These are posts that have made the cut and went into my completed thesis. I would consider these the best, most polished pieces of writing on this blog thus far:
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 across a clear creek flowing over rainbow-colored rocks. I’d 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.
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.
When my elderly neighbor Marsha would blow glass in her garage, I would always come over to watch. I was fourteen in the summer and I believed I could see my future and the stars and all things beautiful within her glass. She would blow many colored pieces and then set them out to dry in the corner of her scorching garage, and they were like slow-oozing rainbows in the furnace– candy that was too powerful and too sweet to touch. It would burn off your tongue if you tried.
I spent every afternoon watching her because I had no friends and could not waste a beautiful day inside. I believed it was a sin to God to stay indoors 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, Gwen. Ladies have fingerprints and the skin of porcelain. You’ll 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 furnace.
For my fifteenth birthday my parents finally paid for me to take glass-blowing classes at the local art museum. Tuesday nights I would go and learn about blowing techniques and furnace temperatures from a potbellied man that always seemed to have a cold, which confused me because the room was always hot. There were two other students, both guys about my age, which further confused me because I didn’t think guys would care about the making of delicate things. I soon realized I was wrong about that.
My favorite part about the whole process was in the very beginning, when I dipped my blowpipe into the pool of molten glass in the furnace. I would spend more time than I needed at the mouth of the burning pit, stirring my blowpipe around in the glass, watching it turn in on itself while my face became slick with sweat.
One time I spent ten minutes gathering glass in the furnace, and one of the other students, Kurt, came up behind me and asked if I needed help.
I told him that I was fine, but he stayed there, watching me like I had been watching the flowering shapes of glass. I looked down at myself, sweating through my t-shirt and shorts, lit by the unnatural red of the furnace fire, and I could see the similarity. It was then that I was grateful to Marsha for her first lesson.
I gave him a look that said buzz off, and he turned around and sulked back to his station.
I watched him go. “Don’t touch,” I muttered to myself, smiling. “You will burn yourself.”Then I went back to pushing and molding the molten glass with my rod, the fire so hot my eyes burned from it.
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.
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.