It is a warm and humid night in summer. There is the sound of dogs barking on the street, the sound of crickets from the brush and cicadas in trees. As fireflies flash like tiny cameras through tall grass along rows of dark cars parked along the curb and half-dressed teenagers stare from the windows of clapboard houses looming like tombstones above, their darkened figures a tribute to the night defined by their beauty. Run away! they call to us. But where would we go? We are all here together – in that we are all made in the same way, and follow the same rules – and there is no space, or time, or place anymore between us.
Shiv’s red pickup truck sits in the empty lot next door, the front-left tire blown out by police during the protest two days before. Mama Yea’s garden grows thick with tomatoes and pole beans and squash in the yard across the street. A feral cat slinks beneath our porch in the shadows to hide from barking dogs, but the wail of coming sirens, those to announce curfew, is shrill and louder still. All of this beneath a bloodshot sky growing dark.
We are at the house of Lea’s father. We are alone here, her father away to the bars downtown. He sits always on the stool third from the left (for good luck, he is a superstitious man) – and he will be for the night.
When we were young summer had the smell of strawberries and meat on grills and fruit-scented sunblock from long days at the lake. Now it is the smell of smoke from endless fires and spoilt milk. We go to sleep at night with twisted faces – red from the heat, blue from suffocation – turned a dark, ugly purple that is unlike any color of the rainbows we used to watch after thunderstorms. We didn’t know then what the future would hold – perhaps it look again as it had in the past? But we know better now. And if there is grass to mow, beaches to swim or games to play today they goes unnoticed.
In the city we grow comfortable with the sound of ambulance, fire truck, and police vehicles of all shapes and sizes. The sirens for curfew are a more recent addition – the result of protests turned violent after dark and the mayor’s desperate attempt to restore and maintain order on the streets. In our neighborhood it is relatively calm, the protests take place closer to the state capitol and the city’s downtown in financial and retail districts. The symbols of government and commerce, the two cultural components that rule our lives with increasingly fascist and hard-fisted mentalities. This is for maximum impact: Residential areas and the homes of people are not considered effective targets, even when there are villains hiding inside.
We think of our childhood as bathed in golden rays, soft and sepia-toned. For those who had a good childhood it holds the key to a happiness they have been unable to find as adults. What we know as children fades into fog. But this is only because we were never allowed to fully explore or explain it: We have been forced to grow old for the sake of a system that cares little for our creativity as humans. For a system that works to control, to limit, and to quash this natural creativity found in humans – the creativity and liberty of thought and freedom of time with which every one of us is born.
If this were the only reason to destroy the system – Lea says – it would be enough. But there are plenty of other reasons as well…
She comes to me shirtless in the heat. Pale light from the lamp in the corner moves with a coruscated glow across her skin. She moves with a certain slowness, she is deliberate in her movements, each step taken with care. She stands before me, one leg crossed over the other, her hands on her hips and her hips cocked to the side. Clothing is optional in summer. In winter we need blankets, coats, scarves and hats to help keep our bodies warm but not now. She sings softly beneath her breath. As she grinds her hips into mine like corn into meal.
Here we’re completely free, she says in my ear. We should enjoy it while it lasts.
Her words are fragile like glass – like they would shatter to pieces if challenged. Like she would prefer to stay silent against the evil and injustice of the world (if only that were an option), and hide beneath the bed reading her books instead. But still – she yells. And she does not stop yelling. She will be heard over the endless noise of the city.
The smell of soft cheese in the air. A bowl of ripe tomatoes growing soft and wrinkled on the table. We look to the street. To the lights of passing cars outside that flash along the walls. The night is mostly quiet, there is a soft rain just starting to fall against the windows. Lea’s back to me now and her arms raised over her head. She dances to the music she plays to drown out the sirens. These damn romantics, she says, and their sentimental songs. Her warm breath and skin so close it is the same as mine. The cat falls asleep beneath the porch. The wooden floor creaks beneath bare feet. The wine we drink is sour. We are alone here but we have the feeling of being watched. We cover the windows with velvet curtains and go inward instead. No more need for the street when we have each other. No more need to reach forward, run away, or disappear into the night. With her – I will remember this. Lea turns and puts her arms on my shoulders, her knees on my lap. We become one, solid, carved and polished like those marble statues of the ancients and realize the night is not dedicated to anything but itself. As tall fires rage only a mile away, smoke billowing into the sky; as the building blocks of the city crumble to dust, and those inevitable sirens cry eternally into the night.
The morning. We look again to the street. The sun is shining but the pavement is still wet from the night. We wake to Lea’s father sleeping on the porch. He looks strangely peaceful – the sun shining across his fingers folded comfortably over his chest, his chest rises and falls, he breathes softly and steadily – so much so that a butterfly and bumblebee pause for a moment to rest on his cheek before fluttering off again. We wake him gently and help him into bed. He hasn’t been sleeping well since the start of the unrest and wanders off occasionally (still asleep) into the night. For this reason we’ve been spending nights in her old bedroom – it helps to keep an eye on things when her father is away.
When we were young we knew her house as the haunted house on the block – not necessarily by ghosts, but by the man who lived there and the daughter he never let outside. He was never seen outside, only glimpses occasionally through the window, and the hulking manor lent itself to the sort of evil aura that manifests itself in our dreams of intrigue and mystique. We would never have gone inside – we would never have disturbed what we assumed was a dark and sinister plot there – but we crept regularly across the lawn to the doors or windows to get a closer look. We snuck into the yard, but only got as far as the large oak tree, ran off, and returned a few hours later to do the same again.
The neighborhood radicals arrive for our weekly meeting. They come with clubs and bats and chains and tell us how committed they are to revolution – we will win! – and how they truly abhor authority.
We do not forgive our kings!
We meet in the woodshed behind the house. Lea lights a candle with a match and it glows against the skin of her face. She smiles and I can see her teeth in the light, all straight except for one crooked between her front tooth and the vampiric canine on the right side. She tells us about the plan – her plan to take back control of society and to help others do the same. She is not one for violence, no – or she would not have been if only things had been different – a she knows now that morality is not passive, that change does not come from waiting, and action, even (or especially) violent action, is the only path forward. Here, in the shed, with the rest of the neighborhood boys in the shadows just waiting to take their clothes off: She smiles at them too because she knows what they want, and she knows the power this gives her over them and their feelings. They pant, sitting upright, pleased as puppies as she compliments them on their commitment to her cause. She knows the world as it stands today must end. That she will be the one to end it is something she has known for as long as she can remember – I remember when I was still a child, she says. Not even ten years old. I looked to the sky. Some see shapes in the clouds, others wonder about the stars and the galaxies beyond. My only thought as I looked up, my arms crossed behind my head, was how I might soon control it.
Control the sky? we ask and she says, Yes, of course – there is nothing greater than the sky, after all.
She says, I thought about people. There are seven billion, eight billion, nine billion people on earth, Why should I not be one with them all? Of what use is success that is not ultimate success? Why would we bother to strive for anything that is not the greatest achievement for which one can strive?
I had no interest in any sort of simple, or contented existence, she says. I would be Queen of the Stars or I would be nothing at all.
And she says this with a sort of conviction too convincing to ignore – you find yourself believing in it just as much as she does, through the excitement and the heat rising at your neck; your heart is beating faster now and you want to reach out and touch her – you want to take part in her boundless energy and too become something greater than yourself, something better than your body and your mind and anything you have said or done – but how could you ever reach her? She is too far above.
And then she smiles – as she knows what you’re thinking – and the heat beneath your collar only grows. And you realize suddenly that you’re no different from the rest of the boys panting and waiting for her next order or rule or whatever command she makes. But you realize too it doesn’t bother you as much as you thought it might, as long as she keeps smiling, and she never takes her light away.
We sit, sweating, ready to destroy the world at her word. As she stands above us prepared to give it. But then her phone rings and it is her father calling to ask if she is staying safe, to ask if everything is okay – honey do you need anything? – because we are only 18-years-old and still in need of guidance, and a safe place every now-and-again. And then the spell is broken, I remember that she is human after-all, that she too has a family that worries, and a home where her warm bed waits, untouched since she moved out only a week ago, and that she was young once, only a child the same as we were.
We are dripping in the shed. The heat trapped by the splintered wood of the walls. And a single window where the red sun shines through in rays so thick we could bite them with our teeth – instead we swat at them with our hands. Water rolls down our foreheads and our backs and drips into the dust on the floor. Lea fans herself with her hand. Oh – she mutters to herself – what a pain it is to only be human.
But, after all, we are only human.
She unbuttons the top of her blouse and runs her hand through her hair. The boys waiting in the back look to each other with wide eyes and then back at her, their tongues lolling from their mouths like fat pink larvae. She kicks the door open with her foot and a quick breeze brings relief for all of us inside. She lets out a sigh, turns, and leaves, swallowed by the sun and the leaves of swaying trees. Because she knows we are only human, and we cannot be more or better as much as we’d like to be. That both her grand plan and our belief in it are something that we have created in our minds – they are not real. There is no such thing as a Queen of the Stars, and she will never control the sky.
This won’t stop us from trying, of course: We have always reached for things we weren’t meant to have, and have often grasped them in the end: The first human to climb a mountain, cross an ocean, discover the atom, fly an airplane, or travel into space must have felt themselves god-like or chosen, but there comes a limit to the abilities of humans; to how far our arms can reach and the things we can achieve, and we have quickly reached it – we will soon be swallowed by the things we have built.
While this might sound cynical to you, dear reader, it isn’t meant to – it is a sober realization, certainly, to learn that we are not nearly as special or as interesting as we think we are, or that we’re the only ones who think we’re special when we do, but it also allows us to explore the things that do make us so. For example: When I bought Lea a gift and brought it to her on her birthday (her birthday is in August, only a few short weeks away) I left it on the porch and I imagined for days afterward how her face might have looked when she opened it. This isn’t something deserving of praise or even unique to humans – we know penguins, apes, and kittens give gifts as well – but an appreciation for the joy of others, and the ability to carry it with us, let it define us for better, is ours.
This is just one thing. But what a thing it is!
And, through this, we might understand it is the most-gentle piece of our nature – not our hubris or violence, or our endless need to be the best or most-powerful (our endless need to dominate) – that gives us the potential for greatness. It is our ability to communicate, to connect, to care and to forgive. Sadly, however, this piece is very often ignored, or worse – ridiculed, diminished, and thus forgotten.
And what will we do with ourselves when the violence ends?
Lea calls me the following day. I am home in my own apartment and she is again at her father’s house. There are dark clouds in the sky that warn us of a coming storm – Lea loves the rain and listens to the thunder from her porch. Are you free? her voice is quiet over the phone as she asks, Can you meet me?
Yes, I say. Of course. Where would you like to meet?
We meet on 7th St. at our usual spot. Her hair hangs down her face in long strands. Her eyes are dark-rimmed and she keeps her face in her palm until I sit down and she slowly looks up at me. She smiles and says hello with a cup of coffee steaming on the table in front of her. Sunlight shines through the window. Her thin fingers absent-mindedly pulling and twisting at the ends of her unwashed hair. She says hello to me and then she sighs, looking around at the other faces at the café.
She turns back to me and says, You know –
There isn’t very much we can do nowadays, she says. You and me, I mean. Or me alone. We need other people for everything. Other people to help. But when you have no energy left to give, no role to play, and nothing left to do, and it feels as though it’d be much easier just to give up…
But I can’t give up, she says. It isn’t an option. Because if I give up, it isn’t only me who suffers – it’s everyone else as well. Everyone who would have benefitted from the accomplishments of my cause.
Tell me – she says – do you really think I can make a difference in this world?
Don’t answer, she says then before I am able to, waving her hand and sighing deeply. Don’t answer.
We finish our coffee in silence with no more need to talk. Then we leave the café and walk through the heat and the dust to her apartment overlooking the river. The walls are made of brick, wood rafters hang exposed from the ceiling. She sits on the bed by the window and I sit beside her. I was never considered beautiful, she says, leaning her head back against the wall. A late-bloomer perhaps, my grandmother used that term late-bloomer for everything. I wasn’t raised in the glow of fashion lights or model dreams or the adoration of my friends and classmates…
And that my physicality would now curry favor with those who might advance my goals is something of a cosmic joke, she says.
She takes off her clothing and she is standing exposed before me. This has been the hardest to overcome – she says – how I look, one way or another. I must be one, or the other, or nothing at all. If I am beautiful, then I am not seen as a threat. Or if I am ugly (I have been), I cannot be content.
Look at me, she says. What do you see?
But we forget these things that make us human – our foul breath in the morning, the insecurities about the way we look, the pain in our bodies and minds that comes with growing older. We forget about the way we connect through our verbal language, through our body language and the way we touch as well. When we forget these things we are no longer human, and we let our bodies become one with the mattress and sheets and the flowered wallpaper around us, no longer caring for the physical nature of existence – we exist here only within ourselves as we become one with the world.
And everyone would simply live as statues, Lea says. Perfect for a picture, admired in stillness, placed on the wall of a museum with the works of old masters without the anxieties or uncertainties of being alive: It is not easier as a woman to be beautiful, but this is a preferred option for those who are.
We could be naked right now, Lea says to me. But the system is keeping us clothed.
Light comes through the window behind us. I listen to her without moving, I am still. Then she touches me again and her energy, the electricity of soft skin spreads from her fingers through mine and through my full body and we become human once more. We come together and she gives me her form – I give her mine – and we are safe. But we know too that it will not last.
Through our hunger for more we become obsessed with the small features of our lives – how many times we had gone swimming at the beach, how many different apartments and homes we had lived in, and with how many different people, how many times we had passed gas or gone to the bathroom, how times have I had sex and how many orgasms – how many times had my toes gotten caught in the sheets as they tensed – and too with how many people. How many times I had sat in the passenger’s seat of a car – whose car was it? – and how many times did you hold my hands over the center console. How many? And then to notice also the crack in the wall, the rip in the wallpaper, the peeling paint of the windowsill, the dust in the corner. This apartment is not unique but I’ve never been here before. Notice the smells coming from the refrigerator, from the trash, from the bathroom, from the cupboard, through the window, from the sky like an angel on high, each one, tell them apart, they are distinct, they each hold their own story. I remember one from that night we stayed in and watched movies on the wall, drank wine, and slept on the floor. I remember one from my grandmother’s kitchen, but this smell now is only a reminder – it does not, cannot, smell the same as it did when I was a child and my grandmother knew the answers to all the secrets of the world. I notice one that one of these smells is unfamiliar, something I have never smelled before, but should I ever smell it again, I know I’ll see your face when I close my eyes. It is your smell now.
Why don’t we move away? Lea asks me. While there is still time? Why don’t we go someplace where love is the only currency, as these sentimental songs float through the air, the smell of perfume comes from the apartment next door, with a small kitchen where we cook our meals together, warm, and humid, as we stand close enough for our hips to touch but not so close as to satisfy our appetites?
But our duality as humans – that we can love as deeply as we do, but also hurt and maim and act as irrationally and uncaringly as we do – is either grounds for our being saved or grounds for our extinction. And (ostensibly, at least) it will lead to one or the other: In these current times it is hard to imagine that the human race is not bound for extinction sooner or later, so preoccupied are we with acrimony and discord; so are we killing the planet almost as quickly as we are killing ourselves; so have we failed to learn from our failures and become wise to those things that would ensure the long and contented survival of the species. We continue to reach forward – discussing the colonization of other planets before saving our own (for example) or building and building and building, driving faster, moving faster toward a future we cannot be certain wants anything to do with us, all-the-while failing to slow down long enough to understand what we are doing to ourselves, to others, and to the space around us – we continue to reach forward and so continue to prove ourselves a failure as stewards of the earth and its most-dominant species.
If God, or any god, were real, they would not be God (or gods) with a sense of humor, no – it would be a god shaking their head in shame and embarrassment then, and how could we not be… But what sins would have been removed when those sins are the very items that continue to prove our humanity? That is – humans are simple, flawed, and barbaric creatures, but completely unable to face or own up or even admit to this fact. That we do not love our neighbors, that we do not empathize with the plight of others, and that our subservience, our obedience, will be the one singular thing (if there is one) that leads to our demise.
As we remember: Violence is of a childish nature. There is no maturity or growth in violence; in fighting with fists or guns or the larger weapons that have wiped entire buildings, entire villages from the face of dry earth. It is stagnant, or flat at best, or regressive even, and brings us back to the beginnings we have fought for millennia to leave behind –
But too must we understand that those who would celebrate death are the most human among us: Humans are the only creatures who celebrate death in this way – death as a result of pride, death as the result of greed, death as the result solely of borders and place. To come to terms with this fact is necessary – we must understand that humans are violent, selfish creatures, yes – and then realize we are capable of rising above this childish, violent nature to grow and be better.
We talk about these things – they are not unknown to us, and they are not mysteries. We see them before us in all that we do. We understand our violence, our brutality, our failings. And still we are unable to change – because we know we are unable to change others – and herein lies the core of the problem: That we would try and change others before trying to change ourselves, that we would assume that the problem lies elsewhere and that there would be any sort of redemption anywhere beyond the self. If there is a sense of control we have, the autonomy we so prize, why would we not extend that to a better-ness that might save us all? Here again do we understand human selfishness.
For example: When we take seconds before others have been allowed to have firsts. Or, in a much larger example: When we ignore the endless problems of the world in favor of our own personalities.
This – so elusive, and so hard to define. And what sort of peace, what sort of calm could come from anything but this sort of immediate and deliberate action – what of the authority that has dominated our lives for as long as any of us or our ancestors can remember, without truly offering the sort of stability, this peace, day-to-day, that would make it worthy of being our authority.
What more could we say than enough! We will abide no longer.
We understand, then, why the artists and the poets and those most aware of inequality have always lived on the fringes of society. To the fringes, then, is where Lea and I will go. Because if we are to stay, such damnable action as this – action in which I become the violent authority I am trying to overthrow by fighting this oppression with violence of my own – will be the only option we have left.
Read this story next: When the World Becomes Water
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