The boy took one of the tree’s blossoms in his hands.
“Yeah,” he said. “The cherries bloomed a few weeks back. But now it’s cold again.”
It was around five. Near dawn, late and early both. They stood beside her rental car in the little courtyard roundabout. Behind them, draped in clouds, stood an invisible mountain. The edges of the sky blued.
The woman gripped her hands in the pocket of her sweatshirt, wishing gloves. They were both smoking a slow-burning brand, and the boy was ill-dressed for the weather, in jeans and a fine cotton button-down. She had given him a blue hoodie to wear, both wincing at and thrilled by the maternal action of marrying the zipper’s teeth and pulling it all the way up under his sharp chin.
Were his hands cold? They didn’t look it, cupping flower and cigarette. She would remember that: how he held the blossom in the globe of space between his hands. It reminded her of the way he had looked at her a few hours earlier—she was at the door, ready to drive him home—and said, “Um. I like you?”
“I feel like the trees bloomed overnight,” she had said when they came out to smoke. “I didn’t notice these before.”
The branches were heavy with cream and pink and the shadow-color of leaves. She wanted to take his hand but understood that she shouldn’t.
Soon she would actually have to take him home.
“I’ll miss you,” he had said in the dark bedroom. “I won’t miss everyone. And I wouldn’t tell most people that I will miss that I’ll miss them.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” she had replied.
“You don’t have to say it just because I said it to you,” the boy told the woman.
Earlier that day—yesterday, now, twelve clicks back on the pale wheel of hours—the woman had reached the front of the line at the post office and realized she had not addressed her box. The man behind the counter gave her a label for free and told her to return to him rather than reentering the line, a beneficence she knew she was supposed to repay with quick, neat compliance. Then she addressed the label both to and from herself, a Moebius strip of correspondence. Her eyes filled with tears. When the kindly postal worker disappeared into the back, she ran for the door and drove her rental across the small Western downtown. Parked and pulled up a meditation on her phone.
She lotus-sat naked on a golden bench in a magenta room hung with gold roses, a cat purring beside her gleaming strong body. Before her lay a book with gilded rough-edged pages, her name on the spine. In the threshold stood a man’s silhouette. She extended her left hand, smiling. The cat yawned and rolled over, showing its tummy.
Over dinner, she told the boy about crying at the post office, leaving out the emergency meditation and costume change that had made her late. All day she had run errands in her favorite exercise tights, dodging man after man who remarked that he had never seen pants like that before. She had shed the tights into the morass of dirty underwear lumped on her bedroom floor, the first thing the boy saw when she brought him inside six hours later.
Across the table he formed and unformed. “Can I see your rings?”
She dangled her hands as if he was a manicurist. He applied his gentle attention to all but the two on her left ring finger.
Later, the woman dreamed twice of her apartment under the mountain, on consecutive mornings when she woke at dawn and curled a smooth white stone into her hand to urge sleep’s return.
In the first she sought another person amongst revelers assembled for a festival. Significant chunks of the Western downtown had become yawning brown lots pitted with leftover snow. She did not find him.
In the second she stood in her apartment with her husband, surveying the belongings that had multiplied to fill every shelf and drawer, ludicrous and bright, mostly ceramic. Crude, as if shaped by a child, or a disingenuous outsider artist.
One day the woman, then a girl, had gone with her lover and his father to the cramped house of an elderly couple who collected this stuff. The wife, in white pumps, offered the girl’s lover’s father a single glass of water before he spent hours hanging art they had acquired seemingly at random, good and bad and in such great quantity that excess pieces lay all about in tall horizontal stacks.
But they had had a lifetime, the woman a month. How had she accumulated so much? She realized with great relief that she would never make her flight out of the mountain town, only two hours hence. No way could all her garish altars of baked clay be made to fit in one box. She remembered smiling. She woke up.
Actually there hadn’t been much to pack. She had cut the seams of the cardboard box to close it smaller. It was gone already by the time the woman brought another person into her apartment and showed him her kitchen. Her bathroom and nook. Her chair and desk, the stones arrayed on top. Shed her rings and bracelets into a jangling pile.
Oh oh. A song the woman liked to hear when she drove her rental car through the mountain town hinged on those sounds. She had other totem songs. One with clapping. One synth-heavy happiness right out of her childhood. One in which the singer stretched three words into a lascivious repeated complaint. The songs sustained her through the days she roamed the wide boulevards and drove the downtown and had meetings, helplessly blinking tears for hours. Those moans and sighs, promises she couldn’t imagine. Oh oh.
Often the woman got lost or missed her onramp and barreled instead some new way in this place where she did not live save for these handful of weeks, the rental car gliding past industrial forts and neon marquees done up as faces and lonely streets across which the wind tugged actual tumbleweeds. Then the hook resumed, or a guitar crunched a mouthful of tremolo, or a vocal wrapped her, and again the woman was saved. Never more than on her final drive to the airport, when on an hour of sleep she sped through snow-dusted high desert spun from threads of gold and silver. Oh, oh.
How stunningly quick the difficult could become easy when knowledge filled its lack. At dinner the boy offered her his own food. Watched her raise it to her mouth. Drove with her after for hours, demurred when she asked his plans. But all his lingering was lost on the woman until her bedroom, where the boy stopped her beside the pile of her underthings—an homage, she wondered now, to the real mountain, outside?—and turned on his pretty eyes. Closed the space between them. It was hard to say what was better: feeling her body become a door, or the boy, opening it.
“In your future, the decision has already been made,” a seer had told the woman. “You can set the intention for it to happen without pain.”
What did she want it to look like, her future? A house of white rooms. Light and lush botanics. A spare chamber, hushed as a church, dominated by a tall iron sleigh bed. Flowers on a long table. Fish soup, salad with oranges.
How bourgeois. Who lived in this inspiration board? She could no more picture her husband in the white rooms than she could the boy. Perhaps pain was the only sure inhabitant. The woman believed in a gate beyond pain, but all she felt was vertiginous degeneration. Drop foot of the heart, sending her soul forward.
It felt better to send it back, to exercise her supernatural ability to capture. Net minnows and requeue their swimmy spin at her convenience. At some bed crux, for example, the boy had paused his kisses to slide his right index finger into the corner of his mouth. Moved it against the thick curtain of membrane, recalling that dental moment when the hygienist hooked the suction straw into the same spot and said, “Close.”
He withdrew and wove the finger between her legs and embraced her anew.
Later, the boy bent his arm over her head and his thumb alit near her mouth. Greedily the woman sucked the dear appendage, holding it in her teeth. Pressed her fingers over her face, blindfolding herself, the tips meeting over her third eye. Smiled at the inverted V between her palms, a shape that made her think of wings.
I can’t see, the woman thought happily. I can’t see.
In the escapade aftermath she resolved to divine and scry every morning. Peer at where she would be in one year. Two.
For the woman, the bedroom was a cathedral, and her body the host, and the one who ate and drank her supplicant and clergy both. And the thurible was her soul, breathing frankincense, dowsing holy fluid. The woman always came with her soul, and when she came, she warned the boy, she would shake.
At his first touch, she armored herself. Her soul was a slippery mollusk thing that loved to be held and would follow the boy home if she let it. Such was the price for a hungry woman of bottomless memory and intermediate clairvoyance: she was nostalgic already by the second kiss. When she bowed her head to embrace the boy’s long foot, its hand closed around his ankle: armor or amor, her soul was going with him.
It was vital to recall the stars that did not hang in the apse. The unpolished gems that she could push up inside her body. That the boy was frankly smooth—how he turned her, drew her—and serious, and kind, reassured. Maybe her soul could ride along. Like friends they took breaks, sought his shoe size, laughing, went for water. When she started at the lamp’s silhouette, he drew her close, asking, “What?”
She bade him to kneel. Set her mouth and ran her hands on his dear body. When you are raised Catholic, what male odalisque is not plotted on that crucified axis of comfort and dis-?
Oh. She couldn’t really get out of church, and she was a glutton.
Why not summon his mouth as proof of God?
With it he called her familiar to him. Said that he liked her shaking. That it was sexy.
Rich with this heady music, her temple filled the woman long after another person no longer did.
Later she wished she had given him a disclaimer. You who saw and fed and held my most lonesome self I keep forever in my sacred heart, as is my curse and my power. More than a little morbid, likely to terrify, and she could lay no claim: this was the cost, along with the bit of her soul that had disappeared with him as she waited in the idling rental to make sure he got inside all right, giddy, rich with happiness, and aware of how quickly she could keel to despair.
As they drove she had taken the boy’s hand. He held it quite naturally in the well between the passenger seat and center console, interlacing their fingers, a sweetness that would never leave her. When she parked they kissed as if the world was ending, which this one was.
In the apartment, the woman gathered in a metal bowl two colorful wrappers that had held herb mixtures, Road Opener and Come To Me—these had produced a gallon of pungent deep-magenta tea she infused into her bathwater to treat her sadness—and a slip of paper on which she had written her intentions.
It was snowing now. The woman carried the bowl out into the thin dawn, dropped lit match after lit match. When almost all was burned she ran barefoot across the wet lawn to cast her ashes at the mountain’s face. The wind blew it into her eyes instead. She made her wish, feet screaming.
Inside she drew a boiling bath and sat, releasing the last of the vehicle in which the boy had sent his soul inside her. In the future she would sleep for one hour. Pack. Drive to the airport playing her song, back arched and arms thrust. Lift her hand in front of her, a sign. Oh! Oh!
Matt McLean was born in 1984 in Binghamton, New York. He has a bachelor’s degree in Art Education from SUNY New Paltz. Using monotype, screen printing and traditional painting techniques, McLean creates landscapes that often veer into abstract, imaginary realms. He lives in Far Rockaway, New York, and shows his work frequently in New York City.
Lisa Locascio’s work has appeared in n+1, The Believer, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthology California Prose Directory. She is the first Anglophone writer to be granted an interview with Roberto Bolaño’s widow Carolina López, and her work on the author has earned mention in The Los Angeles Times, Arts and Letters Daily, and The New Yorker. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and has recently completed a novel.