She looked in the mirror. What was going on? Nothing looked the same. Her eyebrows, her eyelashes, gray, dusty, white, as if covered in flour, her hair, thick locks of gray, dusty, white hair. She took a closer at her mouth. At first it looked like little blisters, but then she realized they were little pockets, of something, something that grew, a larvae, each in their own transparent, amber pockets.
They were growing, fast. Paralyzed she watched as the first one cracked open, and an insect with wings broke free and began to crawl around on her face. She started to scream and opened her eyes.
She was awake.
Earthquake weather, it was her friend on the other end of the phone line, “I’m telling you, this is earthquake weather.” And they exchanged stories from the last earth quake, the Big One—where they’d been, what it felt like—both events having taken place before they became friends, so there was room for a few exaggerations, the relieved mythologization of survivors from a close call. A close call. Not any real danger. But the frightening thought of “what if.” “What if I had been driving on the 10 that day?” when the quake hit and pieces of the road just disappeared, taking a random number of cars and people with it. She looked out the window. A strong wind was blowing.
She had always thought that the still quiet heat of certain eerie days was what people called “earthquake weather,” but there was something comforting about listening to the nervous speculations of her friend that she decided not to contradict her point. Besides, this way she could avoid telling her about that horrible dream, so vivid, it had been so vivid.
As her friend went on about the shifting of the magnetic poles causing a chain reaction, shifting fault lines all across the earth, changing the weather, like the cold winds blowing so hard today across the Los Angeles basin the palm trees were bending, swaying back and forth, dropping their dry leaves into the streets, making people yell to each other, “It’s almost like the east coast!”
But it wasn’t, it was never like the East Coast out here at the very end of the prairie, so far West that if you dropped in the ocean and swam like a dinosaur, you would end up reaching the uninhabited plains of Russia. “Go west, young man,” and she had.
She’d gone as far as she could go. The last desert before the big ocean. It was never like the East Coast, out here, nothing was. She missed that summer in Long Island, missed him. That was a long time ago.
“I’ve got to go,” she stopped her friend mid-sentence. It was rude. She knew. But she couldn’t, she just couldn’t stay on the phone any longer. Maybe it was the wind. Restless. Her friend sounded hurt, but okay, “okay, goodbye.” Hurt.
She knew her friend hated to be alone, “oh, no, I don’t mind being alone,” but she did. “Am I the same?” she wondered. She had always prided herself of not being afraid to be alone, having lived most of life, single, in a big city, a woman, not afraid, unlike her mother, her mother, it seemed to her, was always afraid.
One time, her dad had been gone—on business perhaps—she found, under her mom’s pillow, a hammer. It was such and odd thing, and in her childhood mind, she didn’t know what it was doing there. The hammer belonged in the toolbox. Not under her mom’s pillow.
Later, she realized that this event had been filed under “mother” in her brain, and had added to the shadows and nuances of that painting she eternally was working on in her mind, a shadow behind her mother, a current, an undertow—unpredictable waters, in which her mother was a killer, a woman ready and armed for close combat, ready to gash in the skull of any intruder with the pure ferocity of her fear and anger. Fear so strong it made you ready to kill.
At first, the hammer had made her feel scared. Her mother had looked scared, fragile without the physical presence of a man, nervous, pacing, as if their quiet suburban house could be under attack at any moment. And the hammer had looked small, futile—what if her mother froze from fear, unable to swing her tomahawk forcefully enough to cleave the forehead of the intruder, or what if she missed?
There were a lot of “what ifs” that had kept her sleeping uneasy through her childhood whenever her dad was gone. And as she grew older, she started to resent her mothers fear, resent her vulnerability, resent her total dependence on a man, “my father,” my father, she thought, was not a nice man, not a nice man all the time.
She had seen the push and pull of their need for each other, the punishment of the neediness, the falling apart when one of them changed, even if ever so slightly, a habit, which they had both nursed and grown over the years. Together they were safe if malcontent. And though they both were endlessly irritated and looked down upon the helpless dependency of the other—“why can’t he make his own food?”, “Your mother doesn’t like to drive, period”—neither one tolerated change.
Over the years, she had made it a goal of sorts to never to be afraid, or at least to not show fear. And yet, today, as she sat with her hand still on the receiver after hanging up so abruptly on her very kind and good friend, today, looking out the window on those swaying palm trees and the leaves and the dust flying past, twirling, twirling through the air, stirring up her blood to run a little faster, run a little faster — today she was afraid that thinking about her parents, she envied them. They had each other. All life. They had had each other. They had had her. They had had her and her sister. They had had her and her sister and her brother. They had been a family.
Was that the price? Was that the price she had paid for not being afraid, for not living in constant fear of losing, losing property, losing love, losing herself. “I’m not afraid of you,” she had cried to the darkness. And this was the punishment for her disobedience. Loneliness. Alone, walking the earth, alone.
She had tried a few times, she had tried, but she could never work it out, could never be with someone else without feeling lost, unsure the ground would be able to carry her foot print, a sense of disintegration, as if the planet it self was dissolving, as if all the molecules were expanding, stretching like a net, turning something solid into something transparent, unlikely to hold up the weight of your walk. Yes, whenever in love, or in lust she was be lost. The earth was flat and she was tripping off the edge.
That summer in long Island, it had been the first time she had felt like, finally, she could have it, she could have it all, have it both ways, no fear, all… A laugh, she had to laugh out loud. Yes. All love.
The dream. It had been so vivid. She had to check her face in the bathroom mirror. Nothing. Everything was fine. Everything looked normal. As always. The strong winds were grabbing hold of a tarp on a rooftop across the street, slamming it down, hard. It sounded like a car crash. Across the street, the new owners were adding on their house. She had seen them. A nice looking couple. She was renting. She liked it. She liked her place. Small. But it was her place. And she liked that. Most of the time. Not now, though. Right now she had to get out.
As soon as she got in her car she felt better, much. Driving was calming. Perhaps now was one of those moments, she should really celebrate, be nice to herself. She felt fragile, a little comfort was what she needed. She reached into her glove compartment, and with her eyes still on the road, she felt her way through the piles of meaninglessness, expired proof of insurance, registrations, scissors, (“so you can cut yourself free, if you’re in an accident and the car is on fire and the seatbelt’s stuck”, her mother had said as she insisted on her keeping a pair of scissors in the car), tampons, parking tickets, and finally her hands touched the little metal box, and all was well.
She quickly pulled to the side of the road, got out opened the trunk and in the inside rim of the spare tire found a small key. Back in the car the key opened the lock on the metal box. Once opened, there it was, her last package of cigarettes, with three cigarettes still left. She reached behind her seat, and felt underneath the floor mat in the back. She’d remembered. Matches. They’d survived the last car wash. Thank God, those guys always did a shitty job.
She lit the cigarette, inhaled, put the car in gear and slipped back into traffic. She exhaled. That felt so good. Bold. She felt bold. Time for a little detour. She felt almost giddy now. It was the wind, she thought, “it is toying with all of us.”
Sunlight, sunlight, dripping through the moving leaves, flickers of light and shadow as she drove through her neighborhood. Almost like a dream, almost like falling asleep on the beach, feeling the warmth of the sun, her eyelids closed, firmly, penetrated by the red, and yellow and orange colors of summer and sand, drifting off to sleep, dreaming, images floating through a hot afternoon a long time ago. As a child?
Long Island. The dunes. The sand shutting out any disturbing sounds from other people on the beach, and it had just been the two of them, and the air, so full of tiny, little butterflies White, their wings were white or perhaps it was just the light from the sun, so bright their flapping wings almost vanished, rendered invisible by the summer. Just the two of them, and she…
“I did love him so.”
She inhaled deeply, the smoke filling her lungs with its burning calm. She was not going to cry. She had promised herself to not ever cry again, over him. It was so long ago, her life back on track, working out, now, sort of, maybe not much of a life, but something, better somehow. Too many tears, she had shed too many tears already. And yet, as she hit the brakes hard, surprised by the stop sign she almost did not see, her car came to a sudden stop and she just could not hold it back any longer, the tears, enemies to her will power, came pouring down her cheek in a sobbing stream of betrayal.
It was too late now, too late. It was no use going back to something there never really was, never really was the way she had wanted it to be. Perhaps she had always had too many expectations about love, immature in her hopes and wishes, like a child before Christmas, love as a tree of presents, exciting surprises waiting to be unwrapped. Giving, receiving, devotion, trust. It was all so… Not real. An illusion.
“I had to get away.” And she had. She had got up one morning, and left. Left him. Left him like… The memories were still all muddled. Still after all this time, she couldn’t quite put her finger on a turning point, a specific moment when she had made the decision. It was just that one morning she woke up and couldn’t breathe.
It was early, still dark outside, and like a cat or dog or a bird before an earthquake, she knew her only chance of survival was to get out. She did not wake him up, did not say goodbye, did not leave a note, did not pack a bag. She just left. She left and went as far away as she could, fled as far as she could across the continent until she hit the great ocean. Then she stopped. On the pier. The Santa Monica pier.
She had been standing on the very end of the pier, looking out across the waves and the sun and the sea gulls diving for lost bait from all the people standing with their fishing poles trying to catch what poor little fish were still surviving in the polluted bay. And she had decided to stay. Out of steam, out of land, she had decided to stay.
A confusing town, Los Angeles was, very confusing. With no center, no middle, no heart, spread out like pieces of a puzzle waiting for someone to put it together, it was disorientating and easy to lose your sense of direction. But she had managed. Slowly putting a new life together little by little. And now, her tears drying up, now when she took a deep breath, she had to admit, that everything was fine. She was not afraid anymore. She had a place to live, a car, a job and the weather was always nice. And it was good, it was all good. It was all so…
This morning, this day, it seemed to slip away, not really letting her get a hold, a grip. Maybe it was the dream, still sticky, like the sweet insect saliva spinning unbreakable fine silky fibers for the larvae’s cocoon, securing for thousands of years the survival of the next generation from approaching glaciers and shifting continental plates. Or the wind. But she liked the wind, something fresh, unexpected, bringing a promise of change.
The ocean. Today would be a perfect day to go to the ocean, maybe the pier, look at the waves, and the horizon and the shore line, and the fresh air, take deep breaths of that fresh sea air, and get rid of the cigarette taste in her mouth and her lungs that was already starting to bother her. The ocean could fix that. Going to the ocean would clear her head, give her a chance to start over on this day that kept spinning in her head, unsettled, like a dog doing endless circles before finally lying down.
A dog. She had always wanted a dog. But her life had never been quite settled enough, somewhere in her mind the dog had been the final touch to a picture, a picture of a home and a family, a house, a garden, trees, flower beds, and then the dog, digging, digging up all the bulbs she so carefully had just dug into the ground, making her fly out through the kitchen door, yelling and waving her hands and laughing, laughing at the surprised and guilty, sweet face of her family dog.
A faded picture it was, her and the dog. She did not look at it much when sorting through her mind, and though she was allowed to keep a dog in her apartment she always thought it just would not be right. To keep a dog in an apartment. But somewhere underneath that, she felt, now as she was merging on to the 10 Freeway West, the 10 Freeway to the ocean, underneath it all she could feel this slight tinge of not wanting to let go of the picture. But if she went and got a dog now, it would mean giving up on everything that was supposed to go with the dog – the home, the family, a house, a garden, trees, flower beds, and bulbs of spring flowers boldly planted in the midst of winter from feeling safe and secure, confident in life’s ability and the changing seasons to make plans, have a vision for the following spring.
As she carefully crossed into the fast lane she knew she was not ready. “I’m not ready. I won’t let go. I can’t let go.” It was not fair. Why not me? It just could not be too late. She had never… she could feel it. Feel it in her body as she got closer and closer to the ocean, the bright sunlight sharper and the sky opening up. Missing. Missing her child. She missed her, missed him. She missed that little daughter, little son, that little baby, she had always thought would be somewhere in the house, watching her chase the dog away so he would not dig up the bulbs, a child that she would love and feed, and hold and comfort, and watch, watch grow, and walk and stumble and run, run through the sprinklers on a hot summer day, the dog barking, the mud and the mess, and she could feel the emptiness and longing pressing through her veins, angry, desperate, crying to be let out, to be given, to be. To be. To just be. Life.
And then it hit. The earth shook furiously, a hard punishing jolt. Before she could even think, the freeway lifted itself up, right in front of her, broke in two like a dry twig and opened up an empty abyss that sucked up her car. Falling through nothing but air, so strangely full of white dust, she looked at a world of soundless calm. “I mustn’t be afraid,” she thought. And she was not. Time had stopped ticking. She smiled to herself as she watched the cocoon resting in the palm of her hand crack open and a tiny little butterfly unfolded its wings for the very first time and take flight, disappearing into the burning sun.