by Cleo Aukland
In Maine, we look out on two islands. Monroe and Sheep, from left to right, sometimes obscured by fog: Monroe was apparently refuge to a shipwrecked crew in another century, a home for families living from nature, a hub for bootlegging during Prohibition. We look at this island when we’re in Maine, and I think that when I get home I will be moving to Harlem. I visit a friend’s tiny house in Hope, where he has a giant garden and chickens and grows pot. Dad and I climb Ragged Mountain with our small dog, Rigby, who wags his tail ahead of us and doesn’t know how to eat blueberries.
There’s a colorful toy chest that my roommate’s father built acting as our coffee table. Things we have in our apartment at 1792 Amsterdam: two armchairs, breaking and leaking stuffing, a lavender velvet couch, a hotplate. Beds. Things we don’t have: gas.
I have started my first job post-grad: I am an intern at a theatrical management company for the Group Sales department. My coworkers (bosses) are sassy and dramatic, and I can’t say I expected otherwise.
Every morning, I board a spaceship. It barrels through darkness, tunneling past bright planets and arrives at inter-galactic space stations while its passengers sit in silence, nodding to mute music or off against windows. Sometimes performers board, collecting funds from an either willing or blank crowd. I emerge at 42nd Street, finding that I've arrived back on earth because it's more exciting than thinking about being underground.
My roommate has adopted a cat. The ASPCA named her Tracy, which my roommate deemed too "washed-up high school cheerleader," so now she's Willow after the powerhouse witch in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Willow has dark gray fur mixed with light ginger bordering on millennial pink, which my roommate and I find funny. Willow loves to eat, attacking her food in large bites, and leaps for toys. She's scared of sudden noises, and ran under the bed once when I dropped ice cubes in the sink instead of in my glass. Willow is healing my roommate's heart and mind and I love her for it.
I went to get a bacon, egg, and cheese from the bodega yesterday and a group of men dressed all in white watched me cross the street, heads turning in unison. They made me and my light wash shorts feel simultaneously uncomfortable and sort of good, like the consequent bacon, egg, and cheese itself, which was on a completely flattened sesame bagel with strangely dark, fatty bacon.
The pressure in my head is overwhelming. It took me a second to think of an appropriate adjective because words like AWFUL and HORRENDOUS come to mind, but really the French translation of insupportable, which is a word in English, but the French translates roughly to “can’t take it anymore.” That’s where I am. I get lost frequently, staring out my sheer-curtained window, in designs on the subway floor, in the confusing moment a second after I’ve opened a door. I wonder where I’m going. In a local and larger sense. Sometimes I wish I could crack my head like an egg, neatly in two, and see what comes out. Mist? Cement? Stones? Sometimes I think I’d fall out, small and bedraggled and crumpled from being stuck behind, unable to escape. I’d break free, take flight, enjoy sunlight. I wouldn’t be lost, then.
A question for a barista, therapy delayed by three weeks because she broke her foot. New things, good things, new shows, guilt. Lackluster Halloween night with stupendous decor that I erected. Guns and assault and outrage. Too warm. I’m glad October is over.
How many pretentious MFA students does it take to screw in a lightbulb? How about write a book? 6, not including the professor, who isn’t so much a “professor” as he is a “friend”.
Foliage is finally here. It arrived late, like everything else, realizing in a flurry and presenting to a confused, annoyed crowd of people who had been waiting. The months realized they were behind as well, throwing things, haphazard, into a suitcase and lumbered in too fast, one after the other. September, October, November, with naught to distinguish them but writing. The weather was aroused from lazy beach vacations, told to hustle and deliver the cold, and the holidays, with their context and feeling, felt underdressed. Thanksgiving passed without a blip, blinking in 55 degree sun, and passed the baton to Christmas, the neighbor who always knows how to make a splash. And among all of that are the people, buffeted by tides and wings, living blandly and watching all this wash past. And suddenly, a new year.
Australia is flowers: it’s flowers on the sidewalk, blossoming on trees, in pervasive, overwhelming scent. It’s sun, waving leaves and fronds, glistening water. Rodney and Lynette’s house is immediately smaller after 11 years, but it smells the same. We do adult things this time, chatting over aperitifs in the formerly off-limits Cream Room, have formal dinner in the dining room. No running out to the pool, shrieking, no shedding towels on chairs and sprinting barefoot on cool tile. They tell us that tomorrow we’ll see Uncle Isaac and Auntie Susan, who will greet us for the first time at a champagne reception. Susan will wear her pearls, they say, and they will sit in two chairs while people navigate around them. Their house used to have spider webs, boxes, rooms of unfiltered clutter, it used to look haunted, they say. Isaac and Susan own numerous buildings in Sydney, all equally dilapidated and vacant. A newspaper ran a story on them once, digging into the owners, discovering the recluse billionaires letting precious cityscape go to waste. Do I have to bow? My little sister asks. No, says our relative. He considers, then, Sort of.
Sometimes I worry that I’m losing my mind. People say things to me and the words get lost in my head, disintegrating and unstrung, separating down different tunnels, following different signs and synapses, and meet new things and connect. They all arrive back eventually muddled with new meaning, and often it’s funny, some comical malformation of plain English, but it worries me sometimes, makes me wonder whether it’s my hearing (probably not) but it’s it usually the nerves and the chemical reactions themselves, the ones which mottle and distort? It happens when words are on their way out, too, formulated thoughts getting lost on the way, losing formation and mangling vowels so something different appears. That’s scary because then I see the look of concern on people’s faces, the confusion and disconcertion that flickers across for a moment before they adjust their expression, and I don’t like that look, it ostracizes and scares me and makes me feel like I’m unwinding, like my brain is unfurling in shining curls of thought spooling on the ground like someone I heard about in college who cut their stomach open and spilled their guts on the ground while on ecstasy, and I stand and watch it happen but I can’t fix it or do anything because my trains of thought are swirling full tilt to the floor.
It’s bone cold. Dad repeats this while we wait for the fire to come to life after we have arrived home first from Australia. Rigby lies in his bed, chewing half-heartedly on his bone. Dad and I drink tea at the dining room table. Bone cold. My feet haven’t been fully warm in days. I’m home to collect art. When our third roommate moved out of our apartment, she took her hanging pictures with her, leaving gaping holes on our walls.
I spend my days with a golden doodle puppy. Phoebe is my older sister and her husband’s first trial with the very Permanent Life Changes that’ll come later. They give me $25 a day to walk Phoebe, get my hand chewed while we play fetch, and sit on the couch, thinking about writing. I think about how pens rest in my hand, about a blank page. I fit snow booties on Phoebe because of the salt. She lifts her paws high when she wears them, like she forgets how to walk normally. If she doesn’t wear them, she does her business, then sits in the snow, lifts a paw at me, and cries.
I’m in a funk. I hug my new Australia pillow to my chest, pulling sleeves over my hands. I can’t go anywhere without my hat, scarf, gloves. It’s isolating outside, quiet and unwelcome. I forget about offices, business, responsibilities. I sit and wonder, is it all worth it? For what? I sleep with a man with tattoos on his back. We rest for a little, breathing each other in. Then he leaves.
She has cuts on her upper arm going down like lines on paper, short and deep. She used a tissue to blot the blood once, and it left a column of horizontal lines, like testing red pen. She pulls the sleeve down and says she is running out of long-sleeved shirts. And then she reaches under her bed and, holding two bottles of NyQuil, tells me I need to watch her throw them out. They make satisfying clunks on the bed of the garbage can.
I have been putting muscle on my legs. They’re taught and wiry, stacked with strong ropes of cells, toughened by stairs and yoga and a desire to feel better. I spend a lot of time running up the carpeted steps of the St. James Theater, passing booster seats to small children dressed as Elsa.
You know a lot about this already, I think. A memory jog: boots tramping through slushy snow, sometimes holding hands, a snowstorm that ended up being Not A Big Deal. Buns, wrinkled shirts, words that cut. Chicago is cold and gray and has terrible public transportation and who ever thought of making an above ground train in the snow? No thanks.
I tell my mom I feel bad. Maybe I should increase my dose. Or switch to Prozac. She’s not crazy about either of these options. Sometimes anti-depressants don’t really help, she says. They can’t fix everything. I don’t know what to say because she has ended the conversation. I tell her again that I feel bad. Sorry, she says. Maybe go to yoga?
We all hear the birds, but we wait a moment before mentioning it in case we imagined it. We automatically attribute the sound to an unruly computer tab, and when we establish that they were real birds, we’re all happy and quiet for a moment, listening. One girl remarks that it’s the first time she’s ever heard birds in the city. How long have you lived here for? one boy asks. Six years, the girl says.
Green day, St. Patrick’s Day. We play giant Connect Four in the back and the bartender pours green food coloring into pitchers of PBR. A blond lady bagpiper comes in and the first song she plays is Scotland the Brave.
I want to be soft tonight because I’ve been corners all day. Cuts of my shirt, the clear rain jacket that sticks, edges of binder and laminated cards. We sat by the river today, watched buildings fade in the fog, watched water rumble and overlap. Blue eyes that matched the mist, and I wore my knit hat. He took out a binder at one point, and we read the terrible script together in the cloudy air.
I knew a boy college who killed himself. April of his senior year. He’d done LSD or ecstasy a few weeks prior, I think, people said he’d had a bad trip and that he’d had harmful things dwelling in the back of his brain. He’d locked his door and people saw the ambulances outside his dorm, unknowing. Three years ago, can you believe it? I remember, I don’t know, a blank look, naked, hurting, a red room, a real kiss after I read aloud. My roommate makes jokes about suicide and I don’t know how to handle them. They make me uneasy, like she’ll slip away and I can’t do anything. It made me ache — scared — when I watched her throw out the unopened NyQuil bottles. I didn’t know what would happen if she drank them, and she explained it to me. Overwhelm of chemicals, catatonic state. Death. She told me a while after, months even, that she’d never had NyQuil because she never trusted it. Miracle drug. Fix-all. I bring the speaker into the kitchen and listen to “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. It always makes me cry, but it feels good, to stand in the middle of the kitchen and shake, tears falling to the floor, helpless because of things I can’t articulate and because we don’t have milk. I heat up knock-off Bailey’s in a mug I can hold and it stings my eyes whenever I take a sip.
My head feels like metal. It’s heavy and flashes, I wince when I close my eyes and it tastes like sucking on a quarter. I feel vampiric, sensitive to light and sound, floating through the dark apartment, burning toast by mistake. Absolute hell when the fire alarm went off. I diffused peppermint in my room and napped, lulled by heavy rain outside which I partly wanted to be part of, then woken by terrible wordless music, a nightclub’s cousin with poorer taste. At 4 on a Tuesday. My vampire time. How dare they.
The roof is all climates. It’s somehow desperately hot and humid and dry and cloudy and windy all at the same time. Sweat is gone before it has the chance to make itself known, but it leaves me with the heated chill down my back. I have finished a book that I don’t fully understand — maybe that’s the intention, that distance — and I have a jar of lemonade that I made with water and sugar and bottled lemon juice. It is only okay. It’s all gray around here, from bulbous clouds to the silver roof paint the blankets New York City buildings. The roof isn’t finished or even an incredibly nice place to be; my old yoga mat gets marked with smears of black charcoal whenever I’m here, and pigeons that talk to my roommate’s cat four floors below fly here and roost on walls.
How is it that honeysuckle makes me think of you? We never smelled it together, to my knowledge, it never filled my head when we were together. But here you are, unbidden, present in my mind without my say-so, all because of honeysuckle.
I sneeze six times at the 116th Street station. It echoes each time in silence because there are no trains, and no one says anything, so I keep reading my book, held aloft in front of my nose. Also, I have no tissues. A rat. It doesn’t freak me out, not as much as roaches, probably because fur and ears and warm blood. It patters toward me on the platform between pillars, and I move my head: it takes off, careening down the platform to where there’s no exit, and I can hear it scamper off long after I lost sight of it. Long tail, and I wonder how they don’t get run over by trains.
I love this taste in my mouth. It’s burnt and earthy, Supersour it’s called, reminds me of nights passing the joint around between us two, looking at stars and planets and broken glass, vibrating to heavy beats, wooden bench beneath us. It tastes like you, this smoky burn, tastes like your mouth and molars and tongue. It’s dirty but electric, the taste of the fiery end of a blunt. I was on my roof alone when I tasted it today, though, watching watching small bursts of fireworks unfurl around me — mostly I heard the bang before the lights came, but it was panoramic.
I remember Maine for the sea, for the blueberries, for the tall-masted ships that sail through the channel across from our rented yellow cottage. I remember it for the rock beach that my father paces twice daily, searching for special rocks, I remember the fish market that sells craft beer, I remember the hikes and peaks, I remember the pies. Triple berry and strawberry rhubarb. Idyllic. But something’s not letting me enjoy it, something’s keeping me from relaxing fully, from letting my body rest and reset, stopping the healing powers of the salt water and large flat rocks and islands. And I need it, really do, need to breathe in this air that smells like seaweed and pine and remember that things will be okay. Fresh chocolate butter crunch donuts help a little.
I don’t remember the last time I was so thoroughly wet. And wet unintentionally, in the way that you just let wash over you because there’s no stopping it; you just give up and relish the cold and the chill and the spearing drops, much like how I gave up and relished what came next. Rain dripping off our hair, slicking our cheeks, fresh-faced. Eyes on eyes, soft hands and mouth, so, so soft. Forehead to forehead after a moment, making a tiny warm shelter right in the middle of the storm, on the dock that eases from side to side, slippery and dark, and the ocean that’s gray like steel, as opaque and penetrating. And the foggy lights from docks and the big gold one from the Breakwater Lighthouse. It felt pretty damn near perfect, and walking back we have our arms around each other, gripping the backs of soggy rainjackets, watching dock planks slick with rain unfurl ahead of us, feeling warmth from each other.
Cleo Aukland graduated from Colby College in Maine with a BA in French Studies and Creative Writing. Her creative work has been published in Breathe Free Press, Typishly, and the Colby literary magazine and newspaper, and she also writes for various theater-oriented outlets including Playbill. She is based in New York.