May 18, 2019

May 18, 2019


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Black Hole at the Korean Spa

Lexi Cary


If friendship wounds / you have failed / for that is not the

purpose / of this kind of love

Soaking in the warm tub in the Korean spa, I am given over

once again to obsession. This is common with me lately. Running

over facts, trying to construct a version of my pain that makes

sense to me. I’m here with two friends that know you, but don’t

know the rift between us, who understand it even less than I do.

We speak through locked jaws, trying to keep the sheet masks

from slipping off our faces, and watch female shapes of all

stripes getting in and out of the various tubs. We sit and

strategize about when to break for lunch, we discuss our hair

removal routines, we help each other with our towels. Such is

the stuff of friendship, such is the stuff I’ve made myself

alien to in the wake of all this pain. I’m sure you know what I

mean.

When I try to assemble a story out of this broken shape

where our closeness used to be, our “best”-ness, I stretch back

to when we first met. I don’t remember much about being seven

years old aside from clutching at a pencil furiously, trying to

impose control. I remember not eating my lunch and getting in

trouble with my mom about it every day. I remember the two of us

running across the blacktop, boys in hot pursuit. I remember

them liking you more, so much more that one of them tackled you

for a kiss once and ripped your earring out in the process. For

the first time my generalized anger had a direction. At the boy

who hurt my friend, tore her soft ear lobe, and in tearing

sutured tight any space between us as I leapt to your defense,

hating him with my whole heart for you, because that’s what

friends were for.

We got older in lock step. There was nothing we couldn’t

tackle if we were side-by-side. We passed notes, we got good

grades, and even though all the girls were clamoring to be your

best friend, we always had our lockers side by side. We liked

the same boys over and over and yet somehow with our

prepubescent brains as yet still forming, navigated the

competition with utter facility and alliance. We knew how to be

with each other when we were babies. Even when that boy dated us

simultaneously in high school, a hand on each of our legs under

a blanket as we watched a movie, we somehow understood,

wordlessly, that our highest allegiance was to each other. That

our kindness to each other was the most important thing. What

did we know then that we have since forgotten?

The human heart / can expand / or suddenly / without warning /

stand still

They say the brain stops maturing at twenty-six. I don’t

know who says this, and am sure it’s wrong or someone’s

convenient theory to support an agenda. Today it is my

convenient theory for why we’re not speaking. That my brain,

like the universe, had been expanding the whole time we knew

each other. Had considered the mean things you’d say to me or

the ways you’d cut me down as mere stars being born and flaring

out on a great, infinite timeline. But one day the universe saw

the edge of the blackness, the edge being that expanse of one’s

mid-twenties, and ceased its reach. It felt fear for the first

time. It decided bigness was no longer the goal. It turned its

gaze inward and started to take stock of these nebulae,

asteroids, and dying stars. It noticed it stung when a star

flared hard. It took stock.

The Korean spa is one of the world’s perfect equalizers.

Everyone downstairs is naked, and upstairs in the co-ed

lunchroom, we’re all in matching shorts and tops - gym uniforms

(remember rolling the tops of our shorts in gym class?). I and

my two friends sit at a low table, shoveling food into our

mouths with long spoons. I press them unfairly for information

about you, something I can use. And in a message I’m sure is

mistranslated, I learn that you consider me a black hole, and

have been angry about it for some time. You feel your support

goes in, and nothing comes out. I guess my theory of the space

brain isn’t too far off. I find myself crying in the cafeteria,

echoing with Baby Me, perhaps becoming her, as a feeling is too

big for the first time in years to know where to begin with

feeling it.

I’ve been called a black hole before. It mustn’t come as a

shock in this narrative, as even the rhythm of my prose seeks to

pull the reader down into the deep end with me. I’ve been having

a tea party down here for some time. A fish doesn’t know it’s in

water and all that. It has been my life’s mission, though, to

provide a smokescreen in front of the black hole. To overextend

to the point of exhaustion in meeting everyone’s needs,

listening hard, showing up again and again, to the point where

it tires me out and I retreat from the world, only to feel

guilty and come back to do it all over again.

When you and I were teenagers we’d hang on each other’s

words over a landline every night. In college I’d chase you

down, longing to be there when I wasn’t there. When you were

hurting far away, I’d find any way I could to insert myself and

feel as if I was fixing. When you dated the shithead that did

everything wrong, we’d take long drives, we’d parse every part

of it. I wanted to desperately to lift you out, and finally

could when you packed up all your stuff and came to live with me

in the apartment that housed my own crumbling relationship. I

was in no position to save you and thinking of it that way was

where I went wrong in the first place. It took me a minute to

figure out how broken I was and had been, even fooling myself

with that smokescreen.

But something changed when I left the crumbling home. I was

a real wreck for the first time. It was maybe the first time I’d

ever been really honest. I needed a lot from you. But my

conception of friendship includes you needing in kind and taking

from me whatever I have to give you. But it seems what happened

instead was that you waited for me to intuit what you needed

again, as I sat waiting and trusting that you would tell me. An

impasse. Classic irony. Real irony - not the kind we giggled

about that Alanis Morissette mistranslated. And so instead of

closeness - tests, barbs, grudges. I continually made a home of

the nettle field and didn’t understand why it stung.

Until one day I had to stop making that place my home.

Rather than develop an immunity I became poisoned. When I wonder

why I can’t come back to you, I remind myself of the time late

at night, driving, when you told me you felt like a burden to

people. I did everything I could to clear the brush that stood

between you and telling me what was wrong. But instead we fell

continuously and forever into the groove already carved, of me

prostrating myself and you picking me up. If I do not need to be

picked up, or want to prostrate, what can we have? You are angry

at me for not doing more to clear that path. But the covenant of

friendship, of equality, of holding each other rather than

carrying, mandates that I can only clear it halfway. And for the

first time I can see that you have brush to clear on the way

back to me as well. For the stinging. For the waiting. I need to

know you can come to me if I’m going to be there. I need to

believe in that.

The only way / to love / is / to trust

Is there such a thing as friendship if neither party is

broken? What does it look like? Is female friendship born

entirely of overextension of boundaries? As the non-black hole

population of the spa lies taking in the heat, I am sitting in

the bulgama - two-hundred and thirty-one degrees according to

the sign on the door - contemplating these questions. One of my

companions nods towards the group of teen girls next to us lying

on their bellies in a circle, their heads together. A daisy.

“They’re living their best lives,” she says, as one hops up

to step on the other’s back. I, the downer, wonder to myself if

the one on the floor expressed that she needed her back

massaged, or if the standing girl had just assumed it and ran to

help her. I don’t share this with the group. Instead I offer to

massage my friend’s tense shoulders.

Is it a lie / if forever / is only a metaphor / for the time

being

When it hurt me too much to see you, I felt like I was

breaking a promise. When all of the context of our impasse, too

much to fit into this essay, just as the eucalyptus air in the

steam room barely fits in my lungs, became too much for me to

hold in my arms, I decided for the first time to drop it rather

than break myself in the holding. My spa companions are only a

few feet away and yet I can barely make them out through the

steam. Who is to say if you and I aren’t similarly nearby and

yet too far to see.

I don’t know if this ends in you scooting closer on the

wet, hot bench, through the steam, to be examined. I don’t know

if I will see you for the first time, beaded sweat and

eucalyptus on your face that has been wedged up next to mine in

so many pictures. I don’t know if we will see each other as

different people for the first time rather than extensions of

ourselves. I’m told it is natural to lose friends at this point

in life. But you know as well as I that a black hole will have

trouble accepting “natural” for an answer.

In the meantime, I will make do with this dense air, feed

myself with the oxygen around me, and allow my body to purge

itself of poison. This is what it takes to be an adult, this is

what it will take to be seen. No more smokescreens, no more

steam. I have my own promises to keep.

 

Lexi Cary is a bi writer (w/b)itch and musician based in Los Angeles. Her work can be found in Entropy Mag, Horny Poetry Review, Always Crashing, Germinal Mag and others. You can see more of her work at lexicary.com and @_lexicary on Twitter and Instagram.