Jessica Alexander

Jessica Alexander’s novella, “None of This Is an Invitation” (co-written with Katie Jean Shinkle) is forthcoming from Astrophil Press. Her story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Fence, Black Warrior Review, PANK, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana where she teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

YOU MET DEATH ON LEX by Vi Khi Nao + Jessica Alexander

and asked her to meet you at a hotel in BrooklynYou would not meet her in Vegas where the sounds of your mother’smovements came through the walls between your roomsMeanwhile, in another state Death courted our brothers on Uber and GrinderAs you removed one blind eye from the invisible pocket of your black braYou realized that your memory of your brother had an invisible purseWith its zipper sewn on its side and its contents were pennies or wishesSo when they hit the surface of your eye the world you knew rippledBack then all you wanted was a plate of black olives impaled by toothpickscharred from a wild fire that raged Northern CaliforniaIn winter, you wanted a fireplace, too, and a thick soupyou weren’t allergic toDuring autumn rain the earthworm on your sternum writhedAnd you were deciding whether to die or live your life weddedTo Zinfandel’s fading legs or to walk through an inch of snowTo buy three mangosteens from a corner grocery storeBack when I knew none of this and knew you less, I climbed wetStairwells, snowflakes melted on my eyelashes, and clumps of snow fell off the trees,which were heavy and shaggy and white and greenI pulled myself close beneath my heavy coat and the train I got on began movingIn and out of the elongated, silvery body of an eel while the conductorSpoke through his amplified microphone attached like a second, semi-translucent,chain-mail-like skin, “Do you need anything? Say chocolate?” And, the trainyeel obediently responded, which surprised you greatly, “The compressor in me is broken.It’s like the heart of the AC and, no, all I need is a new shoulder, honey.”As if the train seat had been a bassinet, the engine a chimneycoughing up clouds, I knew that I would drift off in smoke and for another yearOr two I’d doze. Back then I told everyoneMy favorite thing about Pennsylvania is leaving Pennsylvania on a train.Especially after Clarice Lispector spit black tobacco into a tin can and left itnear the railing. I have always known this about love: the ground youplace it on does not exist. I knew, too, that sleep is not a type of aonairwine, situated above my consciousness, waiting for their insomnia of volcanicash to make me drift like a listless soul. Beneath that Lispector phlegm, that thickoral mucus, hint of smoke and ash, was an answer to a question I had not yet learned to ask.So, all the way to Brooklyn, I slept.  The train rocked my body back and forthlike a jug of water inside of a stroller. From the window view, the effervescenttrees were woefully mourning their winter-torn sleeves, standing tall and hip-widelike pregnant women in a dream, I exited the train, and climbed the stairs to your hotel room,where you lay on your back begging Death to let you sleep on the railroad trackor take pesticides in the countryside with South Korea. The winter had beenlong and wet and when, in a dream’s sunset, I crept up the steps, I like tothink Death heard what you could not hear yet,because she startled and she left and the sun spread, warm and diluted, onthe backs of my eyelids and I woke just as the train screamed into PennStation’s open mouth.  With the grayish duffel bag strapped over my left shoulder,I lowered and bowed my head while my feet slowly marchedthrough the crowd’s soporific mourning of procession.Each human head was a dark blue, wilted tulip, its witless petals droopedand sagged heavily against the gullible sound of footsteps amplifying andtriangulating the proximity of my distance. I shoveled along the cylindricalcement walls, into the yellow glow of a stairwell, and stepped up just as thesun set on Vernon Boulevard.Meanwhile, on the other side of Pulaski Bridge, maybe 40 minuteswalking distance, you sobbed intermittently into a grocery bag which wavedlike a half-staffed, mortified flag in the wind, & eventually it floated away from youas you stopped at the corner of Nassau where clumps of sooty snow hadmelted and frozen again and the walk sign flashed white and you crossedthe avenue just like the living do. The short walk was the longest walk you ever tookin your very short life—the compelling wind was pushing you and you likea pregnant woman, pushing you towards the metro, pushing you into the pavement,pushing you into the snow. By then it was night and I stood beside a giant windowon the 21st floor of 474 48th Avenue watching the Empire State Buildingchange color. The black sky was perforated with a thousand tiny squaresof light, each one ushering me, like a Russian novel, into its own domestictragedy: a tv glowing in a living room, a couple eating take out at a kitchencounter, a man smoked on a narrow balcony and curled himself against the wind.To stand beyond the reach of weather, I discovered, was yet anotherway I may be lonely. It was all emptiness, staring into the private things thatcouldn’t stare back at me. Sometimes the intimacy of distancewas too much. The glasses on the ridge of my nose refused to be that lonelyrose, fading, wilting from that indeterminate breath that had fogged up their glass.I took the elevator down 21 flights to the street where black cabs stoodwaiting and a driver asked if he was waiting for me. I assumed no onewas and I crossed the street. At that point, I had met you twice.Once I took an Uber to a restaurant where clavicles were juxtaposedbetween wooden and metal chairs shifting in and out of periphery, butyour clavicle was most prominent of all. You sat diagonally from me, silentlysipping hot water with a wedge of lemon, your fingers spread with gentlestrength around the teacup’s opening. You ordered salmon and ate slowlywith your eyes shyly downcast. For a moment, I sat inside the soft light ofyour quiet pleasure, the setting sun lit the wooden table and glowedagainst your profile. You squinted slightly, and delicately speared small flakes ofsalmon. You hardly spoke save when someone said I was adorable, and you shylyraised your eyes to mine and you agreed. When you left, the placeyou sat was stainless and the sun fell behind you, leaving the city in adismal neglect of chance. I, however, collected myself and you placed mein a box called Wisdom. I waited by the light for life to change her colorsfrom infancy to myopia. You waited and waited for the city to changewhat we were unable to change until four years into the future. That evening,sitting with my legs curled up by the hotel bed, I thoughtabout my brother, Jim, who had a way of holding me tight inhis arms when we slept. Years later, when he took a large bubblebath full of foam in India, I kept on having a recurring dream of Jimdying and of having to announce the devastating news to new peopleeach night. We met, the first time, inside a crowded conventioncenter. Djuna Barnes, famous fictionist, wore a cowboy hat. She stoodseveral rows from me, and laughed with such exquisite abandon. By contrast,you stood patient as the sunlight, and I leaned toward yourwarmth the way some plants twist out of shade. I have alwaysbeen so reticent in the company of others, my sapphic shynesspeeling out of me like a clementine in front of a bay of unripe avocados oroverripe raspberries. You gave me chocolate and two books and later, thenext day or the day after that, I could not stop crying while I waited for mytrain to come and take me back.Four years ago, in that endless Pennsylvania winter,I wrote you, “All I do is grade papers but I have a fold-out.”It was a faceless message, the kind written in the quiet, iridescentrecess of my idleness, the kind that arrived after a storm has been builtright into the towering headdress of a tornado, the kind that walkedout of you like a vagrant beggar from a beach house near the sea. When Iwas young, I coped with my queerness, my handsome isolation, myoverwrought loneliness by smoking weed, one string ofvaporous vapor ornamentation after another, by the window and climbingthrough it after dark. My body was strikingly vigorous, though I spentmost of its innocent muscularity by being restlessly listless, walking inand out of kitchen doors like I knew the difference between having awallet and David Foster Wallace. You were reticent and precise. The windblew into a window and the stacks of papers before each paidgrader swirled around the room, save yours, which you held downwith your free hand, while tapping your sharpened pencilagainst the tabletop. The others, limp and languid like overwateredhouseplants, shuffled listlessly between the window and the vendingmachine. You did not hear them. Your focus was unparalleled, your eyesscanned the page, you made a swift mark, and moved on. They nudgedtheir papers to your side of the table. I cannot help but picture them: boorishbrothers and grinning stepsisters, turning the key in the lock, and leaving. Youdid not notice. You turned the page, and tapped your pencil againstthe tabletop. Then it was five o’clock, a winter night. The castratedphotographer pushed his bike over the ice and up the rollinghills and past the frosted cornfields to your door. I wonder what it was liketo say goodnight. Your profile, your steady eyes fixed on the horizon,and your silence, while he confessed he’d like to dip his fist into your head.He said it would come out sweet and soaked in golden honey. He painted you a blurrypicture of yourself. Your wrist bone bent oddly to the left. He had a sheep’s headshipped to you from Morocco and a Nordic Wolffish from the Arctic Circle.He wrote a sonnet each day and sent them in a box he’d carved fromwhalebone inside a box made of glue and pigeon’s nests. You did notknow what to do with all of these intoxicated gifts. You could not carrythem around and so you bought a plastic storage box, foldedeach gift neatly into scented tissue paper, and closed the lid. I wroteyou in Pennsylvania. I said, “I have a fold-out,” then I put onmy headphones and spent the evening walking under the yellowglow of street lamps, the red brick, the sparkling snow. That wasnot the same year. I walked like a downcast philosopherbeneath the Kinzua Bridge, measuring my time and distance slowly. All ofmy vacant thoughts were in the clouds, waiting for theprecipitation of a long- lost meaty memory of meeting a futureyou to rain back down to me, storming my petite form into anambulated oblivion. My life has been this long, arduous academic road.My head always in the dense pages. Those long endless paragraphswhere the wheat, the cornfield, and the muted stone of an idea traveledback and forth between prolixity and nothingness. From time to time, Iwonder if you would marry me even after our galaxy stoppedexpanding. I wonder on nights like this if you would mutely climbinside my submarine and sit beside me until all the speed boats spedpast. I wanted to walk beside you up a narrow stairwell with arms fullof paper bags and rice and cabbage and keys jangling in your hand. Iwondered whether you’d love me more if we fell onto the bed orif instead, I scrubbed the crisper down before dumping the vegetables in, orwhether you’d forgive me if I slept and the sound of engines carriedmy dream to the beach and if a smog curtain closed behind me and if Iwent on wondering whether you liked wrist bones or clavicles best, or if Iwent on wanting, in spite of it, to fold my mouth around your hip, would you know?Would you hold my face in your hands like a melon and carry my head home?We’d hardly met. I was learning so many words do not mean whatI thought they did. I have come to understand moisture in a very differentway. Words often, despite my heavy proclivity for wanting them to, do nothave much moisture in them. They lack water and something else.Something I can’t pin my fingers on. Something to do with acousticsignals or density or the waxy content in the cranium of dolphins. Afterreaching into my armpits in the dark afternoon many years later fortwo wheats and three stones, I found your fingers cracking out laughinglike they heard a terrible knock- knock joke from the edge of theiralpha-keratin. I wonder if you would love me less if all my clocks andobligations cracked wide open and I oozed out, formless as raw egg or if Iwas not ticklish or if I owned an orange cat. The kind that spoke Cantoneseor Vietnamese with a Southern drawl. The kind that a mandarin orangewould mistake for its distant, house-arrested cousin. Some morningswhen I woke up in the early light to unlower the blinds,the kind that made you more sultry and less formal in the Houstondarkness, I imagined you being a fruit basket that someoneaccidentally left on the third floor of a vacant apartment complex. Therewere bell peppers that didn’t shake like bells and there were mythologiesin you that didn’t arrive with a broken chariot on its coeval asphalt.In times like these, you don’t ever take the elevator with me to the rooftopwith the lavish bar and flamboyant cocktails that night we orderedcabernet and sunk into the plush cushions and did not drink a sip of it and I feltas if I’d stepped inside a future where I did not exist or a memory thatbelonged entirely to someone else. The night was all around us and, foran instant, I was certain it was me and not my brother who was dead.But in the morning when I raised the blindsyour stillness, which is either that of a hummingbirdor its opposite, is so exquisitely composite and fatalistic and soI try hard to step inside of it. A fantasy you once told me.I lean over you. I brush your cheek. My neck crowned bya collar of trees. I say, Baby, how did you sleep? I slept poorly andunevenly—like my subconsciousness sat on an old- fashionedscale—the owlgift vintage—the kind that represents truth and fairness. Buton the other side, the other side of your amnesia, the one you had onlyknown briefly and intermittently, the one outweighing everythingabout the rapid heartbeats of raven who sat (unevenly) on an old redwoodtree by the side of road. Compelled by distance and sadness, I swiftly cupyour face like an old beggar cleaning knives for the endangered denizensof the foggy city he dreams up each night, then watches swirl slowlydown the drain of each morning, leaving his belly full of asadness that is jagged and undefined. It is possible,of course, to miss someone who sleeps beside you, too,and so I remove a hybrid hyacinth from a drawer of atree and whisper soporific leaves into it so that it is alwaysfalling asleep by exfoliating into what you alwayslove and can love. There is a mist waiting outside like a widow.Her eyes are soft and wet with tears or sweat from running upan evanescent hill. I try to run my hands through her near the mulberrywell as a way of telling you that I wish your heartbeat smelled like a teakettle with fresh mint stuck in its sprout: metallic and fresh and bloomingwith an arc of wheat. Longing so thick makes my handssomnolent, even my knuckles lull the handle of ateakettle to sleep. In your absence, I pour hot water up intoa mug, with a wedge of lemon and take the steam into myselfas if I were pulling on your breath. Meanwhile, a livestreamof the Governor’s address drones on in the background, I sighinto a kitchen that is newly emptied of you and the kettle sighs,too, and the governor says it’s impossible to quantify suffering.But I have drifted to a time long before Ida or Covid-19, I amrousing my Manhattan- bound self from a dream,and pulling her by her winter sleeves, up the endless stepsof a Brooklyn hotel, ordering death to leave.

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