words & images alexandra von arx
I got a postcard today from Bangkok. It wasn’t addressed to me, and the writing on the back was in German. I put it in with the rest of my mail, but when I went to look for it later it had disappeared. I used to believe that things that are lost resurface when you stop looking for them, but the apathy of that idea dried me up inside and so I began searching for a more satisfying false moral.
Last August was the first time I’d seen you since we first met. All the cells in our bodies replace themselves over the course of seven years; every seven years we are physically different people. On that day in August we were both four-sevenths different people. I was afraid that whatever we had found within each other had been sloughed away, without us ever figuring out where or what it had been.
My flight had left from Japan at midnight, and by 6:00 AM there was trouble. The flight was forced to land in Los Angeles. I knew you were still living there with your parents. Did I want you, and then call, or did I call, and then realize I wanted you?
You were in your yard playing with your dog, tossing a tennis ball into the air. The animal leapt after it, and while in midair its hindquarters flailed violently, trying to create something solid out of the air underneath it. When I got out of the cab you ran over to help me with my bags. You were taller, but still not as tall as I. The hair on your arms was thicker. The hair on your head was shorter; its curls had started to relax. Your hands were stronger. You made the kind of jokes I had anticipated. I felt the same nervousness in responding to them. I breathed in the air of Manhattan Beach. I felt the synapses in my brain slow and the coils of my intestines unwind. I exhaled. I followed you into the house.
We had dinner with your family that night. We ate chicken teriyaki while your parents joked about airline food. You talked about your job flipping burgers. Your brother ate with his hands. I took short glances at your ears, your fingers, the collar of your shirt, trying to see through you. You smiled at me.
Later that night you took me to a party in Torrance. On the way we stopped at a 7-Eleven for beer. I ran in while you held our parking spot. I kept glancing back through the storefront making sure you wouldn’t disappear. I hoped you were doing the same for me.
My best friend introduced us at her beach club in New Jersey, when you had come from California to visit her. We were so young back then, although I don’t feel any older now. You were a theater kid then, too, and every word that came out of your mouth had its own argument and counterargument. As you sat beside me on the sand, you talked about postmodernism, the pits inside cherries, and the passive voice. I thought about you more than I thought I should.
We got to the party early. There were nine of us, and we sat on the marble dining table drinking the beer you and I had brought, tossing the empty aluminum cans out the window. Your friends talked about cacti and gold leather jackets. I started watching you. You talked about Woodrow Wilson and graphic T-shirts. We argued about football mascots and cartoons on cereal boxes. Someone broke the handle on the freezer door. Your ex-girlfriend showed up. I began to feel the beer going to my head. Did I want you because I was drinking, or was I drinking because I wanted you? I felt as if I was reaching into an empty box and expecting to pull out the grand prize. But what if the prize was just that?
When I walked into the beach club’s game room after lunch, I found you in there alone, soaking wet. Could you borrow my towel? I gave it to you, watched you toss your hair through it in a giant spiral of yellow and black. You handed it back and looked at me. Outside, the wind was picking up and the sky was growing dark. I walked out onto the deck. You followed me.
I finished my drink and jumped down from the table and approached you slowly as you stood by the bar. Your friends are nice, I said. I leaned in. I brushed my cheek against yours. I heard you catch your breath. Your hand reached down, the tips of your fingers sliding to meet mine. The space between us disappeared.
Thunder crashed above our heads and as our lips came together something arched up through my spine and exploded behind my eyes, and as the rain started to fall I dug my hand into your hair and we didn’t let each other go.
When you and your family left New Jersey, you would send me emails every day. I would print them out and carry them around with me to work, to lunch, in the car. They would be two, sometimes three pages long. At the end of the day I would put the crumpled letters in the bottom drawer of my desk. After about three weeks, you started to forget to write me back. My stomach would twist with disappointment every morning there was no response from you. Gradually, I stopped checking my email. I forgot which drawer I stored your letters in.
For four years, we were silent. We settled back into the rhythms we had briefly burst from. The ripples disappeared almost instantly. The lake was calm, and soon solidified into glass. Did it become glass because I wanted it to be broken, or did I want it broken so I turned it to glass?
I woke up in the backseat of your car. The sun was barely beginning to rise. I was bent vertically at the waist, my legs stretching toward the tin ceiling. You were in the front, slouched in the driver’s seat. Blearily, I reached out and grabbed your hand. Sinking back against the upholstery, I stared out the car window at the trunks of the palm trees across the street. From this angle the trees looked as if they stretched on infinitely.
Your hand was sweaty and it twitched in time with your dreams. I held it tightly, hoping I was protecting you from whatever lay behind your eyelids.
When you began to stir, we drove to Denny’s and slept for a while longer in their parking lot. The smell of meat and grease eventually pulled us from the vice of unconsciousness. As we walked to the entrance I was still wearing my high heels and you had a crescent of drool stretching from the corner of your mouth to your cheekbone. We were seated immediately.
While we waited for our food we watched the Asian father and son in the booth next to us carefully cut their pancakes into squares and build tiny towers out of them. When the food came my toast was burnt. We ate in silence.
We spent the day together walking the Venice Beach boardwalks, pointing out the people who we thought got less than what they deserved. That night, you took me beyond the valley of Los Angeles. We drove up hills and past increasingly extravagant houses. You told me how, down there to the left, there was one mansion that was haunted. A couple kids from your high school, you said, had been chased off the property by purple ghost dogs.
We parked the car in the dead end at the top of the hill. There was a gaudy mess of a mansion to our right, an open plot of land to the left. You led me over the curb and into the middle of the field. We stood on the recently turned earth, abandoned ends of cigarettes and fragments of lighters sticking up from the ground like the desperate fingers of corpses. I walked barefoot. Be carful of snakes, you said.
Los Angles unfolded below us in undulating amber waves. The distortion of its lights from the air pollution made the city ripple in pulsing spirals. We looked down over 12,536,426 people. You held me.
Are we doomed to this? I asked silently. Randomly intercepting each other, like a pair of crossed wires? Transmitting brief bursts of love and sex before righting ourselves, continuing on in our proper directions?
Why can’t you be my proper direction?
You drove me to the airport. I took so long figuring out how to tell you I would miss you that I had said nothing by the time the cop told you that you had to move along. On the plane ride, I wondered when you would start sending me emails, and when they would stop. When the next time my flight would be grounded near you, and if you would ever will yourself to love me again, because it would only be for a second, a moment. Did I love you because I knew we couldn’t last, or did I know we couldn’t last, so I...
I’ve thought about destroying that picture of you and me. The one where we’re walking on the beach in New Jersey. It was taken hours before the kiss. Our arms are around each other, innocently. Our hair is wet: Mine hangs in stringy clumps from my scalp; your curls stick together in soggy bunches. Your lips are pursed in the middle of forming something witty, something so intelligent and articulate that it would feel scripted. My face is frozen in the moment just before a laugh: My lips and forehead are bunched up, ready to spring apart in an expulsion of glee. But at that second I look puzzled, even a little afraid.
We walk confidently away from the ocean. When I look at that picture now, I squint until our faces blur together and all I can see are the streaks of color of our eyes and bathing suits and lips and the waves looming against us in the background.