“I am ashamed
I never had the words
to carry a friend from her death
to the stars
The day you follow me to that mound of oyster shells on the beach is the day I realize muscle and bone have been at war for a long, long time.
We sit beside each other and birds circle overhead, their wings curling and releasing, shoving air as heavy as your voice down my throat.
I choke. You shove your fingers way down past my teeth and tongue, way way down to the place my lungs butterfly, pulling out the letter I mailed your mother after you died.
You lift your head to the sun, say you’ve been following me ever since. Then you point to a space in the sea, rising and falling like a belly. This space contains the point in time where we split, holding our lives that had butterflied faster than both of our lungs could.
We speak of this space, this time when we were teenagers, this time after our friendship ended. We speak of the burn—the burn that, if one starves for long enough, becomes almost musical. You are silent, your head still lifted towards the sun, my letter still pressed between your palms. The birds move their wings faster, pounding out a drum song. I ask you if this is what death feels like, if this is what it felt like when your own twenty-two-year-old heart gave out months ago.
You say nothing. Neither do I. Instead, I write about a house, a girl.
The girl started starving herself for real when she was fourteen. She and her best friend stopped being friends that summer, right after the girl got back to New York from Florida with her parents, who were looking for a new house.
But even though the girl doesn’t remember the exact day she started starving, she does remember being fifteen, being in between houses. The Florida house wasn’t built yet, and the New York house was sold. So she and her parents went to live with her uncle, who lived forty minutes away, near the tip of Long Island. At the time, the girl liked the way sharp things felt on her skin, too, but starving was her favorite. It brought in this lovely, secret song. In her uncle’s house, there was this huge bathroom with a tub as big as the dining room table and a double-headed shower walled with white and blue tile. The girl used to go into that bathroom, strip completely naked, and stare at herself in the mirror, head to toe. She wanted to be able to see each rib and to run her fingers over the places they dipped, then pulled, her skin. She wanted to see that sweet space where spine and ribs connect. The shape wasn’t good enough yet. She wanted her back to look like a set of collapsed wings.
Quickly, the girl became lighter. The girl thought of this lightness when she returned to that small New York town nearly ten years after she’d left it, cut herself off from it completely, and wanted to start over. The girl was returning because of a dream she’d had: her friend’s house turned into a Noah’s Ark. The next morning, the girl felt a tug, a curiosity, so she searched her friend’s name on the Internet. A few moments later, she found her obituary.
There’s no explaining how the girl felt in those moments. Nothing was real, and everything was real. Her desk was there—real—but her hands felt heavy, like they were made of stones, as she lifted them. Her apartment walls were real, too, but she couldn’t understand what the walls were keeping her from. She felt as if the world had become one long field, and then she felt like she was standing inside of a kaleidoscope, all of those pieces coming together, forming shape after shape—one folding into another, folding into another—until the only certain thing was this: each bloom would disappear. She couldn’t believe it, and then she did believe it, and then she couldn’t believe it again. She drove. She parked. She drove some more. She watched the sun rise and set, over and over. At night, she would sit in bed and try to understand. She would try, but she couldn’t.
The girl had not gone back to that New York town in almost a decade, and the girl was bones—was lightness—for six years of that almost-decade. She gained thirty pounds with the help of kind, understanding humans. She didn’t want anyone to see the inside anymore, the frame. She craved muscle. Some sort of strength.
Still, the girl remembered this lightness as she traveled north. The girl traveled from Florida to Brooklyn to Long Island and knocked on the front door of her childhood home.
A blonde woman in a sweatshirt answered and took a good, almost breathless look at the girl.
“I used to live here,” the girl said. “My parents were the original owners.”
The blonde woman gave the girl a hug that made her feel safe, brought her into the house. “We just moved in,” she said. “I’m Lauren.” The girl felt as if she’d known Lauren for years, even though the two had just met.
The girl stood in the foyer, beside the staircase. Lauren stood next to her, waiting patiently, like she knew the girl would need time. The girl noticed the tiles first—they used to be white as shark teeth, and now they were filled black at the grout. Wallpaper that used to be the color of seashells had faded and peeled like a snake’s shedding skin. When Lauren eventually brought the girl outside, she saw that weeds had grown between patio slabs. The garden that once held tulips and begonias was now hollowed. Some of the bricks surrounding the garden were sturdy. Others had fallen, split down the middle in an odd, clean way.
“I don’t think the pool has been opened since you left,” Lauren said. The girl asked her if she could take some leaves and things, some leftover bits from the trees, and Lauren said yes. Two children came out of the house. They moved like their mother—calm, grounded, happy. With what seemed like a genuine curiosity, one child helped the girl pick needles off the pine. The other child picked her some flowers, some autumn leaves. The child who helped the girl gather needles stood on the brick wall extending from what had been the garden, lifted her arms in the air.
“That used to be you,” Lauren said to the girl.
And the girl remembered being younger, creating worlds with her friend. How simple it was to create worlds, how exhilarating.
The girl looked at Lauren’s child as she stood on the brick wall. Then the girl looked at the house next door. She tried to remember why she and her friend stopped talking. Something about glitter, a boy. The girl wanting her friend’s attention, and her friend focusing on the boy. She tried to remember with precision but couldn’t. For so long, they were each other’s main source of comfort in a small town. Eight years.
They met each other at recess. The girl was six years old when she met her friend, who was four, turning five. Both were climbing the Tire Mountain to the top, and the girl noticed how quickly her soon-to-be friend moved, how sure, how steady. Tire Mountain was a difficult climb, and the girl was always a little scared of it. But for some reason, the girl decided to climb that day. And even though the girl was usually quiet, that day she decided to speak. “I am so happy,” the girl said to the other climber, “because I’m getting a new neighbor today.”
“I just moved here.” The friend tugged her braids. “We should play after school.”
“Where do you live?” asked the girl.
“42 Harris Street,” said the friend.
It was then the girl realized this was her new neighbor. This girl who climbed to the top of Tire Mountain with her was the girl who she’d been waiting for.
The two girls grew together. They put lemons in their hair at summertime, hoping the sun would catch, bringing in streaks of light. The girls went skinny-dipping in the Long Island Sound, walked to the corner candy store and sucked on jawbreakers until their mouths burned, prayed by the grave of the dog who lived at 42 Harris Street, welcomed two twin baby boys to that same home.
When the girls grew pubic hair, they shaved together.
One girl put a razor in the other girl’s hand and said, “I won’t look.”
And when both girls had shaved themselves bald, they joked about how hellish the itch was, went outside, and ate popcorn by the pool, lifting the crotches of their swimsuits too often to admire their clean skin.
Lauren’s child leapt off the brick wall, ran over to the girl almost weightlessly, and gave her a handful of pine tree needles. “This used to be you, Ashley, this used to be you!” Lauren said. She told the girl how happy she was to have moved in, to have settled, how they were going to renovate the entire house, make it beautiful, like it once was.
Lauren wrapped her arm around the girl’s shoulder, brought her to the side of the house, and opened a trash can. “I started throwing things away, but now that you’re here,” she paused. “I know some of this is important.”
In the trash can, the girl found tapes of ’50s music, rose tiles from the upstairs bathroom, and a piece of cardboard with her mother’s handwriting on it. As the girl studied her mother’s handwriting, its tidy loops, she understood that this trash can had become a time capsule, and she could only dig through it because of unexplainable timing. She loved her mother deeply, but she didn’t tell her mother how she’d lost her virginity to a woman in college who was twice her age, how she used to starve herself and run keys over her skin. The starving stopped first, the keys second. She felt confident with the woman, felt strong when she pressed the woman’s clit on her tongue. She loved the way the woman’s hands felt on her, inside of her. They had sex constantly for one whole summer, but when that stopped, she wasn’t sure if she made the right choice. The girl wanted something to last forever, and she couldn’t understand the gift of momentary intimacy—even though she desperately wanted to find that peace. She didn’t tell her mother any of this, even though she wanted to. Years later, she would tell her mother, and her mother would understand. And years after that, the girl would find that specific, heavy sense of calm that comes with knowing that the temporary moment is all we have. But now, in these moments, the loops of her mother’s O’s hit her hard. She thought of all the muscle she had gained, made fists, released them, and started placing the tiles, tapes, and cardboard in the bag with the pine tree needles, flowers, leaves. The girl fastened the bag, hugged Lauren goodbye, and drove off.
I write about you because it’s hard for me to remember this life before adulthood, life before Florida, the land where mounds of oyster shells mimic hills, where birds carry the heavy weight of your voice. I write and use the word “girl” because I think of what has happened and it’s hard for me to see myself moving over and over again in a tiny pocket of space-time. I write because I am feeling it all, and sometimes, when these feelings stack together so tightly and so frantically, I can’t even hear my own voice. I write because I don’t know what else to do.
I tell you this and you lower your head, open your palms, and release the letter that once rested in the space between my lungs. You fold the letter into a house, its windows glowing gold, and now I am in that place between both of our houses. It’s December. I’ve flown to New York on a plane and decided to pick up some old wallpaper scraps and tiles from Lauren. I told Lauren how scared I was to go next door. She handed me a paper towel in case I needed it and said “go,” and then I got gone, and now I am here, trying to control my breathing and it’s freezing outside. My heart’s racing fast. I am about to see your mother for the first time in almost ten years. I am about to tell her something, but I do not know what. I knock on the door. A tall man answers, and I guess he is one of your twin brothers. He looks relaxed, rested. I can’t stop staring at him. The last time I saw him, he was just a child—small, bouncing.
“Is your mother home?” I finally say.
He goes to get his mother, your mother, and I don’t know what to say from here. My chest tightens and I try not to cry. But I do cry. Your house feels warm and I remember you—how surely you climbed, how carefully you taught me to pray, how curiously you swam—and I try not to cry but I do cry. I think of the Earth spinning, and I understand that stars are nothing but epilogues of colossal, warm, unexplainable stories. These stars form a dome around the letter I wrote you, months ago, which is growing from a house into a girl. You don’t fold the girl back into one neat, flat page. You let her go. And now, moment by moment, she exists here: In the whole of our world, in the whole of the next. She can be anything now—the air that birds push and pull, the miracle of pearl and oyster, the glow of the moon, the footprints that we cannot see—but feel—if only we could pull back night’s cloak.
What would we be without paper? Without story? I’m on our street now, and it’s quiet.
The air is changing—the big sky opens wide.
Feature image provided by author.