Sweat collects on my upper lip. Hands on hips, I bend forward swallowing the acid that rises in my throat, the last throbs of adrenaline fizzing under clammy skin. It is 2 a.m. and I have just run as fast as I can down Sunset Boulevard. My breathing catches up. I am tired from the run, from the weight of my pending divorce that sits like a bag full of broken ornaments on my shoulders. They jangle and shift, splintered and sharp. Some days they pierce through the bag and break skin. The divorce is my choice—to the outsider, my fault—I am not in love. I’m the one breaking things.
My husband’s best friend stops by the restaurant I work at for a drink. I suck down two hard ciders, cold and tart on my tongue. Lately everything tastes this way, fermented chaos. Spoiled. Despite the circumstances, I’ve had a pleasant evening. My husband’s best friend is smart and delicate in his delivery, he didn’t push his agenda or paint blame. I am grateful. He wants me to go back to my husband, he’s made his case and let it rest. It hangs in the air between us, nebulous, holding against the hot Santa Ana winds that breathe fire from the desert. He hugs me goodbye, dwarfing me. I hear a bone in my spine, a barely audible crack that serves as reminder—I am smaller in stature, delicate in foundation. Bird bones. I start my walk down Sunset Boulevard. Half way down, an SUV pulls curbside, tinted window humming in C#.
I cut him off, lowering my head, hands say stop, shaking no, no, no, a kabuki display of cease and desist. My steps quicken. I check for an invitation in what I am wearing—modest long sleeved black shirt, black pants that cover, black clunky heels. My cheeks redden, quick fury at how ready I am to unfold the blame in my wardrobe, my choices, the fact that I choose to and enjoy painting my face. My hair is pulled back into a snatchable ponytail—I have sinned, not held vigilance—keep an eye on your drink, tell someone where you are going, make yourself small and invisible, don’t draw attention, don’t talk back to harassers, don’t wear heels you can’t run in, never answer the door to unexpected visitors, don’t give out your name, never tell anyone where you live. Never. Walk. Alone. Still, I don’t find an invitation. He was not invited. I step in silence, searching for blame. I’ve been robbed of comfort, my personal space splintered to ruins on the boulevard of broken dreams.
I haven’t walked two blocks before a second SUV pulls over. A man leaps out of the passenger seat, arm stretching at me as if to grab what he wants from the lower shelf, fast-talking, bargaining, bartering, something, I don’t hear, I’m running, bird bones take flight, a run I’ve prepared my whole life to break into. A run to ensure I’ll see my family again.
I wipe the sweat beads from my upper lip. Catching my breath, I feel my shoulders and the bag of broken memories slump. Calm down, the tinny voice in my head orders. I’ve escaped, made it to the parking structure of Arclight, the movie theater. I know it well. I have three jobs to survive a city of sippers and strippers now that I am single, alone. I park here everyday. Don’t over-react, don’t be hysterical, says that voice, a voice I’ve heard through the airwaves, in the classroom, from life. “You must learn to get control of your emotions,” I hear my old boss repeat after I defended myself from a theft accusation. A security guard—always a man—patrols the courtyard. Tonight, I don’t see him. It’s okay, I tell myself. There’s no one here. I am alone. Alone with my small size, my cracking bones, and the guilt that wraps around my spine like a jungle vine. Don’t be hysterical, I repeat to myself. I pull out my hair tie and let down my guard.
At twelve, I am intuitive. It is my first piano lesson with Roy. Roy is tall for an Indonesian man, with a thick harvest of panther black hair. A burned wheat field of stubble dots his sharp jaw. Above his head hovers a cloud of woody, designer cologne and a palpable discontent that seems ready to rain. We sit side by side on the piano stool. Alone. Our elbows intermittently touch. His skin is smooth. Hypnotic Jakarta sun rays and tropical jungle greens fan flirtatiously from the window behind the piano, from the kampung, the Indonesian village behind our house. But I am focused on Roy and the silent screams he makes. I have been exposed to many cultures and know that all share this: people talk even when they aren’t speaking. I know Roy has secrets. I hear them in the sharp notes of the minuet he conjures, in the timbre of his brusque voice. He never looks at me. Brown eyes scan the black and white story the notes tell his fingers. His sharp Adam’s apple and long digits, dusky pink around the knuckles, rise and fall. When the lesson is finished, he plays an advanced concerto piece for me. He strikes the ivory, his head hanging low as he disappears into Bach. Beautiful and tragic. We walk downstairs, my head pounding from the noise of what’s not said. He leaves, clipped, polite, his shirt buttoned to his throat. I figure it is part of what is suffocating him. There are no hugs, no hand shakes. He will see me next week. He steps out the door and I am relieved. The house breathes again.
I walk across Arclight’s courtyard to the parking structure up concrete steps. My car, a gold Saturn, sits gleaming at me from across the structure floor. I smile, we’ve been some places, this car and I. My fingers scurry a spider’s dance through my purse. Wallet, cards, receipts, lipstick, other lipstick.
“Keys, keys… where are you keys?” I say in a mouse’s mutter, hoping they’ll answer. Receipts pour out onto the grease-licked floor of the lot. I bend down and hunch over my bulging purse. Fermented chaos.
Cards, a pen, a phone number I didn’t solicit scrawled on a crumpled napkin, chapstick, a pencil.
I chuckle at the young woman squatting on the cement, nose ferreting through purse. I am like a proboscis monkey. I look up at my car.
And then I feel it.
That unmistakable tingling when someone is watching you.
My mother is rolling pasta through a machine. We live in Jakarta, Indonesia, but my mother has a passion for all cuisine. She dollops undiluted love into the dry ingredients, chopping, whisking and tasting to elevate the spice of life with rosemary fingers. She never takes short cuts. Every night we travel to a new country, dinner our passport. Last night, she made cajun jambalaya, the night before we had Korean bibimbap. Tonight, she is making pasta from scratch.
“Have you done your piano practice this week?” she asks, winding a pale sheet of pastry through a silver machine.”
“Some,” I tell her, stretching the truth like the strands of fettuccine that hang drying over the backs of our kitchen chairs. I hardly practiced at all. I don’t want to see Roy again. I don’t say so, it’s not ladylike.
“Oh, that reminds me,” she says, dusting flour off the marble table. “Roy isn’t Roy anymore. Roy is now Joy, so that’s what you should call her from now on.”
“Roy is a woman now?” I ask.
“Yes. Roy was a boy, but Roy is now Joy,” she sings, playfully. We reconstitute the pasta strands that are broken, making them whole again, and speak of other things.
The hair on my arms rise to a sharp salute. I am too afraid to turn, to stand. I freeze.
Someone is right behind me…
My breathing stops.
Get up, get up…
The life surges back into me, I spin, pivot and thrust myself onto my feet. I catch myself just before falling.
My eyes focus, hone in on the dark figure before me.
He says nothing.
I stumble backwards. Next to the passenger side of my car. Back up slowly.
My back smacks against the cold cement of the parking structure’s ledge.
The figure hasn’t moved. He has me locked in a ferocious stare. His eyes, made of glass and flame, glow green, smoldering pinprick pupils. His anger is a dragon, airborne, stronger than the Santa Ana winds. He is ten feet away. I am witnessing something I’ve never seen in all my life. Something so dark, so feral my bones buckle. Unspeakable rage. Something unhinged.
And then he shatters the silence.
“I’m going to fucking cut you up into little pieces.”
My mother opens the front door and lets the sunshine in. Joy saunters in and sings my mother’s name, embracing her. Joy is wearing a blouse with flowers on, her haircut soft. She wears lapis-colored contacts, proud eyelashes dancing the quickstep. She has enjoyed the pleasures of painting, celebrating her face in the delicate palette of an Easter egg hunt. Her posture is open, heart unsheltered. We walk upstairs together. She has Spring in her step. She is patient with the mistakes I make. I’m bad at sight reading, at interpreting the music in front of me. She tells me everyone sees things in their own time. We laugh and joke, I meet her gums and a smile brighter than the kampung sun that paints in gold behind the window. I can’t find Roy. I don’t miss him. I catch a suggestion of him once when Joy laughs, whipping back her hair, her Adam’s apple darting in metronomic rhythm. I look forward to spending time with Joy and start to practice piano.
We will run into Joy at Pondok Indah Mall. She is wearing a flowing dress. Her hair is longer, feathered and flying free, and with sparkling eyes, she tells us she is engaged to a German man. She is pregnant with hopes and future and the ringing clinks of a champagne toast. I think of how she plays the piano, tulip nail polish blooming between the black and white, head held high, flicking her feathered hair. She sets the music free from the prison of a page. It soars, catching the wings of the wind. She is Joy.
His voice echoes across the parking structure, bouncing defiantly off concrete walls. It burns, new to my ears, bubbling with hot rage. Now, I hear nothing but the violent thunder of my heartbeat.
I can’t avert my eyes. If we unlock the stare, he will hurt me I know it.
Cut me up into little pieces.
This lockdown, holding this glower is the only thing that will keep me alive. Does he have a weapon? Can’t look down. His arms are lifted at his side, stiff. His hair is greasy and slick, draped like the wet wings of a crow.
I plunge my fingers into the purse that shakes in my grip. Keep your eyes locked. Find your keys. My blind fingers find wallet, cards, tissues, lipstick. Keys, keys, where are you keys? Please, help me, please, someone. He doesn’t move.
My lungs get greedy, gasping for more air and more, fast, fast, fast and I am wheezing, my heart a hummingbird. Fly away, fly away, fly away. I can’t get in air, can’t look away.
He takes a step toward me. A strange sound frees from my chest, feral and cornered. Behind me, the ledge dives down, down three stories to tarmac, the end of the road. He has clipped my wings. If I jump, I will never fly again. My hand-in-purse touches cold metal. Something round, smooth as cold stone, plops into my palm. Cell phone. I flick it open, and lower my eyes for the split second it takes to hit 9-1-1.
I lift my eyes back to him and hold the stare.
He doesn’t blink.
“I’M GOING TO FUCKING CUT YOU UP INTO LITTLE PIECES!” His scream rips through me, through the earth, through time. Thoughts are frozen. I am panting. Stuck. Broken.
“9-1-1 what’s your emergency?” comes a tinny voice from the flip phone in my hand. I respond with a string of vowels and grunts and hitches and the pleas of a women who is waiting for her execution.
“What’s he doing? How close is he to you? Ma’am, can you get to safety?”
He and I are staring and listening and waiting to see how the future will be written. She is on the phone, trying to get him to put me back.
“They know where I am. They are coming for me. They will get you,” I tell him between half sobs and the greedy breaths. He doesn’t blink. My knees jitter violently. I pray they hold me up for seconds longer, I bargain with them for my life.
He takes his time with a response, cupping my life like a paperweight. “You are so fucking lucky right now,” he says. A labored blink. He raises a sword-like finger, pointing it toward my skull. “Because I want to fucking cut you up so badly.”
He starts to move with a slow hiss. This is his place, his world, and so when he walks he does it slowly, time in his pockets. He keeps his eyes on me, keeps me in my place in his world. I can’t hold the fear back for much longer, the bridle is snapping. Gasping is getting louder. Don’t anger him, says a voice, your breath is angering him.
I stand—barely—convulsing next to my car, waiting to live again. For his permission. He is walking sideways step by step, won’t let me out of his sight, his boiling hatred. When he is gone, hysteria grabs me by the throat. I am asphyxiated by a panic attack that strikes from above. I press the phone to my ear, trying to let her in.
“Ma’am, is he still there? Can you tell me what is happening right now?”
“He’s still close, but not here, I have to get away!” I tell her, the words thick and sticky in my throat.
“Ma’am, calm down. I need you to calm down and think clearly,” she says. “I need you to find your car keys and get inside your car. Right. Now.”
I am fingers and knees and brittle bird bones, and I rifle through my bag. I find the keys.
“I can’t drive! I can’t drive because of my shoes!” I tell her.
“Your shoes? Ma’am, it doesn’t matter about your shoes, I’m urging you right now to get inside your vehicle and lock the door—”
“My shoes!” A string of screaming nonsense comes out of me, the words run into one another, elbowing to escape. The world has no sense in it and I have to tell her that I can’t drive in heels, never drive in heels, I don’t know why I couldn’t fight him off, I keep my driving shoes in the trunk and I have to get them because that’s where the sense is now.
“Ma’am, you need to calm down,” she says, echoing the other voices, “You are hysterical. Quickly get into your trunk, get your shoes and lock yourself in your car.” I run to the back of my car, teeth rattling, limbs seized by palsy. I rip off the clunky shoes. Maybe she understands that I have flown straight into a window, disoriented and paralyzed.
“Where is he?” comes the voice on my phone, cutting through my labored breaths, “Can you see him? You are still in danger. Ma’am, talk to me. Is he still close by?”
“I can’t look,” I tell her, eyes darting around the darkness of my trunk. “I have to get my shoes!” His anger burns the back of my neck. He is still somewhere close, but I can’t look, I can only find my shoes. I flinch, waiting to be clubbed.
I pull on the shoes, fall into the driver’s seat and lock the car doors.
“I’m in the car!” I tell her.
“Good. Now, I’m going to need you to drive away from there. To safety.”
I don’t have directions. I don’t know where that is anymore. I put my sensible driving shoe on the pedal. Shame breaks my bones and I drench the steering wheel with briny heartbreak.
I walk through the trees, pads of spongy moss cushioning my feet. Lime and shamrock and sage. I come here to remember where I come from, how to live, what matters. I hear the whispers of the wood, the tale of a toadstool. There is a celebration of life in every pregnant pod and emerald sapling. The audacity of an acorn. And I am invited, called to the forests surrounding my Seattle home. Years and distance have allowed me to grow strong and establish roots. I am grateful to be here. Grateful for every breeze and breath.
Memories of the night twelve years ago in the parking structure lie with crisp, dead leaves on the forest floor. I remember the feeling of being caged. How the day after it happened, I spent a whole day with a uniformed cop. We searched through security footage around the courtyard of Arclight. The camera had fourteen second delays and skips, so it never caught me or the man that followed me into the parking structure. A broken system. While they had placed security cameras in the courtyard, the entire parking lot itself remained a blind spot, the only record is in my scar tissue and how I startle at a touch. They never caught the man with reptile eyes. I’ll never know where his anger went. I suddenly think of my old piano teacher, Joy, proud and vibrant. I wonder where she is. When Roy left and she was born, did she inherit a bag of broken ornaments and wild-eyed predators?
When we were finished looking through the security footage, the cop pulled me into his chest and asked me out on a date. I was frightened. I said yes in a sparrow’s voice. Saying yes was how I would stave off his anger, the best way for me to survive. He visited me several times at work, flanked by other officers. I became good at telling him what he wanted to hear and then disappearing. I stopped answering my phone. I was flighty and skittish, exhausting to pursue. This became a pattern until I was frequently labeled a flake. I didn’t mind—my heart was still beating. The memory of that time tastes raw, like flour-freckled dough. It is no longer bitter. The past does not paint my present. I drop my bag of broken ornaments and think of other things.
My fingers twitch in the air, gently playing the keys of the wind. A silent song of survival. My sister sits in the tree above me. She is an icon of freedom with black body and a head painted as white as the bellies of the fish she hunts. She watches everything, darting eyes and steady claw. We lock each other in a stare, buttercup yellow to ocean blue. Holding this burning stare brings me to life. We see one another, equals. We are the same. We have hollow bones and rise above. We cannot be cut up into little pieces. We are whole.
My sister chirps a lively capriccio. She is larger than her male counterparts, up to a third of the size and fifteen pounds more. She does not apologize. The forest bows to her. Her formidable talons can carry up to four pounds, not an ounce of fear. Her only enemy is the violence of man. She lets out a refrain of piping notes and lifts up, up, up, too high to be grabbed. Wingspan stretching to the horizon, she paints the sky in looping circles of her own design. The sun breaks its yolk on her wings. She is Joy.
Art by Nicol Norman.