Brick, Stone by Anna Li


When the seed of the tumor sprouts, spreading across his body in filigreed roots, my grandpa does not admit that he is dying. Even when the technician pulls up his x-rays and points to his spine, now porous where the cancer has eaten the bone, he denies it. The technician’s finger traces the translucent stream of my grandpa’s spine, which looks like a dried shoreline when the tide has rolled away and worms, somewhere beneath the surface, needle millions of holes into the sand. Both are porous and brittle with something that buries inside it, but one is eaten by worms and the other by cancer.

“It’s grain,” he says. “Grain on the film.”

“Sir.” The technician is gracious, but firm. “The x-ray clearly shows major deterioration in your bones, especially in your spine.”

“I told you, I’ve told you all a hundred times, I pulled my shoulder with the damn lawnmower. Don’t you think there’s any possibility at all that it’s just grain on the film?”

The technician squints his eyes at the x-rays, and then to my family’s bowed heads. “I mean, I guess there’s always a possibility, but it’s highly unlike—”

“But there’s still a chance. And it’s grain.”

+

My grandpa has brown, leather skin. The wrinkles gather on his face like a knot on a tree. Moles pepper his face. Once I told him I wanted to connect all the dots; his usual frown sliced even further into a hard, slivered line, and his chin wrinkled like a walnut shell. The only time he smiles is when he sings “Edelweiss.” He doesn’t know all the words, so he makes them up as he goes along. His quaking bravado and heavy Chinese accent do not stop him from singing the tune with as much gusto his small lungs can muster, the wrinkles of his face broken out in wide crescents. He smells of bamboo and mothballs. But his hands are his most distinctive feature, broad and tough like baseball gloves from constantly working with them.

He gardens. When we make our annual visit to Tennessee, he folds my small hand into his and shows me his garden. The warm air swims with all the suffocating fumes. He points to bushes dripping with purple lilac. My nose clogs with their sweet smell. We look at his goldfish pond and watch their bodies ripple into orange commas beneath the skin of water. Their scales catch the light. He shows me irises, their tongues panting from the heat. He coaxes the jungle from their green cases.

He fixes things. His need to fix moved my grandpa from his shack in China to the United States. Years later, we visit the remains of his house in Shanghai. In the room where he spent hours studying for his exams, there is a desk, cement walls molting the wallpaper in thin, brown peels, and no windows. He roots his family in this hardworking restraint. They never used the heater, not even during winter. When the cold grew bitter, he lined the windows with scraps of Styrofoam and layered in mounds of sweaters. My grandpa is an engineer through and through; if there is a problem, there is a solution. He can fix anything—even, he believes, his own illness. Even when his body shrivels until his legs are temporarily paralyzed, his technical mind dissects possible ways he can fix himself.

At three in the morning a few weeks before Thanksgiving, my grandpa rings the bell. My dad and his family groggily stir and walk to his room. Propped up on pillows, he folds his hands against his stomach.

“This is a family meeting,” he says. “I need you to help me. I am weaker, I know. But I can overcome this. It’s going to take many small steps. It’s going take a lot of effort and help from you all. But I know it can be won.”

 “What small steps?” my dad asks.

“Small exercises. Starting with small, repetitive movements and slowly building my strength again. Like this.” He hinges his arm out and in. His arm is frail and thin, and it quakes from the energy of the small movement. “But,” he continues. “It’s going to take help from all of you. I need you. I am not strong enough to do it on my own, but soon that will change. So let’s start—right now.”

“Are you serious?” my dad says. My grandpa deflates. “We are not exercising now.”

“But—”

“No. It’s three in the morning. We can work on this tomorrow.”

His lip freezes into that thin line of skin.

+

She watches me divide the floor with a wide road of butcher paper. She watches me lie on my stomach with fists of crayons. She watches me scribble fins of bright color on the blank page, but my mom isn’t paying attention.

Still? Not to the doctor—or even you? What about the hospice chaplain that your mom has been talking to? Maybe she has said something—no?” My mom cradles the phone closer to her cheek. The only sound in the kitchen is my hand moving in shapes against the paper. “I love you,” she says to the voice on the other line. The kitchen remains silent. She hangs up.

“Anna,” she says. “Daddy’s going to be gone for another week.”

“Why?” I ask. I read the names of colors printed on my crayons’ waists. Jungle Green.

“Grandpa’s sick, very sick. Daddy needs to be there for a little longer.”

“When will he be back? When Grandpa gets better?”

“I don’t know, ” she says. She watches me read names, silent. Magenta. “Anna, Grandpa might get better.” Cerulean. Indigo. I smear the blue into thin rings. Our kitchen is quiet and still. She takes a deep breath.  “But he might not.”

I look up to her face and see its change. The half-moons beneath her eyes, the creases of her forehead pool with colors so dark, I don’t have names for them.

“Do you understand?”

+

My grandpa has become so frail and in pain, my dad begins carrying him to bed like a toddler. My dad wheels him to the bed, lifts him gently from the chair, stands him up straight, sits him down on his bed, and leans him flat so he can sleep. The whole process takes a total of thirty minutes. He times it. My grandpa is built like a small child whose skin shrinks around its thin skeletal frame.

 “When I heal,” he says to my dad, “that lawnmower will be the first thing to go.”

My dad braces himself. They argue the same topic over and over again. He tries avoiding it but he finds himself tracing the words again, the way the conversation slips naturally into the same loop like a familiar and worn path. “Dad, it’s not the lawnmower that caused this pain. It’s the cancer that’s causing this.”

“No,” my grandpa says. “It’s not cancer. I don’t have cancer.”

“Dad, you have cancer. It’s eating away at your bones and it’s almost in your vital organs. If you don’t do anything about it, you’ll—” he stops. The gravity of the word lodges itself in his throat. “Dad, it’s not the lawnmower,” he says. “It’s a tumor. It’s cancerous. You saw the x-rays. You heard the technician—”

“There’s room for error.”

“No, Dad, there’s no error. You have to see the truth.”

You need to see the truth, Harry. I told you, I pulled a muscle in my shoulder when I was working on the lawnmower. It swelled, the vertebrae inflamed and slowed down movement in my legs. But it will heal. I can fix it.”

“This isn’t a problem you can fix.”

“Wutzen.” When he is angry with my dad, he calls him by his Chinese name. “I know what is wrong with my body. I can fix this—I will. It’s going to take time, but it will get better.”

My dad is quiet. Even when my grandpa is wrong, dead wrong, he never loses an argument. Even the tumor, marbled like a golf ball on the back of his left shoulder, must not exist if he declares it so. But my dad refuses to give in. “But what if it doesn’t?”

My grandpa’s lip presses into a thin line. He closes his eyes and pretends to not hear.

+

The life drains out of him in a steady and slow stream. When the family can’t imagine how he could get any thinner or weaker, he does. No one will talk about it besides my dad. We are a family of brick and stone, always silent and letting the hard edges compact and settle and cement inside our chests. My grandpa, the life peeled away from him in layers like a matryoshka doll until he is the hard center of himself, speaks nothing of his pain.

My dad and my grandpa sit in the waiting room for another appointment. The chairs are rigid plastic, the kind with a thin lip of cushioning on the center of the seat. He says nothing, but my dad can see the pain of his spine lined in my grandpa’s face.

My dad sees a nurse carrying a pillow down the hall. “Would a pillow help?” he asks. My grandpa nods without saying anything.

He approaches the receptionists’ desk, a woman with deep circles around her eyes and frazzled hair wrapped into a taut bun. She picks nervously at her fingernails.

“Can I get a pillow for my dad while we wait? He’s in a lot of pain.”

Her face doesn’t register the question and barely moves when she speaks. “Sorry, sir. We don’t have pillows.”

“I just saw a nurse with one. I know it’s a small favor, but he needs it. He has cancer. The tumors have grown all along his spine and now he can’t sit well because the cancer has eaten most of his back.”

“I told you, we don’t have pillows.”

My dad leans in until he breathes a hot cloud against the glass. His voice begins to shake. “I just need a pillow. One pillow. I know you have them.”

“There’s nothing I can do.” She looks down at her thumb and peels the nail back.

He clenches his fists. “Listen,” he says. “Why does that nurse get a pillow and my dad doesn’t? He’s a patient here. He’s sick, very sick. He doesn’t have much longer. All you have to do is give me a pillow.” My dad raises his voice. He never raises his voice. He pounds a hand against the desk. He never pounds his fists. She looks startled. “You don’t care about my dad. I carry him to bed every night. All I’m asking for is a pillow, one pillow, a stupid, damn pillow.” He hears his voice that is his own, but it doesn’t feel like his. He listens to it ramble heated words to the wide-eyed receptionist, but even with his back turned, he watches my grandpa curved against the rigid chair, still and silent and barely moving.

*

“Why are you fighting so much about this?” the hospital chaplain asks my dad. “Why are you arguing so much about it?”

 “They wouldn’t give him a pillow. It’s a hospital. Wouldn’t they give him one pillow?”

“They’re a receptionist staff. They have no idea where the pillows are. It’s not just that.” Her voice grows a little softer. My dad leans in to hear what she says. “You know your mom has been talking to me about the situation as a whole, not just your dad’s condition. She’s concerned about you, especially with all the arguments you’ve gotten in recently. Says you argue a lot with your dad. Why?”

“Because he won’t admit it,” he says. “It takes us thirty minutes to put him in bed because of his pain. And he still won’t admit it. He needs to admit the truth. He needs to accept that it’s not a pulled muscle or anything he can fix, that it’s something a lot more than that.”

“I understand. I’m asking something else. Why? Why does he have to know the truth?”

My dad stares into the linoleum tiles of the hospital floor. He stares hard and memorizes every cornered edge until he can see the pattern on the back of his eyelids. His mouth opens. “I don’t want him to leave without a chance for us to say all the things we need to.”

+

When we take our yearly trip to Tennessee, some things are different. In the final weeks of school, my mom yanks me out of the classroom. My teacher already has my homework for the next week. I have to learn the colors of the rainbow on my own, roy g biv. My mom buys me a new dress that I hate because it’s black, and I don’t like black, and I tell her this over and over again, but she ignores me and buys it anyway. When we arrive at our grandparents’ house, some things are normal. It smells like dust. I still sleep in my dad’s bed from when he was a kid and try to read the things he carved into the wood with his pocket knife. We catch fireflies outside in old pickle jars and poke holes in the lids for air. But things are strange, too. My grandma has collected more wrinkles than the last time I saw her. These days, the adults bow their heads over the kitchen table, and in the dark, they speak in hushed tones.

The strangest thing is when Grandma pulls us kids into his study, where we’ve never been allowed before. Rows of trinkets line like soldiers in the glass case.

“Pick one of his things out,” she tells us.

I pick out a bull carved from wood. I like his flared nostrils and his head lowered to charge and his hoof tensed back like he’s kicking back dirt. It smells like bamboo and mothballs, familiar somehow. No one explains why we keep his things.

No one explains why Grandma starts crying when I ask if Grandpa will show me the garden. Mom shushes me as an explanation.

One morning, we rise early, I wear the new dress that I hate, and we go to church. But the service is strange, too. We don’t sing songs, and everyone wears the same horrible color. Everyone’s face is folded with sad and dark creases. A large wooden box squats in the center of the stage.

I do not understand. They start to play an old recording of him. He is singing Edelweiss in his broken English. The sound is muffled and quavering, and it’s uncertain if that’s his bravado or just the recording. I look over at my dad. He is crying, crying like a child. His cheeks are silvered and he grips his chin in his hands. I’ve never seen my dad cry. Something in me is embarrassed and shocked to see my dad cry, so I turn away.

We stand. A man tells us all to walk by the casket. When I reach the wooden box, I look inside. There in the box is my grandpa, stale and stiff. He is frowning deeply still, but something about his face looks different. He looks like he is sleeping, but I know it is something deeper than sleep, though I don’t know what.

“Touch his lips,” the man says to me.

I do. My fingers brush against his lips. I jerk back.

His lips are hard and brittle, like touching cold brick. And the knowing tries to break through that thin membrane of understanding, but it cannot. All I grasp is that this is not any color I learned lined in its bright spectrum, this is something far darker and deeper than I can understand. This something that takes the breath out of you, hardens you into a shell, a husk.

After the funeral, they haul a huge green dumpster to the front of the house and begin to throw in piles of his things, including the lawnmower. My grandma wants to strip the house of memories within a week, and then she will leave the house for good. I ask my grandma what will happen to the garden.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m leaving. There’s no one to take care of it.”

I go outside. Some of the irises are already wilting. No one has taken care of them for weeks. They are brown and shriveled tongues. The way they have grown so small and fragile reminds me of Grandpa in the casket. I shiver. This something steals the breath out of you and everything else. I don’t like to think about it too much, because it feels much heavier than I can carry. I take small branches from the old dogwood tree and weave them into a crown. I leave it on the grass as a memorial for all that it could mean and all that I do not understand.

+

Years later, I ask my dad what his last words to his dad were. We sit around a table. It’s Thanksgiving. My dad becomes so quiet that I think he doesn’t hear me, or worse, that he doesn’t want to answer. He sits and stares at the wall for a minute. And then he tells me.

It is the last day of his visit. My uncle agrees to drive him to the airport. My dad wakes up in the early hours of the morning. It’s the part of morning that still feels like night, when few things are awake and everything is dark, silent. In the houses on their street, there are no lights but a few streetlamps with forms quietly turning over in their beds. In the dark of the morning, my dad enters into my grandpa’s room. He sits on his bed, turns on the small lamp on the bedside table. The way the light hits him shows every fault of his body, frail and thin, all lean bones. My grandpa opens his eyes. It’s heartbreaking, my dad says. Someone so stubborn and hardened can become so fragile and small. He looks like a wrinkled infant, helpless and slim against his bedcovers.

My dad has been trying to think of the words to say. He has built sentences of farewells in neat layers in his mind, and then breaks them down, and restructures them again. But they do not fit. He decides not to. He decides to do something else.

In the dim light, my dad leans close to my grandpa, almost as if he is about to whisper something in his ear. He leans over until his face is up against my grandpa’s cheek, leather skin stretched over sharp bone; my dad can see every cliff of his gaunt face.

He kisses his cheek.

My grandpa touches the place where my dad kissed him. The shock ripples across his knotted face. “Why did you do that?”

My dad is quiet. He has not kissed his dad since he was a small child. “I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

My grandpa narrows his eyes. His mouth opens. “What do you mean by that?

The hardest part, my dad tells me, is that he meant it—every word. Grandpa did not have the slightest sense of what my dad was trying to say. As my dad walked out of the dark room, my grandpa a sliver of bone against the pillow, it was then he realized what my grandpa would never know—that this was something beyond denial or pride or stubbornness. It was belief. Even as his small bones break down and the cancer burrows further and further into the bone, he does not know that he is dying.

“What did you say after that?” I ask him. I can see him leaning out of the doorframe with my grandpa watching, his eyes half-closed.

My dad gets glassy-eyed, looks at me, but doesn’t see me. Sees beyond my forehead, beyond the walls of our house, some distant void far back. “Nothing,” he says. “I got on the plane and left. He died ten days later.” He keeps looking past me, back and back again, and I see it too, past the brown garden with the dried irises, past the lips brittle and hard, and into the window seat. My dad looks out this window from the aerial view of the airplane, where the ground clips and the waist of the horizon flattens into veins of highway, spines of neighborhoods. There, circumferenced by dark houses like graves, one house sits with its bedroom light still on. A triangle from its light makes it look like the core of the earth is wedged with a thin, yellow sail. My grandpa still sits there, frozen, unmoving. What did he mean by that?

L by Anna Li

Oak Park

The L is full of eyes that look away. Eyes that refuse to meet each other, staring down into books or screens or the faded advertisements in their frames. Eyes that seem magnetically repulsed by one another. I stand with my hand wrapped around the rail and turn my eyes out the window. Frost gathers at its edges. The L pulls away from the platform.

The clear sun filters through the windows and casts rectangles of light onto the floor, which is concrete and stained with footprints or salt carried from shoes. This car smells like my sister does after smoking a cigarette, when the scent hits me in waves; I won’t notice until she makes a small movement, and I catch the faintest edge of it, sharp and musky. People sit with at least one seat between each another, hiding their hands in pockets or between knees for warmth.

Today, I rose while it was still dark, took the train to Oak Park, and waited at the platform for the L. I am taking the green line to the shore. The decision has already been made, though I don’t know where the compulsion came from. It might have been the last time I took the green line, when a friend and I accidentally got lost in the city. She looked out the window of the L, then turned to me and said that she could never live here because it was too landlocked.

“You don’t live by the sea,” I told her.

“It’s not that,” she said. “It’s comforting to have the option. That in Virginia, I can drive to the coast in a day if I need to.”

“There’s Lake Michigan.”

“Lakes are landlocked,” she’d said. “Lakes end. Oceans don’t.”

I stand and feel the ground move underneath me though I make no movement, the way it does my feet are in an ocean. I never told her that I catch my breath sometimes when the sun glints off a passing train like fish scales. Outside, telephone wires undulate like waves beside our window. Islands of platforms and rooftops rise to meet us. Apartment windows stare back at us, wide-eyed. In one, I can see the distant shadows of a living room—a plant leaning out of a windowsill, a red chair beneath a standing lamp. It’s one of the reasons tenants in 1892 objected to elevated tracks laid outside their rooms in long, iron beams: they had to pull their shades down for privacy. Yet neither this negative nor the others—the sounds of the train going by, the smoke from burning coals—could deny the convenience of its speed, traversing thirty-four blocks in the span of ten minutes. Since 1892, the tenants have pulled down their blinds and lived their invisible existence.

The L gives a false sense of panorama. From the elevated tracks, we see only the tops of trees and houses swim past us; beneath, neighborhoods move in secret. Feet make their paths along cracked sidewalks, hidden from our sight.

It reminds me of the lake where my family and I would swim. My sister and I would watch the boats carve wide arcs into the water. We would find smooth stones and cast them across the lake’s skin as far as we could.

My sister and I were floating in the lake. The sun made spokes of rays that disappeared into the dim water. I could see the farthest shape of a branch, right below my feet.

“You know there’s a city beneath us,” she said.

“Really.”

“Yeah, a town that was flooded. There’s stories about fishermen who find birdhouses or mailboxes with letters still inside them. Scuba divers come here.” I notice that ramps the boats use to launch are roads that dip below the water and come up on the other side of the lake. They lead to the aquatic town. I imagined scuba divers who weave in and out of open windows of houses, covered in brown moss.

I look at the aquarium of scenery outside. Streetlamps crane their necks above the horizon line. Trees stretch their bare arms to be seen. Beneath us, people live their private lives. The train moves over a man walking his dog, a woman taking drags of her cigarette in between pauses of her phone call. We remain unaware.

 

Kedzie

Pipes rise from rooftops. People rise from benches to board the train. They both gasp out steam from their throats, and the sun makes their breath thick. Seat by seat, the commuters fill the space until everyone sits hip to hip. They spill into the aisles and hold onto the railings.

In the distance, the skyline rises. The city is loud and sprawling, but from here it appears patient; it sleeps on the edge of the train tracks as a blue revelation. No eyes look up. They are familiar with each curve in the track.

The green line is shaped like an L itself, a capillary that moves toward Lake Michigan from the west, and then curves parallel to the shore when it reaches Chicago. It weaves two of the oldest branches, Englewood-Jackson Park and Lake, into a single route. Competing railroads claimed their parts of the city and built webs of train tracks over buildings, which tangled over one another. It was not until CTA bought the private lines in 1947 and united them, each private line becoming what we know today as the pink, brown, green, blue, and red lines. The CTA continued branching into the suburbs until the L had a structure that looked like a vessels that led into the heart of the city. I always thought the metro maps were so beautiful, the way they wind over each other as colored capillaries.

The L is cardiovascular, pumping trains through vessels that carry them in to the heart of Chicago and back out again. While the city maintains a highly segregated social geography, the neighborhoods divided by skin tones into neat blocks, the veins of the L cross through boundaries regardless. The capillaries collect the different parts of the city into one body. Yet it is more than simple anatomy. Wheels grate against the spine of tracks in a metallic pulse. It’s the same pulse that rose from the cracks in sidewalks to forge urban blues, the pulse that drove hands to rebuilt the city from its ashes after the Great Fire of 1871. The pulse of the city is driven by the same material that the people are made of, which is grit.

It’s precisely this grit of routine that makes Chicago known as a “city of travelers." A woman closes her eyes and leans her cheek against a window. She turns her neck, and I can see two small stars tattooed on her throat. A man with a hooked nose and thin hair stares into a laptop. Pockmarks shaped like sunflowers bloom across his cheek. A girl my age pulls a cell phone close to her ear. She grimaces, showing the gap in her teeth. They are familiar with the movements of the L, the coils of road that cut through the city, then out to the streets. They find themselves sleepwalking through their glass doors and pressing elevator buttons and carried up to cubicles, and then at the end of the day, do it in reverse. The city’s pulse has become involuntary. The path has become second nature, waking suddenly and finding yourself there without even realizing. The body goes forward.

 

Ashland

The train’s steel tracks braid over one another. In the distance, the headlights of another train approach ours. It is so close, I could reach out my arm and touch it. I can see the other side of the tracks paneled through the open gaps of cars, the people waiting on the distant platform. It’s like flashes of dreams on the other side of closed eyelids. If I look back, the train appears as one unending, oblong movement snaking toward and then away from us.

In the back, people speak to themselves. A boy with the hood pulled over his head sometimes breaks into a single line of a song. “I can tell,” he sings under his breath and stops. Across from me, a woman sits twisting her coffee cup in her hands and whispering to herself as if in prayer. She is practicing a speech, because she mouths the words to an invisible lip reader and stops, then restarts it over again. I wonder who and where she will say this. “It’s not going to work,” she will tell him tonight with a certain tone. He’ll carry his head in his hands and never know this is the hundredth time she’s said it today, meditating on it like a mantra. Others—most—choose silence. Headphones deafen ears and heads bob to the tempo of their individual rhythms. From the back of the car, someone is humming.

This space is transient; everyone and everything is in transition, waiting for the next movement. It brings people in and away like tides or breath. It encourages anonymity. Nameless faces oscillate in and out of vessels all over the city. The person sitting next to you could be a cashier or a successful entrepreneur or an artist or someone who lives a street down from you. This liminal space is a microcosm of the city with whom we coexist together and share in the communion of patience, the silence of strangers. We wait for our stops and hold our breath. And then we change, and everything around us changes, and everything the same but different all at once. The L only offers the immediate; all we have is the present. We are like the slots of platform that pass through on the other side or the gestures of shapes through an apartment window—we can only make out the bare edges of one another. We are tourists to other people’s lives, the way they flit through our vision as a passing dream.

A boy with his hood up stares into his tennis shoes. He looks up, catches me staring at him. His eyes narrow a little in a way that asks, “Do I know you from somewhere?” I’ve forgotten that staring is not behavior of someone who belongs to the city’s pulse.

City is still a word that I have not earned. I’m from a small town vined with kudzu, where we always carry the sun on our shoulders. When we were little, my dad taught us how to read our slanted shadows like sundials and the constellations of stars. I saw my first city when I was ten. We drove to my aunt’s apartment surrounded by marble buildings that looked like mausoleums. I couldn’t sleep because the city was too bright. Street lamps and porch lamps turned the sky the color of embers. In city, night and day is flipped. During the day, the tall buildings make streets dark with shadows. During the night, the people sleep under skies blind of moon and stars.

 

Clark/Lake

Parts of the L also remain obscured. In the 1930s, the CTA added branches of tunnels that carried commuters beneath the city. The green line runs over these, but connects to them with a winding concrete staircase. Months ago, my friends and I took this train and got off this stop. We had spent too much time looking at images of a train photographer who spent his days with his face darkened with soot and a Polaroid camera in his hand. We transferred to the blue line, where it carried us away from the lake and away from the suburbs. We walked down the stairs to the blue Clark/Lake station, and in the hallways, men were playing drums on worn buckets in sync with the percussion of the train. We were static with energy and rode the train, pitying the dull expressions of the commuters on the way to work. They were routine, but we were breaking routine. If we could not be cogs operating within the city’s machinery, we would be loose wheels roaming free of any mechanic body. We spent the day getting lost in the basements of secondhand bookstores. We looked at murals painted on walls--one, a boy drifting off to space. Another, colors tiled like scales. At the end of the day, we returned to the station. The men were using the same plastic buckets to paint the walls of the metro. The paint fumes filled the space. “It’s like getting paid to get high,” one worker said.

We were silent the whole way back. The tunnel made it all so deafening. The steel grated against steel in a scream. Air moved all over us in a chord that sounded like a metallic ocean. It turned everyone into lip-readers, and they mouthed words to each other until they gave up. It made the kind of silence you were secretly thankful for, the kind that eases you from the burden of choosing it. You’ve run out of the same shallow questions and are too bored to listen to the dull answers.

The tunnels were dark, and the train moved fast over the spine of tracks. We looked out, and we could see the retina of darkness looking back at us, the lights moving past in segmented beams. It smelled like rust or blood. We were gridded into the structure; we were not free. Even the photographer was only as liberated as steel would let him. We were locked like the commuters. We return to the beds that we woke in.

 

Randolph/Wabash

The train slows into the station and the crowd stands to leave the train. There is still the woman with her star tattoos exposed, leaning into the wall with her eyes closed. I get off the train and walk down the stairs. I can hear the girl whispering her speech behind me. I look back up through the slots of tracks. The buildings are no longer patient in the distance. The pulse is no longer steel grating against steel, but a new rhythm: elevators that move up and down buildings, cars that crawl along roads, heels that meet sidewalk. I am no longer a part of the aerial view, but I join the fleet that lives in secret, obscured from its gaze. I follow the direction of the shore.

I remember when I first saw Chicago. It was from a distant view of an airplane. It was a cloudy day, and the lake was covered with fog. I couldn’t tell where the sky ended or where the lake began. There was no intersection; the horizon was one seamless veil. Buildings rose from the shore. It looked like the city sleeps on the edge of the world.

I walk out of the station. I know I will follow this road until I run out of pavement, until the road disappears into the water. When the blocked spaces of buildings open up and there are only the waves fanning onto the shore. The tide will have drawn back and made small pools of ice into the sand. My boots will make cracks in the ice like lace, and I will collect pieces of ice like smooth stones. The tide shapes and re-shapes small dunes of sand so they bow toward the lake. This is no ocean. But I know that the lake flows into the rivers that move beneath tracks, and that rivers branched like vessels eventually carry themselves into the body of the sea, carries us out to a sky wild with eyes of stars. In the same way, at the end of the day, I will board the train again. I will be carried through the roots of buildings, past throats of streetlamps, back to where I began. This is the pulse: we go in and move away. We rescind, and we move forward. We go out, and we return.

excerpt from longer fictional piece: Fever Dream by Anna Li

Olivia has the kind of long legs that get her into trouble. Legs lithe and thin, the kind that catch looks or narrow eyes when she walks down the hallways in skirts too-short for the dress code. Legs that can’t sit still no matter what, but always kick and bend and cross and uncross themselves beneath her desk. Legs that spend every night leaning out of her bedroom window, twisting around the oak in her backyard, and running in a silent sprint across the lawn.

Now, with the way her leg works into a rhythm I can’t hear, I can tell the itch is acting up. She sits with one knee folded in and one leg stamping against the dashboard, moving her foot to an unkempt beat that clashes against the low rumbling engine.

“Braden chose her,” she says. “Screw him.”

I nod. I should remind Olivia that he already chose her, because they have been dating for a year and a half, and that Olivia was wrong in the first place to try to intervene. But we both know the reason Olivia keeps me around is because I know how to keep quiet. She wants to get what she wants and not be told no.

“What’d he say?” I ask.

“Said he couldn’t do it anymore. Said it isn’t fair to her.” She arcs her back against the passenger seat and brings her palms to her eyes. “He should’ve thought of that before fucking me.” I sit and watch the traffic light flick from red to green. No cars go by. She leans her neck against the window. Her thin shoulders heave with the movement, but she makes no noise. I am the only person Olivia cries in front of, and even then, she hides her face so I can’t see.

She lifts her head. She rubs her cheek with the back of her wrist and straightens her back.

“Drive,” she says.

“Where?”

“Don’t care.” She kicks her legs against the dashboard. “Go.”

I press the pedal and we drive into the hot night.

+

When we drive, her feet start pumping to the rhythm again. It starts spreading. Her fingers scratch at the glass, then fiddle with the knobs on my stereo. We both had the itch and that’s how we knew something was going to happen. It’s an omen that starts with a sharp pinprick at the back of the spine, settling just underneath the skin and spreading outward across the shoulder blades like a sunburn. Summertime aggravates it. The heat makes the air solid and breath slow from lungs. Insect wings ache out the same mad, metallic note. The humidity presses on all sides of the town until it pinches like a pair of shoes too-tight.

It’s the kind of syndrome that apparently everyone else is immune to. The people here are contently sedated with having more anonymous strip malls than trees. Kids lurk under the fluorescent glow of the drive-in diner as their own parents did, spiking their limeades with vodka and leaning drunken secrets into each others ears, and they do this for years until their hairlines recede, until they have their own kids who pick up where they left off. Suburbs grow like tumors, budding more cul-de-sacs clotted with brick-and-white houses. The town of Macon is safe in its cycles, and that’s what people love about it, their children and their children’s children linked in a chain of suburban reincarnation. But I have lived here my whole life, and these are the parts that drive me mad. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve laid awake at night with the cicadas drilling their same sharp note into the marrows of my bones until I think they’ll splinter. I can’t sleep because my brain swims with the multiplication of things—identical houses, cloned faces, and the fecundity of the mad, ripe world until the claustrophobia knocks the breath out of me.

Before Olivia, I told no one about the sleepless nights, but they all seemed to know in an unspoken way that makes their eyes glaze over me as if I am made of air. My mom avoids looking me in the eye too, but we both know it is because I have eyes like his, so dark that you can hardly see the pupils. She does not ask about the circles under my eyes, the color of bruises. I do not tell anyone about the trances. How some mornings I find myself awake when it is still dark out, pacing the labyrinth of sidewalks and counting the shapes of leaves printed into the cement. I drive roads, the same ones over and over again in a ceaseless mantra. I could map out the constellation of roads on the back of my hand, eyes-closed. I sit on rooftops and let the salt rise from my skin in beads. It started a few years ago, at the first and last party I went to. One moment I was sitting on a couch that wreaked of cigarettes and watching the blue light wash over people roving in one fluid motion, hip to hip, and the next I found myself moving out past the dancers, through the door, down sidewalks, and into my room because the sight of it was somehow too sad to bear. The way they were dancing pressed a weight into my chest like someone sitting on my ribs. They drifted like sleepwalkers, trying so hard to forget themselves and be anyone but their own skins.

Olivia is the only person who knows about the insomnia and the trances; we have the same restless itch, and it is the only thing we have in common. What she does not know is that I would give it up if I could. The feeling of not knowing if I’m awake or if I ever slept, the faces who look past me with an expression of vague recollection, like trying to remember a dream—I would give it up in a heartbeat.

We turn into the lot of the convenience store. It’s almost empty except for three cars that rise like dark islands. Moths twist underneath the streetlights. Olivia strides through the doors and the necks crane in her direction. I’m used to it by now, not like the day that she first showed up at our high school last year. She drifted the hallways with the certain kind of gait that knew you were watching. Skin tan and peeling because, rumors went, she’d just moved from California. The confidence with which she tapped Braden Colby’s left shoulder in front of his blonde girlfriend and asked if he would give her a ride home, and he surprised everyone including himself by saying yes. That was the Olivia they knew. Even after they stopped whispering her name from locker to locker, the whole school watched her from their peripherals. I knew Olivia as the girl who moved next door. Our windows face one another. Every night, I’d hear the same dull thud and look up from my desk to see her, back turned, legs sprinting across the lawn as fast as they could move. I never told a soul.

One night on the brink of summer, a rock hits my window. I look out. Olivia leans against the house with one leg propped against the wall. She waves me down. The itch is starting to get at me. I find myself with fingers gripped around the trellis, landing on the ground and pumping my legs fast against the lawn.

We loop our limbs over the cast-iron fence and break into the neighborhood pool. Olivia passes a case of beer through its bars. She opens a bottle and takes a swig. “My older brother. It’s the only thing he’s good for.” She hands it to me. I take a few sips. It simmers and the blush spreads from my stomach outward in a warm glow, the way birthday candles feel under your chin when you’re about to make a wish.

We put our feet into the pool. The color of the water tints our skin green. She tells me how in California, you can drive from the sea to the mountains all before the sun sets and collect sea glass under braids of seagull wings. I ask her what she misses the most about home. “The ocean,” she says. Even if the sea is miles away, there are some nights as you’re drifting off to sleep when the air lifts and you can smell it, the faintest edge of salt.

“I’ve never seen the ocean before,” I say. “Not in real life.”

Her mouth hangs slack. “How can you live with yourself?”

“I’ll see it eventually. I’m getting out of here. As soon as I get a chance, I’ll be gone.” I tell her about my dad. How one day, he couldn’t take it anymore. He packed his things in a single box and drove to one of the coasts, just somewhere with an ocean because he couldn’t stand the feeling of being landlocked, whether by fields or by my mom and I. Some years we get postcards featuring a new beach that looks almost the same as the last, but most years it is silence. I realize I can’t remember the last time I talked about my dad. I look over and her head is cocked back and eyes glazed over. She isn’t listening.

We keep emptying more bottles and the secrets keep emptying from us. She tells me about how her first kiss was in seventh grade and she didn’t ask for it. She never minded the curious eyes that followed her, but something about that high school linebacker’s eyes were different, dilated like watching prey. The look turned her insides cold with fear and she liked that. Several times when she walked home from school, she could feel a body lurking behind her. She’d look over her shoulder, and he’d be there, hovering like a shadow. She kept walking. “I never asked him to follow me,” she says. Her feet shape vortexes in the water. “But I didn’t tell him to go away either.”

One day she went behind the school to look for cigarette stubs long enough to smoke when he grabbed her wrist. She said that when it happened, she didn’t even realize what was happening when she was on her knees, and that she didn’t shed a tear, she didn’t make a sound. That she was somewhere else and she could feel all the soft pieces of herself crystallizing into marble, buildings with concrete walls rising so deep into her chest that she knew she would never find the soft dot of who she once was. And that when he left her with her knees drawn up to her chest, she found a cigarette on the ground—a good one, over half of it left—and she smoked it until she finished the whole thing off. She never reported him. “I know it’s messed up,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that owes him for showing me that a body is just a body.” She pulls a foot out onto the ledge. “That if you build thick enough walls, no one can get to you, not a single one.”

We let the only sound be the crickets and their mad screeching, the sound of our feet kicking up waves. She puts her hands to her face. "I've never told anyone that before."

All of her secrets might be lies, and I hope that they are. When she says she's never told anyone, I hope she is lying. I hope she has told every soul she shares a beer with, every stranger she walks by, in her voice like a passing dream whispering every terrible thought she’s had. I want it all to be lies, but I cannot help believing. The light casts lines under the skin of water.

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

She looks up at me. I notice for the first time that her eyes are barely two different colors, one the color of moss and one like bark. “You keep your mouth shut. Sneaking out every night. The world needs more of that.” Her feet make ripples. They look like rings on the inside of trees.

The bottles are emptied and our faces turn upward, mouths open. I can hear us laughing in the distance, but the laughter feels separate from me. We start heaving for air again. I hear myself tell her that I love her. I don’t know why my mouth chooses those words. They are blurted into the air before I can stop them. She does not turn away, she does not blush. She tilts her head back and laughs a crisp sound like biting into the skin of an apple, a laugh that says she's been told that every day of her life.

[...] end of excerpt

Album Review: Coexist by the xx by Anna Li

The vanishing act is a refined illusion: a band surfaces from an abyss of anonymity. The album becomes critically acclaimed. The energetic hype dies down, they dip into obscurity for a short stint, and then—from nowhere—they emerge back into the spotlight with a shiny, new album.

The xx’s resurrection feels less like calculated disappearance and more like the texture of their music—ghostlike, spectral. After releasing their self-titled album in 2009 while still in high school, the xx garnered significant attention, boasting the 2010 Mercury Prize and selling nearly 400,000 copies to date[1]. But after the concert tours and promotional fillers, the xx evaporated back into their quiet horizons.

And then—from nowhere—Coexist appears. Coexist maintains their roots of distinct minimalism, but develops very differently from debut album’s youthful conception. The trio (Jamie Smith, Oliver Sim, and Romy Madley Croft) has come a long way since sending lyrics through instant messaging or singing into their computer speakers to avoid waking up their parents. [2] Now in their early twenties, Coexist reaches toward mature complexity. While the second album expects words like “growth,” and “different directions,” Coexist is an extension of the first album’s barely-there texture—and strips it down even further: ambient vocals that yearn, liquid guitar that slices absorbed silence, drips of percussion that pulse along each song’s spine in low beats. Spaces of silence are carved into the tracks, manipulating negative space to enhance each note’s pure sound. All the fluff is cut away. With these sharp tools, the xx build their infinite atmosphere.

Minimalism spreads into lyrics as well. Croft and Sim meditate on simple themes of love, light and dark imagery. Yet ambiguity by no means creates isolated distance; when Croft’s airy vocals ache out with such honesty, the lyrics feel intimately close. Metamorphosis is another illusion the xx have perfected. In the opening verse of “Angels,” the lyrics feel plain. When Croft sighs them into motion, it feels like catharsis: “You move through the room/like breathing was easy.” At the zenith of “Missing,” amid sleepy guitar and Croft murmuring “how did I,” in swirling mantra, Sim’s raw voice rasps into a poignant ache before releasing in a gasp of guitar.

This is the captivating enigma of the xx’s music. It builds and builds and builds, and instead of combusting into climax, it blooms, pools, and exhales in a smooth breath.

That being said, there’s not much variety in these eleven tracks. Fans hoping to see a shift in sound will be disappointed. The buoyant vibe from steel drums in “Reunion,” is as dramatic and experimental as the album gets. Each track exudes the same aura—same pulses and pauses, hushed lyrics, echoing drum tracks that release into shimmering guitar. “We were just making songs that were coming out of us. There wasn't a huge, set goal for what we wanted to do,” Sim said in an interview. “We're still the same band. I'm glad it sounds like us.”2  While this album is not as diverse as the debut, it gives Coexist a fluid motion. The audience can stand in its wake and let the sound roll over them in easy tides.

It’s a known challenge going into the second album that bands are approaching an audience already familiar with their music. The freshness of the xx’s debut hinged upon its correlation of space and sound. It was a new, unique approach to music; it billowed like a veil between hemispheres of open space. Thus, the sophomore album feels more “whole” than the refreshing openness of the debut. But the xx still have their unique ingredient that sets apart their music: shape. Listeners can still slide into the geometry of the space built in Coexist’s porous tracks. While most songs today are buried beneath polished vocals and excessive layers, the xx experiment with subtraction of sound to eliminate any interference. It’s this ethereal nature that leaves the deepest impressions. With the carefully constructed ether they weave, the xx shed new light on what music is: that even silence has volume. That even empty space can be lovely and dark and filling. That landscapes of music can be both incredibly close and immensely vast.

 

[1] http://www.vulture.com/2012/09/music-review-the-xx-coexist.html

[2] http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/8927-the-xx/