by HC Hsu
[ fiction - june 12 ]
He raped her.
Later, at the park, when she was eating a sandwich, sitting on an aluminum bench underneath the banyan tree, these three words suddenly popped into her head. The noon sun shone through clusters of glossy, thick, round leaves and clumps of long, whisker-like, reddish-brown roots, in specks and patches, that wavered, contracted and expanded like countless camera pinholes in search of a focus, as warm breezes rustled through the tree. Carried on the breezes was a subtle scent of cananga, moist, thin and paint-like; she needn’t scour for it, but knew it was from the young girl selling flowers every day near the park entrance.
She wasn’t very hungry. She looked at the half-eaten sandwich, part of it still wrapped in red and white paper. She unwrapped it, centered the sandwich on the torn paper, rewrapped it, and set it on the bench to her right.
Normally she would put the leftover food in her bag. But, today, for some reason, she didn’t care. Quickly, someone noticed and moved in toward her.
She looked at the wrapped sandwich again. Here, a pair of big, gleaming, hungering eyes. She looked away. A hand reached out.
And then it was gone.
The space on the bench to her right was empty again.
Then these three little words suddenly popped into her head.
She frightened herself. Where did they come from? She tried not to repeat them. As if each repetition troweled yet another layer of mortar on this statement, hardening it, making it more concrete, solid, real. Visible, audible. Her head was being filled slowly with cement, slowly setting.
A massive tombstone, stricken with a resounding echo. Towering over her. It was beginning to tip over.
Coming. Crashing down.
The two of them walked on the damp grass on the island.
Sunday, late night. There was not much traffic. Occasionally, an orange globe whirled by, like foxfire, whish, quickly disappearing again in the distance.
They were both quiet. The dark wet grass made little squishy sounds as their footsteps meshed into one another’s.
Andrés was annoyed. He didn’t know why, just something in him didn’t sit right. He walked along the other edge of the island, and stomped on the sod audibly, marching through the marsh, a bed of seaweed.
He looked at her; she was looking down at her feet while she walked, seemingly not having noticed him, or his gazing at her, across the bit of lawn. The rain had just stopped, there were no stars, and the moon appeared somewhat smudged. Under the watery moonlight her skin seemed especially pale, her long black hair blending almost into the blackness of night, turning her into a wraith. She wore a white cotton nightgown with a fluted neck, creased in places, giving her not a look of dishevelment, but simply a flatness, like paper. He thought of those paper dolls, figures cut out of paper, with separate clothes held onto them by folding tabs - you don’t see the tabs. He always thought of little girly, frilly playthings, whenever he looked at her. Even though it was far from the truth. She couldn’t even be considered pretty: her mouth straight-edged, her nose a little too flat, her eyes down-turned, making her look insomniac or, when she furled her light brows, mournful. Seeing her was seeing her through always a fog, a silk veil, transparent, and yet always being something there, indefinable, ungraspable, in front of her, softening the focus, dispersing all light into vapor, into mist. There was a separateness about her, as if she were ready to, and could, at any time, take leave from this world, or not; it didn’t matter.
She didn’t notice him looking at her, or, perhaps, pretended not to notice his gaze, watching her own feet, intently, as she trod, lifting up her legs deliberately and, yet, lackadaisically, one, in front of the other, and gently setting her feet back down on the soft grass.
Watching her, he felt an urge to say something.
They walked on, on the island.
‘What!’ It was as if someone had kicked a chair out from under him. He was jolted back to reality.
The transaction was completed.
He looked at the kids walk off, one taller than the other, the littler one carrying a skateboard on the side. Thirteen, at most. Both were wearing white sneakers and hoodies. Ape Shall Never Kill Ape.
Turned a corner, disappeared.
The roots of the banyan tree were blowing, rolling into the overcast sky. The wind was beginning to pick up. Andrés looked around; people were amassing their things, rolling them up, stuffing whatever they could into bags of various shapes, sizes and colors, strapping them onto their backs, shoulders, arms, hands. Objects, big and small, and children, too, of various colors, shapes and sizes. A few animals as well. Bark, bark. It was a scene out of a painting.
He searched for her, in the tableau.
She was nowhere.
The park wasn’t big. In a glance, from any spot, one could take in the whole vista. Vast and empty. A few things had been removed, posts taken down, pushing the population farther outward, toward the edge, where iron fences had been put up. Now only an old tree stood, how old nobody knew exactly, in the middle, with a handful of benches. Parts of the population emigrated. No one came any more, and those who came, never left. Penned in, driven out. In and out were mere concepts. It depended simply on which way you looked.
And why didn’t he leave?
No sign, he figured he better to get to St Paul’s. He just didn’t want to be a drowned rat today.
Perhaps she was already there.
St Paul’s was packed. He looked around. A fat woman in a tight dress far away was yelling ‘Stay! Stay!’ among the din and clamor. It was unclear to whom, or what, she was speaking. The roomful of heads and bodies heaved, like one organism, scraping out sounds of murmurs each time it moved.
Andrés stood in line, his eyes glued to the door.
‘Bob!’ He saw the man calling out to him, a couple of people ahead of him. He waved. ‘How the hell are ya?’
The tall, gaunt man subtly tilted his head to the side once.
Andrés softly shook his head.
The tall man shrugged, stepped out of the line and walked toward him. Some people moved forward.
The man stuck his thin, bony hand out in the air. ‘How’s it going, man?’ Andrés shook it.
The man was in his fifties. Bald on top, a shiny, protuberant oval nestled on thin strands of white hair all around the edges, his face carved with slapdash lines, skin resembling more a dried orange peel. His cheeks were sunken, making his features seem exaggeratedly large, especially the pair of glowering eyes. The wife-beater and high-waist jeans further emphasized his lankiness.
‘Same old, same old,’ Bob responded. He looked left and right for a moment, then asked directly, in his hoary, thirty-year smoker voice: ‘Where is Snow?’
There was something slightly incongruous, between the word he said, and the voice that was used to express it. The latter emptied the former, removed its referentiality, rendered it into an abstract object, complete, closed in and of itself. Total. The pure sign ‘Snow’ shot out of his mouth and became suspended, still, in the air.
Strangely, Andrés felt his throat tighten, like this sign suddenly emerged there, too, stuck in his larynx.
‘I don’t know.’
He got these words out.
Snow, frost, flurry, sleet. Blizzard, avalanche, glacier. That was her name.
Or rather, it was the name he gave her. It fit her. The first time he saw her, she was sleeping on the bench, in the snow. Arms tightly clenched around her bosom, her skin, pale, with a light blue hue. He placed his index finger under her nose.
She never told him her name.
She would say, I can’t remember, and then look down at her feet.
Always that same gesture. Always, forever.
As a man, he felt a need to protect her.
‘I don’t know.’ He said.
He heard Bob sigh. Bob turned, facing the front of the line again, with his back to him.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, a familiar shadow flickered by.
He turned his gaze toward the door immediately again. It was Snow.
She was looking around. She didn’t see him.
Andrés stuck his hand up, high over the cumulus cloud of heads, and called her name.
As if caught by an angling line, her head bobbed up from the cloud-ocean, and turned toward him. Her mouth opened, smiling.
Her dress was wet, and her hair, face and arms glistened.
They sat across from each other. Bob sat at the other end, occasionally shooting a glance or two over here. Snow, was looking down into her styrofoam bowl. Softly, slowly, mechanically, she dipped, scooped, lifted, with a white plastic spoon little gobs of thick mushy grayish stuff, and inserted it into her mouth. Andrés was getting impatient again. He wanted badly to talk to her about it. Andrés, Andrés. Why? When she’s absent, he wanted her to be here. But when she’s present, at times, he wanted to throttle her. (Slap.) Speak.
He was silent, his eyes burning into her, as if boring a hole through paper.
Finally, she looked up. Meeting his gaze. They were close; he could see two of himself, just a tiny glint of a reflection of him in both of her shimmering dark amber-brown eyes, like flames under water. Her gaze split him into two, one fire into two, two mirror versions of him. Which one was he? Which one did she see?
She laid down her spoon, put her hand on his, and said, ‘Will you help me?’
She stood by the glass, her hands on the ledge. The glass was check-patterned, covered by white curtains on the other side. The curtains were not drawn all the way, leaving a sliver of a view. She stood in the gap, looking in. It was dark inside, compared to the greenish fluorescence that lit the hall. All she could see were some dots of red light, some blinking, like eyes, nocturnal creatures. She let her eyes adjust more, and, slowly something came into view. It was a pair of legs. Partly covered in sheets. She couldn’t see anything else. Just a few vague outlines. Darkness. Suddenly, the legs flew up, lifting the sheets with them upward. In that moment, she saw a flash of a vast amount of bright red, amidst some mud-like brown, where the legs had been. The legs slammed back down in silence, followed by the sheets, billowing downward, in slow motion, like a net being cast under water. All of a sudden a door next to her opened. Screams and moans flooded out. It’s as if her ears suddenly popped. The sound set everything back into normal motion. Moans of a mixture of pain and pleasure, pierced by ecstasy and abandon. She felt her face getting hotter and redder. Like in a drowning person who was a hair’s breadth away from giving up all hope, something suddenly kicked in, and she kicked her way to the surface. Opening her eyes, she saw a woman in white staring at her. She turned and quickly walked away.
Afar, she heard a door shut, the click echoing through all the corridors.
He cupped his hands, and watched the water gather. It quickly began to overflow, streaming down to the back of his palms, then trickling, swirling down the drain.
He splashed it against his face. Cold.
He did it a couple more times, yanking on the towel dispenser handle, ripping the paper off. There was someone in the far stall, blowing his nose, bags piled on the tile floor.
In the mirror, Andrés dried his face, sanding the paper across his skin back and forth. He wasn’t old, but he definitely wasn’t young either any more, at least by appearance. He cut his own hair, and liked to keep his dark brown hair fairly cropped and short, shaving regularly; he liked, however, his ‘unibrow,’ although he wasn’t sure whether it could be called a unibrow, the hair becoming noticeably lighter and thinner as it crept toward the middle. It made him look a little angry all the time, a little scowling. A short scar lay between his brow and the outer corner of his almond-shaped left eye. An abridged, but prominent, nose. Wide, salmon-colored lips, against earthy brown skin. Lines and crevices were beginning to appear on his squarish face, partly from the sun. He was on the shorter end, further emphasized by his wide shoulders and chest frame. He didn’t like his physique, reminding him always of some kind of mariachi puppet.
A man in a button-down shirt and slacks walked in carrying a book. He glanced at Andrés, then glanced over at the stall, where the unseen person was still blowing his nose, continually coughing, clearing his throat, the sound of spit hitting the toilet. The man let out a soft, but clearly audible, groan, as if exasperated, dispatched another daggered glance at Andrés, and walked back out. Andrés smiled contently.
It’s a public library, jefe.
The victory was short-lived, however. His thoughts soon went back to her. And that man.
She was going to keep it.
These three things seemed to triangulate over and over in his head. In different orders, jumping around, he couldn’t make heads and tails of them. His mind was going haywire again.
He pounded his fist on the wet tile counter. The toilet flushed.
The first thing he had to do, was look for him.
‘John.’ He said.
‘John.’ He said.
John. People kept shaking their heads.
He gave them the description she gave him.
Tall (he felt sour every time he had to repeat this), white, brown hair, medium-length. Mid-forties.
She had met him before. He said, ‘I’m John.’ Stuck out his hand.
He always pictured him smiling. She, Snow, looked away every time she talked about him. Looking away, as if, she were talking about merely some stranger, some acquaintance, something on the ground, something in the sky.
He never understood her, but he could act, as if.
She looked over his shoulder as he talked to people, shadowing him.
He sat down on the steps of the church, and she sat down next to him. It was the hour of the wolf, the lavender sky, the stained concrete columns of the church bathed in a hue of copper, dark myrtle vines shot up along the black iron fences.
Snow never told him exactly what happened. He didn’t press, even though she could tell he wanted to. She was grateful for him. She didn’t know where she would be without him. He was, her sun. Her east, her west, her day, and her night. She knew that.
She said, ‘She needs a father.’
He was hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything in two days. When she said that, he looked over, and saw that her face was buried in her hands.
She wasn’t talking about him.
A regular came over. He handed him a piece of paper. He shook his head, handed the paper back and walked off.
He stared straight ahead into the road, trying to hold something back. A bus stopped, with an ad on its side painted in vibrant magenta. There’s a photo of a hamburger on one side, and a mouth of a woman, with bright cherry red lips and powder white skin, on the other. The voluptuous, puckered lips came to a stop right before him.
On the other side of the island a truck rolled down its window. He walked over, instinctively. He held out his hand and looked in. A man was playing inside with his crotch through his jeans.
(The sound of skin sliding across fabric). (The sound of breathing). (The rhythm interspersed by a lighter, quieter breathing). (The sound of skin sliding across fabric). (Grass rustling). (The sound of a car driving off, far way). (The sound of wind). (The sound of leaf stems snapping). (The sound of skin sliding across skin). (Exhale). (Lips rubbing, a soft ts ts ts noise). (A moan). (The buzz of a street lamp, somewhere). (Grass rustling). ‘No.’ (The sound of eyelids becoming unglued, of lashes pulling apart). (The sound of someone saying no, muffled). (Hisses). (The sound of wind). (A cackle of a crow ripping through the sky, fluttering wings). (Leaves rustling). (The sound of grass stems snapping). (The sound of skin sliding across skin). (The sound of flesh, fluttering). (Buzzes). (The sound of someone screaming, muffled, lighter, quieter). ‘Shhhhh.’ (The sound of someone whispering, I love you, I love you, I love you, these three little words). (The sound of a car driving off). (Joints snapping). (The sound of fabric sliding across skin). (The sound of something wet). (The sound of someone sobbing). (The sound of a breath held). (Silence). (An exhale). (The sound of flesh, ripping through flesh). (The rhythm interspersed by the sound of wind). (Moans). (Something wet). (Someone sobbing). (Fabric rustling). (The street light buzzing).
He wandered around downtown, the streets empty and desolate. The carousers had gone back to their nests, for tomorrow was a weekday. The city was used, and then deserted, with the expectation that since it had nowhere else to go, it would always just be where it was, waiting, healing itself, sleepily, and lackadaisically, licking and tending to its wounds, futilely trying to smooth out a few tread marks on its skin, until the sun climbed and flipped itself over the horizon, and a torrent of light, heat, noise, and bodies burst forth from its walls again.
The night was cool, however. There was a momentary breath of respite. A few streams of breezes wound their way through the steel grid. They weren’t cold, but in their mere movement had brought relief to Andrés’ sweat-speckled forehead. In this temporary, vast emptiness, there were a few orange spotlights, while the rest was enveloped in darkness, enshrouding various sorts of leftover dregs and debris, living and non-living. Rows of stoplights swayed and blinked out of sync. He turned into a side alley.
His heart was pounding louder than his shoes. He felt it might jump out of his throat, leaving his inside a vacuum. The vacillating fullness and hollowness made him dizzy, shaky, jellylike. Andrés breathed hard, snorting fire through both his nostrils and mouth; blood raced through his veins at a hundred thousand miles an hour. Static hissed inside his ears. He sniffed again and wiped his nose.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his sight, a familiar shadow flashed by.
He steadied himself, and took a good look.
It was him.
Tall, white, brown hair, medium-length. Mid-forties.
He couldn’t believe his good luck! Can it be this easy? Excited, incredulous, overjoyed, enraged, he reached out his hand, and hailed the figure.
The figure turned around, blankly staring at him.
Without a pause, he threw a fist into his head.
The figure bent for a second, like a string being plucked. Then went down, curling, into a note.
He got on top of him, and, like a virtuoso, started pounding away at the prized instrument.
What music. Hear how it sings!
In the beginning the instrument was a little hesitant, putting up hands, trying to cover its head. However, the flimsy piece of wood was no match for his dual pistons, and the lath was soon shattered, splintering into pieces, to bits, to pulp. What breaks is not worth saving. He swung, alternating between simple left, right, left, right. It wasn’t the destruction per se he found exhilarating, but rather the sheer repetition. It was as if he were entranced, mesmerized, observing himself in his own machine-like grace, balancing equations within the symmetry of the universe. He felt, as if, he could go on forever. Like a ‘runner’s high.’ Pounding his pavement, on a destiny toward eternal salvation.
He noticed, sometime, that the instrument had stopped making sounds, except for the dull, monotonous percussive noises that came from simply striking the contraption itself. He jabbed its eyeholes with his fingers - hey, hey wake up. The holes almost immediately clammed shut, swelling up and turning black, like burls, underneath a unibrow, and an old adjacent scar. At the same time, the short, stumpy trunk lost suddenly any and all rigidity it had left, toppled over to the ground, flush against its surface like a slab of soft wood-colored putty. Motionless, seemingly infinitely pliable. He honed in on the face and head more. One, two, one, two. The squarish, cantaloupe-sized lump went through a series of color changes - earth brown, red, purple, blue, green, black, white - losing its shape, chip by chip, bit by bit, as well as any resemblance to what it had been before. It didn’t look like anything any more.
He had reached his destination.
He was alive.
He reached down and patted her on the head. The girl looked up and smiled. She was wearing a daffodil-yellow dress today, her smile particularly wide, beaming like the sun.
‘Do you want to buy one?’ She held up a large rectangular basket, filled to the brim with also yellow, droopy-looking sea star-shaped flowers.
He told her no, not today. Lowered his hand and patted her head again, and walked toward the park. ‘Bye, Bob!’ she called in her small, clarion voice.
He didn’t look back. In front of him a large sign read ‘PARDON OUR MESS’ in orange on black background, the glossy surface tied with a white ribbon of glare from the noon sun, wired to the fence. Next to it was another sign that read ‘New World Ave Condo Assn,’ the two signs alternating along the length of the fence, down both directions, above lines of yellow tape, with parts of the fence covered by green mesh.
Looking through the holes of the fence he could see only dirt, rocks, steel rods, garbage. He heard the old banyan tree had been transplanted, he didn’t know where - after all, it’s over a hundred years old. In its place now rested an ochre-yellow excavator, empty, still, its head drooped like an old dinosaur fossil in the middle of a pre-Edenic wilderness.
A regular came up.
‘Seen her?’ he asked, without looking away from the tracker.
The old man, sickly-looking, shook his head. ‘No.’
‘What’s the deal with her anyway?’ The man asked hoarsely, followed by a coughing fit.
What happened, over a decade ago, did it really need rehashing? He thought. He shook his head, and looked up into the sky.
It was a good day, with not a cloud in sight.