Year 1. June.
She stands on top of a pedestrian overpass, leaning dangerously over the railings, letting her hair fall across her face to shield the tears from curious 4AM drunkards.
This city, unlike the other, never sleeps.
Someone calls out with an evident slur, lady, you need some help, but she just backs away in silence, giving him a barely noticeable shake of her head.
Kay, then, he says and grins wildly as his friends apologize profusely, dragging him away by the collar. She says nothing as she watches him take another swig from the green glass bottle, unsure what to do.
In the end, they disappear into an alley.
And then, like any other faintly unsettling moment when things align exactly the way you wanted them to, every last sign of life fades away as she stands there, all alone, on the foot of the ledge with everything from her torso and above hanging over the 20-foot drop, and she watches as her tears fall and disappear—melt, into the darkness of the ground beckoning from below. A paper boat, rocking back and forth.
The railing is scarred from years and years of different generations scoring initials into the wood—traces of unkept promises, of wasted forevers—scratches from zippers and any other points that had run against it, scrapes and peeling from nature’s characteristic wear-and-tear. Her feet twitch uncomfortably in the worn Nikes—the laces are much too tight, the shoes too small.
Once upon a time, they’d told her You’ll grow into them so don’t worry. They’ll be comfortable later, which soon morphed into They’ll stretch out in time and then they’ll feel fine, but neither had really been true. There had only been a flash of a moment when they had fit her snugly. She thinks of the time when they’d said that—the nonchalance, indifference.
You’ll be fine. Whatever.
But it’s not fine, she’d thought. Don’t you see? It’s not comfortable.
What else had they said, had they done?
She doesn’t remember—she doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Here she is now, lightly tapping her right toe cap against the asphalt, her fingernails digging into the railing—the wood just a little soft after being drenched in the rain for half a day. Her nails leave barely discernible crescent-shaped marks behind.
Here she is now, eyes filled with tears and determination as she lowers herself over the railing.
She twists her body to face the other way, closes her eyes, and feels herself let go of the wood.
But there is nowhere left to fall, because this is the safe side. The concrete side. Some time between the drunks and the tapping of her toe cap, she had already climbed over the railing. Some time in that small infinity between event and event, the time between times, she’d been ready. And then she hadn’t. So she’d climbed back.
Because determination is never truly unshakable—just another one in the long list of our very mortal emotions, and she’s just not ready anymore—not really, because there are questions to be asked and answered, things to be seen and things to be sung, smiles to be appreciated, laughter to be returned, hair to be tousled, tears to be flicked away by another’s warmth, and how can anyone be ready when there are just so many things left?
And so the city thrums to her ragged breathing as if to say good, good, good, good, and she begins to make her way back to the one-room apartment where they’re waiting.
She hasn’t yet arrived, though. So she doesn’t know that they’re still shrieking at each other, hurling profanities, ceasefire entirely out of the question. Like a chaotic game of pinball, they pluck random weapons from their separate, seemingly endless arsenals, and hope something hits the mark. Swords are thrown, bows used to slash and parry, shields fired. Nothing makes sense, like a five-year-old’s failure of a tie-dye project, but anyhow it continues.
The promise of violence radiates from the man with gray in his hair. Try me, it seems to say. Try me.
The reek of beer latches onto the room— to every piece of clothing hung to dry, to the sofa-bed, to him, to her. They’ll come to notice its lingering trace for another two days, to the woman’s frustration.
Whatdidyousayyoubitch, his roar echoes into the hallway as the two remain unaware of the door flung wide open. His movements are jerky—lunge, refrain. Lunge, refrain. As if self-control had ever been something he was good at.
YoufuckingbastardI’lldowhatIhaveto—a look of primal fury in her eyes. Her hair, tinged brown, is messy for the first time in a long time. A bruise is starting to form on the lower left side of her jaw. She’ll have to buy more concealer the next day, to paint over it for the following week or so. Bruises would mean too many questions, too many issues.
What do we know now? There is a man. There is a woman. They are fighting—have been, for a while now. There is also a girl. If you naturally assumed she was their child, you would be correct.
She walks past unidentifiable splatter-marks on the pavement, past warped plastic cones that glisten from the rain and streetlights, following the yellow bumpy-tile pathway she’ll come to know in about a year’s time as Tenji blocks. For now, she numbly wonders for the thirtieth time that year what the muddy tiles are for, studying them, trying to find a pattern between the ones with the four-bar tiles and the 6x6 dotted tiles—to no avail. Soon she will forget the thought, as she always does. She’ll come to learn that they were invented by a Japanese man—that they help guide the sight-impaired—but again, this will only be after an entire year, 11:05PM, on another rainy night, mid-July. Until then, the query will wither from importance.
For now, she desperately searches for things to distract herself with—anything to stretch the journey home longer. She tuts at cars as her footsteps echo across the deserted parking lot, at their front tires that skew to the left instead of aligning with the back ones. She almost trips over a loose brick and falls, but catches herself before her face can be acquainted with the floor.
But she’s steadily nearing the apartment complex, as is the way walking works. No amount of prayers will grant you more distance as you make your way towards a certain destination—that is, unless you are on a treadmill.
But on a treadmill she is not, and so she only moves closer. And closer. And closer.
And when, after what seems like a blink of an eye, she reaches the door—still left ajar—she notices a lack of noise that is somehow more unnerving than the expected ruckus.
She tips the door open just a little more, then arms come flying at her, palms outstretched, and they grip painfully at her face—nails digging into damp skin, eyes worried and brimming with unhinged paranoia, a hair’s breadth from splintering, everything balancing carefully on a jagged edge.
She senses the delicacy, the fragility of the situation. Like JENGA, in a way, when everyone knows one of the next two will be the one to knock the tower down, when everyone watches the tower sway—leaning forward in anticipation as they drink in the suspense, as it hovers on the brink of destruction. She knows she needs to be careful in which block to choose next.
And so she clamps down on the bark of surprise and pain as she comes face to face with the woman, as she spots the now prominent splatter of black and blue and purple on the woman’s chin, her fingers still digging into the sides of her face, her expression still one of unchecked paranoia, and gasps I’m fine I’m fine I’m sorry I’m sorry when the woman shrieks where were you.
She looks over the woman’s shoulder but he is not there. She doesn’t know if she should be worried or relieved, but it is what it is, she thinks as she is pushed into the bathroom, the door slammed shut behind her.
Then it’s as if a switch has been flicked, and silence hits again as she stares at the figure standing across the bathroom, face scarlet and blotchy, under eyes dyed purple, her hair a tangled mess, arms hanging awkwardly, shirt stained with who-knows-what.
Her fingers reach forward to touch the girl’s cheek, to wipe the grit and traces of smudged mascara away, but they only meet the flat surface of a bathroom mirror.
Instead of removing them from the surface, she lifts her other hand to imitate the reflection, this time fingers meeting chapped skin.
One more attempt to rub at the grit, this time with a more favorable outcome.
After all the dirt that can be removed without the help of water and soap has been removed, she stares at herself once again, at the darkness under her eyes, the hollowness, the way her tears glisten like shattered glass under the soft, flickering light of the bathroom.
Without looking away, she reaches for the rack, ignoring the dampness of the towel, and wraps her hair in it, securing it at the sides. Then, once again, she stops.
She remains there, staring at the reflection, wondering how she got there and what she was doing and why she was there and if she should be considered more dead than alive. She remains, unmoving, letting her mind drift until impatient pounding begins to sound from the other side of the shut door.
She utters some response that she doesn’t quite process over her shoulder, then turns back—not meeting the reflection’s eyes this time—then bends over, the faucet and steady stream of water now drowning all other noises out. She reaches out for the water, hands cupped.
The towel unravels, her hair falls.