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

and asked her to meet you at a hotel in Brooklyn

You would not meet her in Vegas where the sounds of your mother’s

movements came through the walls between your rooms

Meanwhile, in another state Death courted our brothers on Uber and Grinder

As you removed one blind eye from the invisible pocket of your black bra

You realized that your memory of your brother had an invisible purse

With its zipper sewn on its side and its contents were pennies or wishes

So when they hit the surface of your eye the world you knew rippled

Back then all you wanted was a plate of black olives impaled by toothpicks

charred from a wild fire that raged Northern California

In winter, you wanted a fireplace, too, and a thick soup

you weren’t allergic to

During autumn rain the earthworm on your sternum writhed

And you were deciding whether to die or live your life wedded

To Zinfandel’s fading legs or to walk through an inch of snow

To buy three mangosteens from a corner grocery store

Back when I knew none of this and knew you less, I climbed wet

Stairwells, snowflakes melted on my eyelashes, and clumps of snow fell off the trees,

which were heavy and shaggy and white and green

I pulled myself close beneath my heavy coat and the train I got on began moving

In and out of the elongated, silvery body of an eel while the conductor

Spoke through his amplified microphone attached like a second, semi-translucent,

chain-mail-like skin, “Do you need anything? Say chocolate?” And, the trainy

eel 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 chimney

coughing up clouds, I knew that I would drift off in smoke and for another year

Or two I’d doze. Back then I told everyone

My favorite thing about Pennsylvania is leaving Pennsylvania on a train.

Especially after Clarice Lispector spit black tobacco into a tin can and left it

near the railing. I have always known this about love: the ground you

place it on does not exist. I knew, too, that sleep is not a type of aonair

wine, situated above my consciousness, waiting for their insomnia of volcanic

ash to make me drift like a listless soul. Beneath that Lispector phlegm, that thick

oral 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 forth

like a jug of water inside of a stroller. From the window view, the effervescent

trees were woefully mourning their winter-torn sleeves, standing tall and hip-wide

like 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 track

or take pesticides in the countryside with South Korea. The winter had been

long and wet and when, in a dream’s sunset, I crept up the steps, I like to

think Death heard what you could not hear yet,

because she startled and she left and the sun spread, warm and diluted, on

the backs of my eyelids and I woke just as the train screamed into Penn

Station’s open mouth.  With the grayish duffel bag strapped over my left shoulder,

I lowered and bowed my head while my feet slowly marched

through the crowd’s soporific mourning of procession.

Each human head was a dark blue, wilted tulip, its witless petals drooped

and sagged heavily against the gullible sound of footsteps amplifying and

triangulating the proximity of my distance. I shoveled along the cylindrical

cement walls, into the yellow glow of a stairwell, and stepped up just as the

sun set on Vernon Boulevard.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Pulaski Bridge, maybe 40 minutes

walking distance, you sobbed intermittently into a grocery bag which waved

like a half-staffed, mortified flag in the wind, & eventually it floated away from you

as you stopped at the corner of Nassau where clumps of sooty snow had

melted and frozen again and the walk sign flashed white and you crossed

the avenue just like the living do. The short walk was the longest walk you ever took

in your very short life—the compelling wind was pushing you and you like

a 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 window

on the 21st floor of 474 48th Avenue watching the Empire State Building

change color. The black sky was perforated with a thousand tiny squares

of light, each one ushering me, like a Russian novel, into its own domestic

tragedy: a tv glowing in a living room, a couple eating take out at a kitchen

counter, a man smoked on a narrow balcony and curled himself against the wind.

To stand beyond the reach of weather, I discovered, was yet another

way I may be lonely. It was all emptiness, staring into the private things that

couldn’t stare back at me. Sometimes the intimacy of distance

was too much. The glasses on the ridge of my nose refused to be that lonely

rose, 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 stood

waiting and a driver asked if he was waiting for me. I assumed no one

was and I crossed the street. At that point, I had met you twice.

Once I took an Uber to a restaurant where clavicles were juxtaposed

between wooden and metal chairs shifting in and out of periphery, but

your clavicle was most prominent of all. You sat diagonally from me, silently

sipping hot water with a wedge of lemon, your fingers spread with gentle

strength around the teacup’s opening. You ordered salmon and ate slowly

with your eyes shyly downcast. For a moment, I sat inside the soft light of

your quiet pleasure, the setting sun lit the wooden table and glowed

against your profile. You squinted slightly, and delicately speared small flakes of

salmon. You hardly spoke save when someone said I was adorable, and you shyly

raised your eyes to mine and you agreed. When you left, the place

you sat was stainless and the sun fell behind you, leaving the city in a

dismal neglect of chance. I, however, collected myself and you placed me

in a box called Wisdom. I waited by the light for life to change her colors

from infancy to myopia. You waited and waited for the city to change

what we were unable to change until four years into the future. That evening,

sitting with my legs curled up by the hotel bed, I thought

about my brother, Jim, who had a way of holding me tight in

his arms when we slept. Years later, when he took a large bubble

bath full of foam in India, I kept on having a recurring dream of Jim

dying and of having to announce the devastating news to new people

each night.

 

We met, the first time, inside a crowded convention

center. Djuna Barnes, famous fictionist, wore a cowboy hat. She stood

several rows from me, and laughed with such exquisite abandon. By contrast,

you stood patient as the sunlight, and I leaned toward your

warmth the way some plants twist out of shade. I have always

been so reticent in the company of others, my sapphic shyness

peeling out of me like a clementine in front of a bay of unripe avocados or

overripe raspberries. You gave me chocolate and two books and later, the

next day or the day after that, I could not stop crying while I waited for my

train 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, iridescent

recess of my idleness, the kind that arrived after a storm has been built

right into the towering headdress of a tornado, the kind that walked

out of you like a vagrant beggar from a beach house near the sea. When I

was young, I coped with my queerness, my handsome isolation, my

overwrought loneliness by smoking weed, one string of

vaporous vapor ornamentation after another, by the window and climbing

through it after dark. My body was strikingly vigorous, though I spent

most of its innocent muscularity by being restlessly listless, walking in

and out of kitchen doors like I knew the difference between having a

wallet and David Foster Wallace.

 

You were reticent and precise. The wind

blew into a window and the stacks of papers before each paid

grader swirled around the room, save yours, which you held down

with your free hand, while tapping your sharpened pencil

against the tabletop. The others, limp and languid like overwatered

houseplants, shuffled listlessly between the window and the vending

machine. You did not hear them. Your focus was unparalleled, your eyes

scanned the page, you made a swift mark, and moved on. They nudged

their papers to your side of the table. I cannot help but picture them: boorish

brothers and grinning stepsisters, turning the key in the lock, and leaving. You

did not notice. You turned the page, and tapped your pencil against

the tabletop. Then it was five o’clock, a winter night. The castrated

photographer pushed his bike over the ice and up the rolling

hills and past the frosted cornfields to your door. I wonder what it was like

to 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 blurry

picture of yourself. Your wrist bone bent oddly to the left. He had a sheep’s head

shipped 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 from

whalebone inside a box made of glue and pigeon’s nests. You did not

know what to do with all of these intoxicated gifts. You could not carry

them around and so you bought a plastic storage box, folded

each gift neatly into scented tissue paper, and closed the lid. I wrote

you in Pennsylvania. I said, “I have a fold-out,” then I put on

my headphones and spent the evening walking under the yellow

glow of street lamps, the red brick, the sparkling snow. That was

not the same year. I walked like a downcast philosopher

beneath the Kinzua Bridge, measuring my time and distance slowly. All of

my vacant thoughts were in the clouds, waiting for the

precipitation of a long- lost meaty memory of meeting a future

you to rain back down to me, storming my petite form into an

ambulated oblivion. My life has been this long, arduous academic road.

My head always in the dense pages. Those long endless paragraphs

where the wheat, the cornfield, and the muted stone of an idea traveled

back and forth between prolixity and nothingness.

 

From time to time, I

wonder if you would marry me even after our galaxy stopped

expanding. I wonder on nights like this if you would mutely climb

inside my submarine and sit beside me until all the speed boats sped

past. I wanted to walk beside you up a narrow stairwell with arms full

of paper bags and rice and cabbage and keys jangling in your hand. I

wondered whether you’d love me more if we fell onto the bed or

if instead, I scrubbed the crisper down before dumping the vegetables in, or

whether you’d forgive me if I slept and the sound of engines carried

my dream to the beach and if a smog curtain closed behind me and if I

went on wondering whether you liked wrist bones or clavicles best, or if I

went 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 what

I thought they did. I have come to understand moisture in a very different

way. Words often, despite my heavy proclivity for wanting them to, do not

have much moisture in them. They lack water and something else.

Something I can’t pin my fingers on. Something to do with acoustic

signals or density or the waxy content in the cranium of dolphins. After

reaching into my armpits in the dark afternoon many years later for

two wheats and three stones, I found your fingers cracking out laughing

like they heard a terrible knock- knock joke from the edge of their

alpha-keratin. I wonder if you would love me less if all my clocks and

obligations cracked wide open and I oozed out, formless as raw egg or if I

was not ticklish or if I owned an orange cat. The kind that spoke Cantonese

or Vietnamese with a Southern drawl. The kind that a mandarin orange

would mistake for its distant, house-arrested cousin. Some mornings

when I woke up in the early light to unlower the blinds,

the kind that made you more sultry and less formal in the Houston

darkness, I imagined you being a fruit basket that someone

accidentally left on the third floor of a vacant apartment complex. There

were bell peppers that didn’t shake like bells and there were mythologies

in 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 rooftop

with the lavish bar and flamboyant cocktails that night we ordered

cabernet and sunk into the plush cushions and did not drink a sip of it and I felt

as if I’d stepped inside a future where I did not exist or a memory that

belonged entirely to someone else. The night was all around us and, for

an instant, I was certain it was me and not my brother who was dead.

But in the morning when I raised the blinds

your stillness, which is either that of a hummingbird

or its opposite, is so exquisitely composite and fatalistic and so

I try hard to step inside of it. A fantasy you once told me.

I lean over you. I brush your cheek. My neck crowned by

a collar of trees. I say, Baby, how did you sleep?

 

I slept poorly and

unevenly—like my subconsciousness sat on an old- fashioned

scale—the owlgift vintage—the kind that represents truth and fairness. But

on the other side, the other side of your amnesia, the one you had only

known briefly and intermittently, the one outweighing everything

about the rapid heartbeats of raven who sat (unevenly) on an old redwood

tree by the side of road. Compelled by distance and sadness, I swiftly cup

your face like an old beggar cleaning knives for the endangered denizens

of the foggy city he dreams up each night, then watches swirl slowly

down the drain of each morning, leaving his belly full of a

sadness 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 a

tree and whisper soporific leaves into it so that it is always

falling asleep by exfoliating into what you always

love and can love. There is a mist waiting outside like a widow.

Her eyes are soft and wet with tears or sweat from running up

an evanescent hill. I try to run my hands through her near the mulberry

well as a way of telling you that I wish your heartbeat smelled like a tea

kettle with fresh mint stuck in its sprout: metallic and fresh and blooming

with an arc of wheat. Longing so thick makes my hands

somnolent, even my knuckles lull the handle of a

teakettle to sleep. In your absence, I pour hot water up into

a mug, with a wedge of lemon and take the steam into myself

as if I were pulling on your breath. Meanwhile, a livestream

of the Governor’s address drones on in the background, I sigh

into 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 am

rousing my Manhattan- bound self from a dream,

and pulling her by her winter sleeves, up the endless steps

of a Brooklyn hotel, ordering death to leave.


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.

Vi Khi Nao’s work includes poetry, fiction, film, play, and cross-genre collaboration. Her poetry collection, A Bell Curve Is A Pregnant Straight Line, and her short stories collection, The Vegas Dilemma, are out this Summer and Fall 2021 respectively. She was the fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute. https://www.vikhinao.com

Art by Crow Jonah Norlander in imitation of Bob Schofield