Is this what failure is? Poor little doll-faced Lizzy, she didn’t win the prize! Working on the story for ages, every morning that laptop on top of her lap, eyes squinted, fingers trembling, ‘with passion’, she would say fervently, raising a hand, ‘they are trembling with passion!’; so she would say to Karen, not just anyone: to anyone she was reticent, barely mentioned that story being tip-clip-top-typed away each morning as the sun’s wispy strands of hair would stream through the window and drape gently over her back; though she thought (she knew!) she would win, yet she didn’t mention it, not to anyone but Karen, to whom she would show evidence of her strained nerves and claim, ‘passion!’ But Liz didn’t win, saw the results this morning with a drained pale face then flushed pink one and got up and went to her room; just a contest in the end—but is it failure as well? Is that it then, is that it done? (‘it’ being the attempt, the head-butting, glory-driven, passion-pushed, adrenaline-accompanied attempt of distinguishing oneself permanently and forevermore in the eyes of the world; as quick as possible!; for then the move towards death can continue with ease).
Elizabeth Shoemaker had failed at her writing. No, just at this one story, her mother would say, pushing her hands into Elizabeth’s back, massaging her into silence; and, what a word, ‘failed’! You haven’t failed at anything! You simply…haven’t been successful. Which is failure, one, or Elizabeth in this case, could point out, but didn’t, because her mother clearly thought she had struck on something rather profound, this apparent difference between ‘failing’ and ‘not being successful’, this grey area where one is nothing at all; one is merely seated on children’s plastic chairs, watching parents scurry about with warm words and cups of tea, surrounded by grey walls plastered with cheery posters that read ‘Everyone’s a winner’. A dreadful place to be!—and yet, Elizabeth knew, she was not even there; for she had failed. She had shut her eyes, refused to read the posters, and fallen through the ground into a dim dank hole where most of humanity crouched, pathetically, nibbling at the remains tossed by those on high.
Oh no, this sounded far too dramatic!
1. The girl is lying on her bed, fingers playing absentmindedly with her hair. She rolls a curl around her index and looks at the shiny strands twinkling under the bedpost light. She twists her finger around and lets the hair fall down in a whirl, then curls it up again. Up and down, up and down. Outside, the rain is beating hard on the sidewalks, thick and heavy, water coming down, down, down, flooding the streets and turning everything into a blurry glow.
She looks through the window. Still raining. It’s raining so hard the girl is starting to think it has always been like this, that it has always rained and will always rain, drops on drops on drops, raining and raining until everything is underwater and seaweed grows on rooftops. She pictures her house submerged in water, the family photographs floating like the scattered pieces of a puzzle, the carpets nesting clams and corals, fishes swimming by
2. As photographs float in her mind, she is taken aback by the sight a familiar face, a pair of sad eyes shining through the glass frame. They live in the same house yet she hasn’t seen him in days. She hasn’t properly seen him in years if she is to be honest. They used to be so close. Step-Brothers… always two steps at a time, four legs, four eyes, twenty fingers. Everybody thought they were twins. Then he left, came back, but it was never quite the same. Then he was always too high for her to reach and she did try to talk him out of it, she really did, but he just was not there anymore, there was something missing. Always on something or looking for something: a smoke, a pill, a snort, a hit.
She has to go see him.
3. She knocks on his door. The sound of heavy steps, then he opens. He walks straight to the end of the room and leans against the window.
“What are you are doing?”
The boy rolls his eyes and doesn’t answer, just lifts his hand up and takes a deep, long pull, closing his eyes for a few moments before blowing out the thick, white smoke that is already spreading through the room. He turns back to face the window, taking another pull before muttering something alongside “what do you think I am doing”
“Throw that away- now.” She hisses twisting up her nose in disgust. When the boy moves, it’s only to turn over so he’s facing her. He takes another pull, then another and another.
4. She is leaning against the doorframe, watching him and watching him until she finds herself more weary than irritated.
“Why do you always need to be so out of yourself?” She hears herself ask.
The boy blinks a few times, furrowing his brow in confusion. For a moment, his eyes light up with something uncannily soft and unspoken, blue and clear and hopelessly childish. In a flash, the girl is brought back to a distant summer and she sees a dark haired boy with tear-soaked cheeks looking at her with those same eyes. She suddenly feels like she has to get a hold of this scared little man, hug him and care for him and put him in her pocket to keep him warm and safe and loved and hers forever.
But it’s just a moment, a breath, a blink, and the boy’s eyes are clouded again, murky and distant and red from the smoking.
“Just close the door when you leave” and he takes a rough, hard pull on his blunt as his cheeks hollow, drawing large ponds of shadow on each side of his face. His stomach is drawn in so much his t-shirt’s fabric hangs loose from his torso.
(“holding on for dear life” she thinks, or was it “breathing in for dear life”?)
A tide of sorrow suddenly washes over her, a tide that runs right through her body and leaves her strangely exhausted.
5. The air flowing in the room is frosty and damp but the girl notices with bewilderment it has completely stopped raining. Without the steady thumping of the raindrops, the silence feels thick and pasty, only interrupted by his pulls and blows. It’s as if a bell jar has been placed over the room and no sound can seep in. It feels eerie, almost as if nothing exists outside of the room and him and her are the only human beings left on earth. Outside the window, the darkness is complete and the pale frame of the moon looks like nothing more than a pale frame.
The girl feels a shiver run through her spine and looks up at him through her eyelashes. He’s not facing her anymore and is now leaning against the window. Through the thin fabric of his T-shirt, his shoulder blades stick out, sharp bones that seem about to tear apart that stretched skin. Then the boy takes yet another pull and, all across his back, the fragile frame of his ribcage juts out, drawing hollows of shadow and lines of murky light.
Her heart skips a beat.
6. She stays still, silent, as the boy throws the burning red butt out of the window. She does not utter a word as he fishes in his pockets for some more hash and skins, then grinds it with his right hand, letting the brown powder fall into his left palm. When he has worn down half of it, he sets what is left on the window frame, pours the crumbles on a previously opened paper and starts rolling with the utmost care.
His hands shake a bit, but he manages without wasting a crumble.
When it’s tight enough, he leans forward and licks the final stripe of paper so he can finally roll it all around. He does this with such an intense thoughtfulness, such an intense something that cannot be defined as anything but love, gently closing his eyes and almost kissing the paper through his thick, parted lips, that the gesture almost feels lewd, debauched, lustful. It is wrong.
The boy eagerly slips the blunt in between his lips, lights it up, inhales.
She just stares at his puckered lips taking lingering pulls, his red-rimmed eyes covered by black-rimmed eyelids and his hands are shaking again and she just feels so terribly, terribly desolate she has to look awaty.
She needs to do something.
Silently, she approaches him and feels her hand reaching up and set on his cheek.
Everything is so silent and still it almost feels as if a sudden move or word could shatter everything apart.
She looks at her hand grazing the flimsy skin, at the intricate path of veins just beneath the surface.
She’d like to let her arm fall down, walk away but she just, she just can’t is all.
Everything is still for a few moments, fingers on fabric, eyes on the floor, the red dot of the joint like a star or a wound.
Harsh light on sore eyes cannot hide the grime of this place;
Food-splattered walls, crumbs on the floor,
Finger-smudged windows and matted carpets,
I will call it home for now.
My home lies beneath the earth’s surface,
Void of sunlight and the passage of time,
But no hand of the clock will grant me slumber;
Down here I am always awake.
This home is not mine alone, for there are others
But they do not disturb me, nor I them.
It is only the antics of mice which concerns me;
We are all mice down here anyway.
No comfort do I find in my comrades through,
So I work and I work,
Waiting for the day that I leave this grimy place,
And find a new home for myself.
In my old house in New York, there was a painting one of my parents’ friends had made in our hallway. It was a confusion of greens and blues in thick paint that caused ridges on the canvas, and from my low height, I always thought it was a throbbing tropical jungle, menacing and shut. On the very bottom, there was a squiggly green line, and the day I discovered it, I felt simultaneously chilled and triumphant: a dragon! A small green dragon swimming through the blue at the feet of the great jungle, a guardian or precursor of the terrors within. I thought I was the only one who could see him. One day, we moved house, I began growing, and the painting was eye level. From this new vantage point, I saw that there was no dragon, but rather, a loopy signature hastily scrawled by the artist. And so the painting was hers, and not mine.
When I was in first grade or Kindergarten, I decided I wanted to be a saint. I decided this the same way an ambitious sophomore would decide to go to Harvard: I knew the journey would be tough, but with some hard work and dedication, I also knew I could make it. I had heard enough about saints at church and at my Catholic school to know the basic idea: I had to be “good” to everyone, put myself last, be obsequious. Unfortunately, I also knew the majority of saints were unmarried—priests, or, when female, nuns. But I want to have a family, I would think bitterly. I had always wanted to be a mother, but suddenly my saintly inclinations had excluded me from the role. This conundrum worried me for quite a bit before I decided I would actually rather be a soldier.
- My grandmother tells me I used to be a flirt. She says I flirted with everyone: the coffee baristas, the blueberries I loved to eat, the fish at the aquarium. When I was three, my curls earned me free cinnamon buns. When I was four, my grandmother bought me a kaleidoscope and I discovered my eyes for the first time. When I was five, fire trucks came to my street and I ran after them, the bright reds in my ears. She held my hand, but I let go because I wanted to know where it was going. She says that was when she lost me–I still don’t know what she means.
- My grandmother tells me I flirted with everyone: coffee baristas, blueberries, fish at the aquarium.. I discovered my eyes in the kaleidoscope’s patterns. When I was five, I let go of my grandmother’s hand to chase a fire truck down the street. She says that was when she lost me–I still don’t know what she means.
- My grandmother bought me a kaleidoscope and I discovered my eyes for the first time. She says that was when she lost me–I still don’t know what she means.
- My grandmother bought me a kaleidoscope. In its shimmering facets, I discovered my eyes.