder

I used to have a dream where a bird would sing beautiful music outside my window while I sat in bed and listened. It was such a vivid dream that sometimes I would cry when I woke to my quiet, plain bedroom. The dream would always start with me lying in bed, listening to the sound of the trash being picked up by the garbage-men, not wanting to get up for work. Then the birdsong would start and I would be caught in it. The music made everything seem to be brighter, as if the world was glowing from the inside like live coals. I would want to get up to search for the bird, but instead I would sit in bed, just listening. One time in my dream I brought my sister and then my mother to hear the birdsong, and they agreed it sounded nice, but only nice, like the way we enjoy the sound of wind chimes or the sizzle of bacon on the frying pan.

Me though, I found myself thinking about the birdsong during my work day, when I was cooking dinner, when I was showering. It reminded me of a time when I was hiking alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains and I suddenly came upon a clear creek flowing over rainbow-colored rocks. I had stopped walking to stare at the scene: the mottled greens and yellows of the leaves, the glistening water as it ran over the rocks, and the green moss huddled next to the bank. I wanted to take in the beauty with more than my eyes, and it made me sad to know that soon what I was seeing would be somewhat forgotten and distorted within my memory.

Even now, when I look back at my many hikes in the wilderness and the countless times I dreamt about the bird, it all feels distant, like it happened to someone else or maybe not at all. I wonder what it was I gained from experiencing such beauty. Did I get to keep any of it at all?

When I stopped dreaming about the bird, the music was still in my head. I had become attached to the dream and I wanted it back. I started taking online voice lessons, humming in the shower and when I was on the subway, and then one day, I worked up the nerve to sing to my roommate, who I barely knew but greatly admired. We had moved in together after meeting online a few months before, and I knew she was in the entertainment industry somehow. I was cooking breakfast, poached eggs and corned beef hash, and she was sitting at the breakfast nook reading the newspaper.

I just opened my mouth and, la la la, started singing notes, beautiful notes. She looked at me and covered her mouth in surprise, and I knew I had impressed her.

At the end of the week I told my roommate that we should go sing karaoke together, thinking that having her, with her enviable red hair, sit in the audience and watch me would lend some sort of power.

We went to the bar on 106th and Amsterdam, where they did comedy on Thursday nights and karaoke on Fridays.  Long silver streamers served as a backdrop to the stage, which couldn’t have been more than a foot off the ground. My roommate and I drank a beer while we watched a woman sing two Bruce Springsteen songs and a man sing half of “Bohemian Rhapsody” before he got bored and handed the mike to someone else.

I took that as my cue and jumped up to take the mike. I chose a song from the repertoire and started singing, and honestly it felt pretty good. People were looking at me with interest and my roommate was smiling and nodding.

But then I saw her make eye contact with a man at the bar and smile wider. My stomach tightened and my voice cracked. I watched her lean toward the man and whisper something in his ear. Who was she to get attention while I was the one up here singing?

When he chuckled in response to her secret joke, my voice faltered completely. There was a delay in the speakers, and for a second I heard the sound of my naked voice, which was nowhere as soothing as the birdsong. It was actually a very embarrassing sound.

I jumped away from the microphone, into the shadow, and quickly flitted off the stage, to everyone’s confusion. I had moved too fast for their beer-slowed eyes. But the song was still playing: Alicia Keys finished “No One” all by herself. Good job, Alicia Keys.

I mentioned something about the bathroom to my roommate and she patted my shoulder, half-heartedly complimenting me on my singing. I got the impression that she and her hot new man friend had just been discussing my distinctly unflattering voice. My cheeks flamed red, but there was nothing I could say to them. Whatever they thought about me, they were probably right.

I left the bar, took a cab to our apartment, made myself tea, and read a book with a shirtless man on the cover for three hours. When I checked my cell phone, I had received one voicemail, five text messages, and two missed calls. My roommate was going home with the guy and she was worried that I wouldn’t make it back okay. I texted, telling her that I was fine, perfectly dandy, and then I tossed my phone across the room.

I held my book up and imagined my roommate, with her red hair draped over her perfect body, tracing a line down the chest of the man on the cover. The image fit. When I was in the picture, I was an awkward, squat thing who could only stare at him admiringly, unworthy of touching his delicious-looking skin. Why was it that beauty could only mix with beauty?

I was suddenly sick of the book, which was about a quiet school girl who gets swept off her feet by a gorgeous man with the ability to transform into a bear. I chucked the book across the room and it landed next to my phone.

That night I dreamt about a bird, which I assumed was the same one that would sing outside my window in my dreams. But this time the bird was limp and I was holding it by a wing. There was no singing.

My other hand was brushing the bird’s feathers, slowly, but in the wrong direction. Instead of running along the wing from the body to the tip, my hand moved inward so the feathers were getting caught under my fingers. The feathers were unexpectedly sharp, like the edges of grass blades, so they sliced at my fingers until blood oozed between the cracks. But still, my hand continued moving up the wing like it had a mind of its own, bending the feathers upward at an unnatural angle, until I could see the bird’s bumpy grey skin underneath. Then, as my hand kept pushing the feathers forward, one by one the quills twisted in the skin and split away, leaving gouges of pale pink. The freed feathers drifted to the ground in chunks, and flecks of my blood landed on top, rolling off their water-resistant sides.