Out of April and back to short stories and personal essays. This short story is one that I wrote while studying abroad in London and taking a creative writing class at London Met. My creative writing class was concerned about “place.” This short story bent that theme as far as I could take it by focusing on the ephemeral with a man in transit. My favorite plays and theatres from another class I was taking also help to color the story. The narration harkens back to my favorite short stories with an unreliable narrator. I was trying on new slang in this story with my British narrator and while writing it, I read it out loud to one of my new friends at the time. He was extremely gracious and quick enough to change my “dime” to a ten pence.
This is also a story that I critically analyzed for my class, which was perhaps one of my favorite parts of that class. It was great to write a short story or essay and then analyze as we would a “real” published story. Perhaps, next week I will post my analysis of this story. But before I tell you what I think it means, I think it is best if you decide what it means to you first.
Kylie Louise McCormick
There is something about looking out the window of a bus that brings unwelcomed memories. I could see my brother, Paul, in the fog, falling into his soft and quiet depression over the grassy hills. Our mother’s death looked like the short, yet solid, wooden fence posts, locking us both into the mystic lands that were passing by my window. Life since that day had proven to be inescapable, but still, I sought the small breaks between the wooden posts. I thought that if I could just sneak out unnoticed, I could slip through the barbed wires and be free. A small escape was all I ever needed, until now.
It was the night of my mother’s funeral that I had seen my first play—a modern adaption of Electra. The theatre was small and the play was violent. I imagined myself as Orestes, killing my mother instead of the cancer in her lung, my knife much sharper and quicker than her cigarettes were. Her death had left me at twenty, and Paul at seventeen, not ready to be men. I was in school at that time or was supposed to be. I was skipping most of my classes to wander around London, making miniature pilgrimages to sites of historical significance for aspiring poets.
The week my mother died, I had been studying the American poet T.S. Eliot. After I had finished reading his critical pieces, I stood in the mirror and stared at my reflection. I hadn’t been sleeping well, and it seemed to have aged my eyes. My hair had grown long and untamed, and my unshaven cheeks looked patched and ragged. I was the spitting image of Horace’s mad poet, unaware, in my youth, of all the finer details of the craft that I had claimed. At the time, I was angry at my age for falling short of Eliot’s standard of seriousness. I felt like the child who knew he was brave enough for the rollercoaster despite his stunted growth. That day in the mirror, five years felt insignificant. I could not see past my reflection to my youth, I could only see the hours I had poured into these literary geniuses and into my own work—if that did not make me a poet, make me a man, then what did?
That Friday I received the phone call from the hospital with the news of my mother. Suddenly five years felt unfair. She had cheated me out of five years of my youth. A few days later, I found myself in a cold theatre, sitting in the dark, crying for the first time since I had picked up the phone. It had become a small escape.
As my brother’s mental stability spiraled downwards, my small escapes were all I had. I had moved back home to watch over him and reclaimed my small bedroom. I smiled, thinking about the scrapbooks I had filled with ticket stubs and programs, carefully hidden in my dresser drawer. Then I leaned my head against the cool glass of the bus window so I could tilt my eyes away from the scenery. The land seemed to have me spellbound, drawing up thoughts from my mind as if I were a well. I let my thoughts scatter and dissipate, evaporating into fog. My eyes ran to the seat across from mine, where an older gentleman sat. He was leaned back in his chair, his mouth open as he breathed the heavy sighs of sleep. The top half of his dentures had fallen from his gums and left a gap between the closed set of false teeth and the old pink gums covered mostly by his drooping top lip. The image of his old age was more startling than the memories of my mother’s death, yet I could not look away. He sat alone in his seat across from me and I wondered if he had been sitting alone his whole life. I pictured him with a cane, in his nice dress coat and hat, going to dinner alone and ordering the soup. He would sit at a table meant for two because our society was not made for loneliness. The empty seat across the table would stare at him, and he would refuse to raise his eyes from his soup to meet its empty arms. He would go to the park alone and sit on one side of the park bench. There would be a slight effort to welcome strangers with the empty other half, but he would not be able to look anyone in the eye. And he would sit in dark theatres alone, surrounded by strangers, but all by himself. Then he would go home at night, and crawl onto the right side of the bed, leaving the left untouched. I wondered vaguely why he was journeying to Scotland; my thoughts ran first to suicide. An attempt to throw himself off a foggy cliff so he would not have to see the end coming until it was there. I pictured Paul’s imagination running feral in the scenery outside. Each new mile presented a thousand different ways to die. Part of me had stopped trying to stop him—the small part that waited just another second before calling the police again, the small part that paused for a few extra moments to watch the blood pooling in the bathtub for the third time, still amazed at its color and volume. I could draw a circle on my skin and identify the exact point where this part of me existed. It was just left and north of my belly button, no bigger in width than the size of a ten pence. I knew it was there because in those moments that small part of me had grown very cold. I was afraid that it was going to start spreading. Maybe I hadn’t noticed it when it was the size of a needle head. Could I have been only vaguely aware when it was just but a five-piece? Will I notice when it expands to a golf ball? How about a grapefruit, like a cancerous lump that is urging me to let my brother die?
I shifted, uncomfortable in my bus seat. The padding had worn thin and I could feel the hard plastic underneath me. The seat had appeared comfortable at first glance, with its tall back and velvet seat covering, but the longer you sat the stiffer your back became, like a seat in the theatre. The theatre seats are all the same in the end; they look and feel amazing for five to fifteen minutes, then the stiffness starts to spread. If a show is good, you will not notice this until the interval or the end. If a show is poor, the stiffness will conquer your mind. Life on a bus was a poor show with no blackouts. Yet despite this, it was the largest escape I had ever had.
Theatre had been supplementing my real life for several years now. I would leave the house each Thursday night, suicide attempt or not, and lose myself in the dark in a theatre. A play, unlike life, was ephemeral. If it wasn’t good then it went away. If an actress died, then not to worry, she would spring back to life again for the curtain call. Orestes’ mother survived the brutal stabbing and smiled widely with her blood splattered on her face, holding hands with her son. My only tangibles were the tokens I stored away, hidden alongside neatly folded socks and nightshirts, pages upon pages of escape that I would look over each night before I fell asleep. And that was enough, that used to be enough. I could lie in my own dark space on the right side of my bed, and hold my own spotlight over the tickets, and I would be able to dream.
I suddenly became aware that I had been wringing my hands while I thought of this. My late-night escapes, sneaking through the open space of barbed wire, leaving my brother behind alone to suffer. My skin felt tight on my hands, stretching over the bone. I was taking it too far. I should have never left London. I wondered if Paul would be aware that I left, in the last year and a half he began to no longer see me. I was the ghost, or maybe a guardian of some kind, that kept him from himself. It wasn’t every day that he tried. Sometimes he could go months on end without another attempt. The small, cold part of me blamed him and his attempts. Each scar on his wrist resembled the barbed wire strung between the fence posts, keeping me from freedom. My eyes had drifted back to the land outside my window. The fence had disappeared and I felt my lungs tighten. Instead, there were jagged rocks, jutting out of the grass. The grass looked soft, like pillow top. I imagined the old man next to me falling from a cliff onto the grass. The grass cushioned and cradled him like a child as he wept. Would it really be a second chance? If there was no fog, would he have aimed for the rocks? I pictured myself falling into the grass, it surrounding me, and bouncing me upwards. The dew on it would wet my face and I would be new baptized: a free man, no longer fenced.
The woman in the seat ahead of me cleared her throat and leaned her chair back. I felt myself being closed back into the bus and out of my head. The newly formed gap between the seats gave me a small window into their world, only one seat ahead. Her lover sat next to her, reading while she rested her hand on his thigh and looked out the window. I wondered if they were running away. Then I decided against it, who can leisurely rest their seat into a stranger’s lap and still be running? I decided instead that this was the first trip they had ever taken together. Her fingertips were moving hypnotically against his thigh, rubbing small circles into the fabric. They both seemed unaware of the slight calming motion in her hand as if she were singing a quiet lullaby with her skin. Both had grown so used to the tune that they could no longer hear when it played softly. I imagined them in the dark in their hotel room, close together under the sheets, her hands running through his hair. She would touch him in slight ways in public, to let him know she was there. She would reach out and tug slightly on his back belt loop when they had to walk single file in a crowded tube stop or pavement. Walking beside him when he would make a funny comment, she would reach her arm over and lightly land on the small of his back, it felt more intimate and delicate than grabbing his arm as she laughed as other women did. As he would bend over to tie his shoe, she would rest her hand slightly on his shoulder. Her hand would alight on him like a delicate bird, touching and holding, leaving in the quiet rush of feathers and coming just the same. In these small ways, she showed that she loved him. I imagined him not knowing how to respond, not accounting the small physical love she showed, unaware of its depths. His love more tangible, he put them together on a bus, and now instead of watching her sad eyes look out at the unfamiliar fog, he sat next to her and read.
This was the moment I finally let myself think of her. She had been magnificent. Her presence had been so raw, so fresh, that I felt myself sink heavy and fast into my bench seat like an anchor. The Tricycle Theatre had the shittiest seats in London, but the best shows. The velvet bench seat bounced back against my weight, making me aware of where I was. I had felt as though I had snuck into her room and was secretly watching her from her closet. I could see who she really was as she stripped her personality bare just by the way she moved across the stage. I had never experienced a woman deeper than the river. I knew her bed was soft and sandy and that her undertow was strong, for she was already yanking me under. Sure, she was playing a character on stage, but no one could have played that role but her. That role was a part of her being. Her slender figure graced the stage; each step she took was raw and wild, like an untamed animal ready to fight. The show was fit for fringe theatre, if it had been anything but, she would have outshined the mise en scène. In the second act, her wild eyes reached into the darkness and I could tell that she was looking at me. She paused briefly, looking at my clean-shaven face, my glasses perched on my nose, she looked me in the eyes and she smiled slow, before licking her lips and turning back to the scene, getting back into character. I knew my eyes had spoken to her, if only for a moment, and in that moment, I saw a future. I saw her smiling with her nose wrinkled, I pictured picking her daffodils in the spring and putting wildflowers in her hair. I imagined lying with her in the Scotland grass beds, listening to her thick accent spit from her plump lips. Her curly hair would bounce and collect seeds from the trees during the spring months. Locked in pollen, I would pick the hopes of life from her hair until she would stop my hands from cleaning her. She was not something that needed to be cleaned. She was freedom incarnate. She was Mother Nature, locked to a human vassel. She was my second coming, my second chance. I did not move from my seat until the show had long been over and the usher came and touched me gently on the shoulder.
“Sir?” Her voice was meek. Her hair in a short black bob, her face pinched white. She paled in comparison to my love.
“Sorry,” my voice was broken as I realized where I was. I began to collect myself and move. The girl smiled, weakly.
“It’s alright, Gerald. Have a safe trip home. See you another Thursday soon?” Her voice was small. I just nodded my head downward so I could see my feet and walked past her to the rainy streets of London.
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