by Juanita Asapokhai
The Tuesday I followed my old best friend Tia to the beach we drove to a discount furniture store that emerged right off the interstate–a big-box warehouse that sprawled like a football stadium between a tiny Jamaican restaurant and a small construction project a couple of hundred feet away, flagged for onlookers by a large and rusting yellow crane suspended in the air. I had seen the crane a quarter mile back; when Tia saw it, she nodded and said, “Port-a-Potty” instructively, tapping her knuckle against her window to redirect our course. I slid us over into the exit lane, while Tia pulled long strands of peeling leather from her seat like a bored teenager.
“Those are definitely not open to the public,” I said as I pulled up beside bands of construction tape. She had already released the clasp of her seatbelt by the time my car rolled to a stop.
“So?” she replied, cracking open the car door and slipping out of the vehicle. “These dudes are probably some kind and generous gentlemen that won’t mind me using their dirty bathroom.”
“Please be nice,” I mumbled. She slammed the door in response.
I watched her as she waved at the group of construction workers surrounding the crane with both of her hands, her footsteps directed towards the shock-blue container standing stationary beside them. I could see Tia switch all of her weight onto one foot and point to the Port-a-Potty. The man closest to her, gripping a hammer by its claw, shook his head slowly. He appeared to be
smiling, the skin of his forehead wrinkled and raw, glossed over with sweat, like a red onion torn open, but he remained squarely between Tia and the bathroom. She threw her hand over her shoulder without turning around, and the man’s gaze shifted to my car, squinting directly at my face. He shook his head again, this time pointing the hammer at her for emphasis. Tia straightened her spine so she stood at her full height before turning around abruptly.
“I can’t understand how they expect me to believe that it’s a health hazard to let one more random person shit in a toilet that’s been shit in by a hundred random people this year already,” she complained, slamming the door upon her arrival. She stared out the window at the men again and rolled her eyes, before glancing to her right at the furniture store and the small crowd trickling inside.
“Let’s try over there. There’s definitely a bathroom.”
“Would you want to go shopping for the apartment?” I asked. “Or are we just window-shopping today?”
She paused to look at me with a delighted grin on her face, revealing the badly chipped and jagged front tooth that kept her familiar to me, even as when time threatened to smoothen her into a stranger, and my breath clipped in my chest.
“I knew I brought my wallet with me for a reason. I can already picture my room with a new desk.”
For the longest time, when I dreamed of my future home, I always saw lots and lots of stuff–a once-barren space since sealed up and overflowing with objects, evidence of my self and my belongings tucked everywhere it could, from the front door to the kitchen sink. Ornately designed dining chairs, couches that contorted themselves in unnatural ways as if to impress the human beings that used them; brassy door knobs, lush carpets that licked softly at the soles of feet; walls that were papered and colored at four corners. And yet, my mind was never imaginative enough to picture another person to inhabit the space with me. In the dreams, my head appeared alone.
Tia had a tendency to talk in vague impressions and ideas. A bed with pink, fitted sheets and a wide window, constantly cast open for life–she wove the hum of street noise into her fantasy, chatter from her neighbors, Tia’s own voice pouring through the screen. She had sketched her dream home for an art class during our junior year of high school: a geometric, sparsely decorated apartment that looked like an empty theater stage. It gaped, she said, aching for people, but was held over in a warm glow by the assurance of their imminent arrival. I am so terribly uncertain that I buy a lamp that looks like a person–if people had heads that were shaped like lightbulbs and spines that curved at 60 degrees–and a set of short black and white curtains that could pass for coats hung on a rack if you stared long enough. Tia grabbed a white towel with a “B” sewn into it off a rusted rack.
“B” for Bateson?” I had her initials tattooed on the inside of my right forearm in her best handwriting, which has looked the same since middle school. Mine looped into a curly, lazy “H” and “C” on her left ankle.
“Oh, it’s a B?” She turned the cloth right-side up. “I thought it was a badly drawn heart.” Tia laughed and slung the towel over her shoulder. I looked at her and smiled too, embarrassed, upon realizing that my smile burned in my cheeks.
I resolved to tell her that I could no longer go to the beach at the checkout desk. But by the time we arrived, lamp, bulbs, and curtains in my hands, and Tia’s cart overflowing with towels and a desk chair, though no desk, my embarrassment had crystallized into shame, and I paid for both of our things in silence.
Two hours before we got to the beach, we decided to comb through the outdoor museum exhibit that had been installed half a mile from the shoreline since we were nine years old. It debuted on my birthday; my mother had carted Tia and me off in her car and brought us to visit it like it was a present just for me. The show was made up of four different bodies carved out and captured in an act of motion – a ballerina, a basketball player, a swimmer, a baseball catcher. A painting of an angel stood alone on an easel next to the sculptures, which critics had hastily decided was a stand-in for the artist herself. We took turns clicking ourselves into photos using my mother’s camera, mimicking the armor and stoicism of the sleek ballerina, or the gray swimmer permanently poised for a leap, standing still under each other’s shuttering gazes, until we relaxed and collapsed on the ground back into our own wriggly arms and legs.
While Tia trailed behind an exhibit guide addressing a small audience of ambling, elderly couples, I sat at the foot of a statue of the baseball player with living eyes and waited for the promises of art to come true; for a tide-like peace to roll over me, or wisdom-rain to drip down from some indefinite source above. I walked at an angle around the sculptures and tried to locate meaning in the circle; I slid my fingers over the basketball player’s cold skin, seeking the counsel of the marble. Tia had explained to me once that she was not a theist or atheist. What prefix indicates fear of God in the primitive, reactive way? Like running from a tidal wave. But silence continued to well up and bluster against my ears, a bitter reminder that all my questions, stacked tight as matryoshka dolls within one another, lacked any answer that could soothe me or set me on a fresh course. Tia looped her arm through mine in front of the painting of an angel, its hair exploding from its head in bright, cascading tufts of fire. I bowed to my lower nature; I stepped away from her and straight into the painting.
You remember to bring the sunscreen to the beach. I watch you like a kid – learner, not voyeur – moving lotion over your skin, treating your body like it was a part of you that had to be addressed, and it was not just a conduit for some inner light. My body has always been pretty auxiliary, like an extra cellphone charger or vitamin supplements. Perhaps the light has been external all along; perhaps you’ve already seen it; perhaps I don’t have to open my mouth or eyes like flashlights in order for it to be seen. Perhaps light is communicated wordlessly, which is not to say thoughtlessly, but through some method that is superlingual.
At the beach while Tia swam, I called my mother, who refused to pick up, cutting the call at the third ring. A group of ants near my backpack had encircled a peach slice in a dotty square and was preparing to feast. Their synchronicity made me envious; I had never been so coordinated with just my one body, within my own body. What was the secret? What I wanted for my hands happened to my feet. Sometimes the urge to ask Tia how we had been friends for so long, why she had shed me like old snakeskin the second we’d grown up – and why had she come back, now, for my carcass? – seared in my chest like a hot iron. I’d blow air into my closed fist until the feeling passed. I was anointed in the sun and saltwater, sweat sliding off my forehead and burning my eyes. I pulled my shoes off by the heels and tossed them away from my towel; my pant legs had been rolled up already, before I had time to change my mind. If I closed my eyes, the touch of the insects were like microkisses from impossible mouths. I thought Tia might be watching me; I hoped she was. She had always been good at looking for me, even when I was trying to hide. I knew she was watching for sure when I opened my mouth and let an ant crawl in, and she knocked over her water bottle in surprise.
After the beach, we sat in the trunk of my car to devour what was left of our snacks. Tia split three apples in half with a dinner knife and plucked out the seeds, tossing them onto the pavement before crushing them under her bare foot. “Cyanide,” she whispered, placing a half in my palm. “You know, it might not seem like it, Imani, but I love you more than most things.”
I had been through a lot of doors in the years before Tia had come back to me, heart wide open but with a crustacean shell sutured to my skin, knowing that despite all the noise and hurt I was making – because it was hurt-making, the way that I ignored her calls and clipped conversations sharply at the tail end, before niceties could transform into kindnesses or devolve into something else truthful – all I really needed was a hug; to be folded into someone’s body like a pearl in a shell, and kept. And kept. And kept.