Things fall apart all the time. Things fall apart and are put back together in a different order than how they originally occurred. In Japan they do this with clay pots. They smash the pot on the ground and put it back together with mortar that they call gold flaked and call it art. The result is so ugly you want to take the mismatched vase with its hellish veins and throw it as hard as you can against the wall. Hard enough that your arm aches. Hard enough to destroy. Some things crack open and fall apart and do not come back together again. You can try as hard as you want, but wholeness can never be regained.
Hello. I am writing from inside the year. The year 2023 minus 5 which is 2018. Inside this year I am making a covenant. The way in which covenants are made is this: you sign the dotted line with your eyes closed. And when you open them again you are a far ways away from where you fell asleep. But now you are bound. Your head tilts to the side and the room spins. Each side of you is strapped into the ink on the paper and you can’t tear it, you can’t rip it to shreds. Paper does not break easily like ugly Japanese ceramic. Paper is held together by thousands of little enmeshed pieces of wood all crushed and processed and holding onto each other for dear life. The trees engender themselves. They are a flat line. Paper does not burn.
I am going to live forever once I kill God. I am inside of the California Wildfires. I am making a promise. I am making a covenant. I cannot stop walking. I like to write about the things I understand. I have a nice smile.
Three days ago I got on the bus, a week after the fires spread through Redding, and the whole of California was drenched in ashes.
Twelve days ago the fires started. Twelve, which is a bad number. It is divisible by three, four times. Which makes it sickening, dirty, touching and contaminating. Things go inside of twelve and do not leave. They live there, parasites sucking on her soul. I looked a lot at news reports from my phone, photos that felt lined with tinny metal. Black trees black houses. Horses covered in soot, running wild, dying badly.
Two months ago my Afrikaans roommate with a shaved head told me that if I took mushrooms I would be able to expand my horizons and I would be free and I would be happy. She made them into a tea. I sat on the ground in front of the fridge and saw the image of God and felt rage overcome me.
Two weeks ago, my Boss told me that flesh flies are a type of fly that only the initiated know about. Flesh Flies are flies which are born from the carcass of a dead animal or human being and feast their entire short lives on the dead body’s blood. They live and eat and shit and die death. And from their bellies new maggots are born to repeat the cycle again. Until we kill them all they will feast. They pile up in the hundreds. They line the walls of houses where the dead live. They will be in lamps. In cabinets. Touching everything with their disease. Their stomachs filled with black blood.
Two months ago I was sitting on the sidewalk with my feet in the bike lane crying heaving sobs wondering if I should walk into the center of the road. You have two options in life and one is never enough. You have two options. Just be meat sidewalk meat your head paste that other people have to pick up, or hitch your ride home. Or you can decide not to do anything. Not deciding is still a decision. Live in some sort of gap, some place caught between life and feeling. But you’re still living.
Two months ago no one wanted to hire me. I had another group interview at another donut ice cream coffee shop with free range cruelty free products in the backroom where me and three other girls sat, all of them as young as me. All of us waiting. All of us convinced of the lie that if you are pretty enough if you are nice enough if you are small enough that someone will come and save you, that God will have mercy on you. That you will engender good will into the hearts of those in power they will hold you in their arms and will not want to hurt you. Or maybe that was just me.
Everyone got a donut as a sort of consolation prize after failing the interview from a well meaning Gen-X manager. But me and my untrustworthy face, I was so upset I didn’t take one. I knew they hated me and I didn’t know what I did wrong. I wanted them to love me so I could eat. I was trying to be pretty but I was being very very ugly. I was allergic to donuts anyways.
Staring at the movement of the cars, rattled to the bone by their speed, I kept thinking of stupid girl things and two halves split inside of me. I had no money. I didn’t have enough money for food or rent. I don’t know how to ask for help. I was going to die. Big fat tears. I am never going to be anything. Anything. This world is not happy. I thought of stupid Charlotte from Sex and the City. When she had her miscarriage, and put on her pink tube dress, and watched an Elizabeth Taylor documentary, and how she got up and kept walking even though she was bleeding and miserable and got off her couch and stopped crying and put her makeup on and went to her friend’s baby’s birthday party.
It’s all about the transitive property. If I think of Charlotte and want to die and Charlotte thinks of Liz and wants to die I must think of Liz and want to live, because Liz lived. I thought of Liz Taylor running out into her Beverly Hills driveway to see Montgomery Clift lying there with his teeth poking through his cheek, crying in agony, his head in her lap, his car a wreck of burnt and pretzeled metal all stuck together, red burning, and how she got up and walked to the phone and to the hospital and put her makeup on.
I stomped my feet into the pavement letting my clogs weigh me down. I hitched a ride. One foot in front of the other and see this is how they trick you into it. Signing on the dotted line. I got on the train. I sat watching the horizon line in regret. I’m not Liz Taylor. Gold flows, ugly. In hell everything is made of gold. I thought of wavering back and forth, between walking to the phone and lying on the pavement, a body belonging to someone who looked like me the same black hair and blue eyes in two places at once, torn down the seams. You can break promises all the time if you toe the line. When I was a child I was convinced I was Montgomery Clift reincarnated, because we looked alike and we both were very sick all the time. That’s enough for the type of little girl I was to grip onto. Like Jesus or a Saint like someone watching over, I was convinced Montgomery was watching over me with loving kindness. Someone to rest inside of me. Because we were one. And so I was everywhere. I, crack. You can break promises all the time if you toe the line. This is a lie I have told myself. It is not true.
I looked at the dim little Portland sun straight into it until I had to close my eyes from the heat. White spots danced. I thought, with the muggy air weighing me down. Two Months ago and Two Years ago and Two Years from now I thought and I stopped being person and started flying through the air into possibility. I wanted to start running and I wanted to take all my clothes off until I was just in my underwear, no bra. In my underwear I would walk on the side of the freeway like I used to as a teenager to get places and I would wait until someone pulled over and I would get in their car. And the driver would be ugly, and he would have rotting teeth, and I would still get in. And he would lean his hand over and grip my thigh, and I would pull away, but I would know even then that it was pointless. He would pull me down to the back of his truck. It’s a truck. Yes it would be a truck. And he would hold me down and rape me, and I would lie there looking at the metal paneling. And he would put his hands around my throat and squeeze until I was no longer there. And then my death would mean something and so my life would mean something and I would be okay and everything would be okay for all of us. Because I didn’t make the decision. Someone else was taking care of it for me. I could make a choice to make no choice at all. I could run straight against the power of the human will. Someone would save me. That’s the kind of impulse that Montgomery Clift would understand. But not Liz Taylor.
One month and three and a half weeks ago I got up instead and turned the other way and walked home and called my friend, a friend of a friend of my Afrikaans roommate. She was another pretty girl with a shaved head whose father made one hundred thousand dollars a month but spent it all within three days on strippers and coke. So they never had any food to eat. She was thinking of becoming a stripper at the place her dad went every Friday because his girlfriend who worked there said she was pretty enough to do it and some guys like a shaved head. I told her she would be better off putting a gun in her mouth and pulling the trigger. I didn’t say anything of the sort. We made a deal. We would work crime scene clean up together.
One month and two weeks ago on my first day on the job my boss said to me something like:
This job isn’t for the faint of heart.
Toughest girl I ever met came to work on a house a year back with me. Her first day on the job.
And she got a bunch of pieces of scalp caught up in her hair. Pieces of scalp. This girl. A lot bigger than you, and tough. And she ran away screaming, you know? So just know this isn’t for the faint of heart.
When you shoot yourself in the head with a shotgun pieces of scalp are going to be scattered around the room. She didn’t listen to me when I told her that.
I nodded and smiled benignly. 100 dollars! The implication was that I was small and I was not strong and I was anorexic so I was even smaller than I should be naturally. And One Hundred Dollars. And I was schooled very well as a child and young woman at being agreeable so I could survive because being pretty baby means eating and getting milk. And ten tens all stacked together. And so I was not tough and would not be able to handle having chunks of skull in my hair and he was right probably. Except he wasn’t. Small things survive. Five days of work for each house. That is FIVE hundred dollars. Mice can hide in a quarter inch hole for months at a time. I called my Dad from the bathroom. I was afraid. Rats come and go and worms and sparrows and all of God’s small creatures who must roll into balls to avoid a beating.
You can do it, he said. But I wish he told me to leave and come home. I can’t I said. I’m scared I’ll see the body and throw up in front of them because it’s gross and I’ll be embarrassed which was my biggest fear that day. I didn’t want to look stupid. You can do it, he said. You can do it. I’ve been lying on the ground dragging myself to the kitchen for water I was so sick and he’s told me you can do it. And I guess I could. Because I’m alive. Even when I can’t and I should be in the Emergency Room. My dad is Polish-Jewish-American you understand. So instead of telling me to go home he says you can do it. Giving up is not a Polish Trait. It is not a Jewish trait. It is not an American Trait. I am all three so I need to never give up thrice as hard. If I give up I am worth nothing. I am alive. I hold my breath and my friend with the shaved head shows me the puddle of still red blood that has seeped into the carpet from where he –.
– —— —–. In Morse Code it’s not so bad. Call it a white page. Things like to fall apart.
My Friend showed the blood to me casually. We stepped over the red into the kitchen. I tried not to stare. I smiled benignly. I have a nice smile. Okay I say. Okay. Five hundred dollars so pretty coo pretty aw. I don’t get sick or feel nauseous at all really. I don’t feel anything. Everything comes into very sharp relief as I stare at the red puddle which has not yet turned brown. Violence comes forward and makes the rest of life recede into the background, dull and gray. Like trees out the car window. Everything else blurs past in shades of green until you can’t tell one tree from the next. They mean nothing. But the violence, the blood, the fire leaps forward until it is realer than real. And you are alive and the world exists. Everything narrows down into one point. Vietnam Veterans are able to withstand great pain while watching scenes of violence on TV, they did a study on it even. It’s because they are so real in that moment pain means nothing. According to cognitive science the whole of God’s world coming into focus is equivalent to a shot of Percocet. But cognitive science is trash bullshit cunt. It’s more than a high. I’ve had both. And the fire is more.
My friend with the shaved head said, “He left all the crockpots on.” She had been here for ten minutes already, and working this job for a while. It was a big house. All the floors were covered in carpet. There was a TV. My friend knew a lot more than me. She showed me. In each room the Man started a pot of stew before he died, and left them running. And in another room the same thing. And all the way down to the ground floor. Two bedrooms. The office. The kitchen living room. Eight crockpots maybe. All of them filled with rotting food, still cooking. Waiting for someone to come calling. We stepped over the puddle and moved into the room with the first crock pot, and I think I thought I could do this job forever. But somewhere back inside where thoughts occur without you noticing them. I love to burn! I thought I love to burn. I love it I step atop arrows I hold them in my palms I love it I live for it. I have a great lust for burning things. For living.
A week and a half ago we hunkered down with McDonald’s in rooms full of blood and sat and ate our food. When you’re lifting forty pound dressers and floorboards and scrubbing walls it doesn’t matter where you are if you are in the zenith of violence you will eat your food and be hungry and grateful. Your brain turns off. In red vinyl booths in McDonald’s Costco Taco Bell we sat together me and Boss and girl with shaved head and ate our McDonald’s and laughed, our shoes covered in gore and a life thrown away.
I let a vase fall out of my hands onto the floor I was on the carpet and I felt it bounce without any real force I saw it lie there, unbroken. Like my arms had just stopped working. Like I could not speak. Like I opened my mouth and no words came out, just all silence. All the time. Moving through water I submerged myself in the tub and I fell to the linoleum floor I was in four places all at once and nowhere on God’s green Earth could I speak.
Two months ago while on mushrooms I became convinced I was actually a lizard. That I could pull off my skin and underneath it I would be scaled. That I was a newt. That I had been born a lizard Jesus Messiah who must defeat God in a holy war. But I was hidden in the guise of a human so that God could not kill me before I gathered my army and was ready to take over the entirety of Heaven. I had a layer of human skin over my face like a mask, all over hiding what was me. I was running around our apartment my roommates chasing me screaming at me to put my clothes back on but can you imagine a newt wearing a little sweater? It would look ridiculous! Instead I took a steak knife and started sawing at my thigh because I thought if I could cut off and grow back my leg someone would finally fucking listen to me. Out of my mouth came a wordless scream. No one in the room could hear me. I was Lucifer reborn and with my prideful head I would push back my hair rearing like an unrestrained unridden stallion. Foaming at the mouth. A Horse dying badly, not at all. All of us horses dying badly. Coming down from my high I lay wrangled with no knife wound, a sweater on top and no pants, in a circle of fear that ate itself one limb at a time, the sun came down and possibilities kept presenting themselves to me. Die. Die. Die. Do it. Please. Kill yourself. Don’t be alive. Don’t think that. And my leg would twitch and wish I could cut it off after all. I can’t do anything. Montgomery Clift with his tooth peeking out on that rodeo horse his whole life. Falling off. I can’t get back on. My whole life too our hands holding together. Paying a price. Caught between the knife and the ceiling. I am ground down too deep I am ground down into so much dust beneath the American Dollar’s feet. The only drugs that work I decided were the ones that make your brain go to sleep, dark and dusty, dimming the lights on everything. The ones that make you forget your feet are moving.
Things fall apart. The whole of regret came to me suddenly as we were pulling carpet up. I asked the girl with the shaved head if she ever felt sick from working this job she laughed at me too. She was a tough girl. Not like me.
Instead she turned away from my question and showed me the flesh fly she held in her hand, dead, her glove off. She made jewelry of taxidermied animals and bugs in her spare time. Out of the flesh fly’s dead carcass a maggot was being born.
“Look!” she said to me.
“Look. It’s giving birth!”
With girlish delight she shoved the newborn baby to my face and I watched as it emerged from its dead mother’s stomach, clawing its way out. No hands in sight just a maggot’s sightless eye in this house in this room of this Man.
The baby did not coo. Its face, white and edgeless, curled the maggot into a circle, unrelenting, hiding from my face inside her translucent palm. Like a very tiny moon. Filled with barrenness. I stared instead at the books of Prayer the Man kept on his bookshelf the copies of Joyce Carol Oates novels but it just made me more melancholy. Hate is easy.
Laughing is easy because neither are real feelings.
I was the one who was sick. I was weak, and too girl. I took the Kabbalah even though I wasn’t allowed to read it and I took a copy of We Were the Mulvaneys, and I took the Shabbat candle sticks, and I did not remember the man’s name, but I kept thinking of his journal entries which we sorted through. Half finished songs. He had dreams. He shut himself up in his house after his wife died and ordered bulk groceries and put a crockpot on in every room before he killed himself. He was very angry and his in-laws weren’t friends with him and he had a lot of books and a guitar and he was alive. Once he was alive. Until he made a decision. Until the whole world sank into black and the word possibility ceased to mean anything. What does it feel like? I had almost died a bunch of times. But you never know until you’ve done it. Kept wondering. Under the soles of my black feet were the bodies of hundreds of flies. Crunching.
A soul who had no one to pray for them when they died, no one who remembered if they had lived or died at all. Like they were never even born. Except we knew they were alive, we knew they had been born. We had sorted through their DVD cases and their journals and their clothes and their photo albums and their religious artifacts and their hopes and their dreams and we laughed and we threw it all into the trash because that’s where it goes when you die, usually. Not to family. But in the trash. The collection of a whole life is too much to hand over to the people left behind. And you, are you laughing too? WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?
We squeezed DW40 into the fireplace of the next house to keep the smell out. If you squeeze DW40 it can make a fire really big really fast. The fire sucks in the scent of death, and swallows it up, it sucks it out of the room and all you’re left with is the heat of the fire, the warmth on your skin. Then you can work. Especially when it’s bad. It smelt like a candle being snuffed out. No death in sight. It was cold out. We opened the windows. This man killed himself because he was scared to be a burden on his children because he was old and sick. We pulled up the carpets. I scrubbed for hours. I won’t say. In Morse Code it wasn’t so bad. I was lines of ink traveling sound waves. I had to step out of the room every few minutes then come back because I felt sick inside. We carried out his cases of Star Trek VHS tapes. I love Star Trek. “Do you want anything?” The girl with the shaved head asked. No. Not really. He didn’t want to hurt anybody. He was considerate. He would have been horrified to know we were inconvenienced cleaning up after him. I could tell this about him. He was like my best friend. She would have hated to make anyone sad, to make them take care of her. She would be worried the crime scene cleaners were upset. We threw away his tapes. I didn’t own a VHS player. On the bridge that connects Washington and Oregon my friend blared heavy metal through the speakers and I sat, watching the fog lift off the river, staring still at the horizon line, trying not to touch my hair with my hands. I was dirty all over. It was really, really cold.
In the shower I scrubbed myself clean. Twice. Three times. My roommate screaming at me for using her soap. I scrubbed my hair until it was stringy and dry. I did it again. Four times. Even is good. Even is not corrupted by the specter of defilement. I laid in bed and ghosts began to haunt me.
A week ago I started remembering all the bad things. I would sit and stare at the wall and blast drone music a man’s voice distorted blaring the lyrics I CANT FEEL MY HEART and thinking you are NOT a lizard you dumb fucking CUNT. Like when I was little. I was never little. BUT IT’S BEATING FOR SOMETHING. I don’t feel this love anymore ANYMORE. Like the sound, if the music was loud enough, it could blare out the torture of someone else’s thoughts coming inside of me and pulling at the pink matter of my brain in all directions. The drugs were not helping. Uncertainty became a dirty word. I stopped being person or girl. I stopped thinking human. Lizard peeked through and stabbed at everything with its poison. Like the newt. If you grab one, you die. Their coats covered in a thin membrane of killing. They wriggle out of your hands. My mother never let me buy a newt as a child. I became convinced. I took out the clothes from my dresser and put them back. I screamed out in agony for no reason. Shrieking at three in the morning. I HATE MY ROOMMATES DUMB CUNTS I HATE MY ROOMATES. My roommates hated me but I was the problem because I was going insane and becoming convinced I was not a human being. Nothing meant anything except that the ghosts of the men who killed themselves were haunting me at night I was so afraid to sleep I kept thinking: one of these ghosts will somehow impregnate me with a demon baby as punishment for the sin of my laughing at them. Then I thought of course that can’t happen. Then I thought of course it CAN. Because I had stolen from them. You see it in movies, right? But movies aren’t REAL. Ghosts haunt people who steal from them though. And I was a thief. I had violated their souls that lingered in the things they left behind. So maybe they would violate me. No, they wouldn’t be like that. I needed God to punish me. I walked down the stairs and turned the thermostat lower. It was 50 degrees outside. I turned the thermostat to 49. I was convinced I would wake up with my nose bleeding and it wouldn’t stop and I would hemorrhage out spitting out clots of blood from the inside out. I had wounded. I had become walking wound the one I was inflicting. Torn down the seams. These are the kinds of thoughts even someone like Montgomery Clift wouldn’t understand. These are thoughts not even God understands. Blue eyes watching me, from every room watching me, covered in a membrane of spit, slimy thing. I can’t speak.
A week ago I called my mom and she told me they would want their things to be used but how can you know? I kept calling every twenty minutes for her to reassure me. They would want their things to be used. They won’t haunt you. Every time she promised me I was sure she was lying. What did she know? What did anyone know but me? I was drowning inside of things that did not belong to me. Sweaters I couldn’t touch, Shabbat Candles staring at me. Everything you could wash the blood off but it wouldn’t leave you could feel the person’s presence inside the cloth. I crushed up my Klonopin and snorted it even though that wouldn’t help me get higher any faster. Not water soluble. The act of crushing the drugs and sorting them into lines and bringing your nostril down to the table or bathroom sink is enough to make you feel like you’re normal. Four times only. You are putting things to order. I waited two days between each high so I wouldn’t get dependent on the drugs. I timed it perfectly.
Four months ago I turned twenty one. I sat in my father’s rental car. And once again I began to scream. All over town and time I shrieked and opened my maw wide like a lion’s and nothing came out just noise. I slammed my head over and over again onto the dashboard. I punched the glass windows ineffectually. I scream scream screamed, “I CAN’T DO IT! PEOPLE CAN’T BE SURVIVE THIS IT HURTS TOO BAD I CAN’T DO IT I CAN’T DO IT IT HURTS MAKE IT STOP HURTING DADDY MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP WHY WON’T IT STOP PEOPLE CAN’T FEEL LIKE THIS! IT HURTS! THE WORLD DOESN’T WANT ME! WE’RE NOT MEANT TO FEEL LIKE THIS! HELP ME!” clutching at my chest it felt like I was having a heart attack and the pain was beyond what a person can create it’s all God. He could not help me.
I wanted alcohol drugs I wanted to not hurt it all hurt my heart was trying to escape, my ribs were bending. My father watched me silently. “BE NICE TO ME! BE NICE TO ME!” at the top of my lungs, he reached out for me and I pulled back like a frightened dog screaming still shrieking wordless cries out to nothing slamming my head against the dashboard again to make it STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP. It didn’t stop.
Three days ago I said: I want to come home.
My mom said okay.
I like to be saved I like to sit inside garden walls and pace and place my finger in the hole where the mortar goes, all the gold filigree lingering. So ugly. Ugly filled with hoarder trash all the plants I pull up potatoes I trash them. I take my spade to the ground. I stab. I snort another line of Ativan I lay and do not sleep do not know how to dream except for dreams of walking through the shallow end of some YMCA pool, limbs too heavy.
Three days ago it was three days before Thanksgiving. I had a note on my door from my roommates saying I needed to leave. I don’t blame them. I was the problem. I kept getting too high and crying too loud and hurting myself. I packed a backpack. Toothbrush, Pop-Tarts, phone. I left all my furniture behind. I left all my clothes. I left my bed and my books and I left my whole life behind. I took an uber to the Bus Depot. A 35 year old man almost spit at me when I asked to borrow his phone charger. A frat boy gifted me his power bank right before I boarded my bus. I was gripped with fear that my ex-boyfriend who had told me his grandfather was a Nazi would somehow know where I was and find me. I kept ignoring his calls. He didn’t care enough to even come looking. Everything was going to be okay once I got home.
I got on the bus and plugged my phone in and stared for a while and wondered what the fuck I was going to do for twenty four hours. I took a sleeping pill and laid my head on the glass window but I couldn’t sleep, instead I started playing phone games.
We stopped at a Circle K where I washed my face with a clay mask and didn’t buy any food and got back on the bus with everyone else and the sun was low in the sky and I slept for an hour before I was woken by the smoke. My brain was beginning to say goodbye.
Looking out the windows the green of the trees blurred by and in the distance, suddenly, I could see the rising fire. And the smoke, coming through the bus window, not choking, like a barbeque. All violence came forward and the real world shrunk back. Why today?
Right before you die you think, “Oh God. Now? Why TODAY?” It’s always why today. Why is the fire burning today? Why am I being choked to death NOW? It’s such an inconvenience. Why am I trapped in my car unable to escape today? Tonight? And happening now. Now is the central word of death. It’s not about the past. You have no time to consider the past. It is always now when the world swallows down to a point of black and goes off into the drop all the way down into infinity. On all sides. The fire rising up. The problem is when it’s your choice it’s your choice. It’s a decision. Dying is almost never like that. The fire is burning half of California to the ground.
This was not like that. I did not think I was going to die. I had gone beyond. See, Two months ago I had signed on the dotted line. This was my penance. You say you want to live so prove it to me.
I call my Dad. You’ll be fine. The bus driver says we need to pull off the road. We are close to Sacramento they say. We need to stop at the station and we need to figure out if we can drive down to Los Angeles. The glass of the window is hot. It is night out. The heat from the fire travels through the air to me, both of us touching. The fields are burning. But far away. Not on the freeway. I can’t see them. Our hands to the glass on each side. Me and the fire. I was too tired to be afraid of dying. Just close your eyes. Just close your eyes.
I grew up in a town hunted by fire in a place where we were not wanted much by nature. A place where we had Fire Days. Fire Days meant you didn’t go to school. Like “Snow Days.” You stood in your driveway watching smoke unfurl wearing white construction worker masks, playing in soft gray rain rubbing it between your finger tips. Tossing a ball back and forth. Fire and I were old friends and so fire would not hurt me. Maybe. Maybe I was afraid. Like lots of things, it turns to black time travel days which live nowhere.
A day and a half ago I was in the Sacramento train depot on the phone with my Mom stuttering out tears at three in the morning. Because I hadn’t slept for over two days maybe fifty hours and I could feel the smoke seeping into the air around me. “Mommy… The fire. We can’t get home. I’m tired. I want to sleep.” And the whole depot was filled with noise and chatter and volunteer firefighters getting ready to risk their lives with stories of people burning alive and being trapped in their homes and surrounded by misery I could not imagine a time I had felt worse. Which is silly. I kept talking to one volunteer. He came up two hundred miles to help the relief effort. It seemed odd to me to travel so far to help. I slumped down in my chair, letting the noise wash over me. I had forgotten all about dead people. The volunteer was heading right against human intuition into the basement and down further into the dirt.
The threshold of what kind of agony one can take is stretched thinner and thinner the less sleep you get. Surrounded on all sides I could not get home. No trains were running. No one was coming for six hours, and maybe not then. They didn’t know. We might be here for days. Every ten minutes a man came out in the Greyhound uniform to update us. I, the third thing. Trapped metal, burning. But not me. Not me. I was not worthy. All around me were people who were in more pain, who were suffering worse, and I was complaining because I was what trapped in Sacramento? We had to wait for the next shift of Greyhound workers to come and we had to get back on the bus and we had to keep driving through the wildfires until we reached Union Station or we would be trapped here, in limbo, Sacramento, forever. That was what they decided. We had to make it through to get to the other side. It’s a cliche but it’s true. All cliches are true. Hugging a pillow to my chest I began to rock back and forth. The answer is always to keep walking.
No one was coming. I kept slipping in and out of one second naps. The idea of sleep. My head was exploding. I was small and no one was coming. They called our number 5XJT0. I got up. I could not feel my legs. I kept walking, tripping over my feet. I kept walking. I started and I could not stop. I would keep walking or I would stay here in Sacramento. My brain was very quiet. You just have to get home. If you can get home it will be okay. I had let myself go limp. When you go limp you can fall from great heights and still survive unscathed. You just have to untense your muscles. This way even small things can survive if they want it bad enough. Scrubbing blood is the same way. So is tearing up carpets. So is carrying dressers down flights of stairs. So is a lot of things. You can’t stop. So you go to sleep and you are alive. Only the living sleep. Saving is not a real word. Saving in the dictionary the etymology is all wrong. I just keep walking.
Ten hours ago I got on the bus and I pulled out my phone and put on a dress up game. And I focused on the figure of a blonde Japanese girl with baby doll eyes and a little simpering giggle as I put different clothes on her. Like I was a 5th grader again. I felt very small and it felt good to shrink down into nothing. I put jean shorts on her and dresses and ball gowns. I looked out the window. The sun rose, and I looked back down. I ate a pop tart. My mind was all black. Just dead. I was half gripped by fear and half by uncaring. The fire raged but became a fact. The fire was burning. The sky was burning. Okay. So what? You get used to it. I breathed in deep. I texted my friend Liv. The sun rose higher. I gripped my seat as we drove through rain and all the while ash raining down, mixing to form a sluice of hell. We curved around highway bridges. I am terrified of bridges. We did not crash even when I was sure we would. The rattling of the bus kept me awake indefinitely. I put my head on the glass and suddenly I was sleeping. The fire couldn’t touch me. I was sure. The glass would protect me. I would live forever. Only the LIVING get to SLEEP. I have to prove to God that I want to stay alive so I sleep.
Today I woke up and the sun was burning. The fires had receded. We had made it out and I missed it all. They were only burning in the top half of our country California. My country. We were in the South half now. I was an hour out. I stared at the google maps app. Closer and closer we inched to Los Angeles. Mine mine mine. All those Cows standing by in the fields all the orchards of Orange trees we passed by. They were all mine. Small like they belonged in a playhouse with me, little doll girl. We were a lot taller than the trees. My Dad called me and asked what I wanted to bring to Thanksgiving Dinner. Past the threshold of where you can endure is another place called heaven. The idea of burning alive seemed a far ways away. I felt no real relief that I can remember. The bridge connecting Washington and Oregon was a memory. The carpeted rooms and the work boots and the McDonalds and the sound of shouting. Everything faded back into memory. I began to go even more limp. The smoke from the DW40 made me laugh, sigh. I leaned back further. I would be safe from the ghosts. I would not see a flesh fly again. I had created dents in the bounds of language. I was lying. I looked at my hands, clenching my phone, cracked and bleeding from washing them too often with antibacterial soap. My hands. Me. Too small. The word didn’t mean much. I was in my little hole. I was sleepy. I hadn’t done much, but I had made it out. All on my own. I had proved it. That I deserved to keep living.
I got off the bus, standing patiently, inching forward, finally my feet met solid ground. I started swaying, like I was exiting a boat. Regaining my ground legs. My parents were waiting for me. Their gleaming white and blonde heads were sticking out in the burning unrelenting North Hollywood sun. I wanted to cry again. It was 4pm. We had an hour to get to my Aunt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Okay. Okay. I was home.
We drove for an hour back up through Van Nuys Simi Valley and into Thousand Oaks, where a lot of cops and upper middle class people live in really nice houses. I sat in the front seat of my Dad’s truck. It’s beautiful in Thousand Oaks. Gated away. It’s like the whole of Heaven. We pulled up to the house I had been babysat in as a child. My aunt brushing my babysoft hair. The house where my cousins had shot nerf guns at me. The house where I used to get chocolate all over my face on purpose because it made people laugh. The house where my cousin used to scream out Social Distortion lyrics with dyed black hair, running around his tongue lolling out of his mouth with the joy of living. I did not exist. I was not a real person. The world shifted on the edges. I smiled so wide it began to hurt. I have a nice smile. I like to coo. I am not amphibian because I walk on land.
Today inside the year 2018 and years ago and years since, until the sun sets on the Great American Empire, I proved something. I made a covenant, accidentally. That I must uphold. Because good people do not give up. And good people do not break promises. For some people life isn’t a blessing. It isn’t something that just happens. For some people life is a promise. You wake up in the morning and you recommit yourself all over again to living and not killing yourself. No matter what happens. Knowing you will maybe suffer worse than you could ever hope to imagine. Maybe. Knowing it might never get better. But you have to make a promise. And you can’t break your promises. You can’t leave early. So instead you get up, and you put your makeup on and you walk and you walk and you walk and you are happy because you are alive even if you have to turn your brain off inside and sleep and life is defined solely by suffering and so if you did not suffer you would not be alive. Even if you have to scrub blood so you can eat and even if you have to steal and lie and cheat and whore yourself. And even if you are alive and you die and no one remembers you someone remembers you because you were alive. You existed. And so you keep walking and you pray to God every minute of every day because you are afraid. And you cry at night because the world does not want you but God made the Earth and the Fishies and the light blue Sky and all the people who never call and who you never call and he made you and he made your suffering. So you get up and you keep walking. You made a promise to yourself. So keep it.
Today my Aunt was burning Caramel in the kitchen. My cousins were playing video games in the living room. Underberg bottles littered the table. I put down the sweet potatoes which my Dad didn’t cook right at all. Everyone was happy to see us. My Uncle’s face was red and filled with color, and he was warm, burning hot like coal when I hugged him. He picked me up off the floor. I felt his heat radiate inside the circle of his very large arms. From him to me. His scent, the scent of being alive. He put me back down.
— Jessie Lifton is a writer and college student living in Chicago. She has additional writing on her blog.