Blesok no. 61-62, July-October, 2008
Prose


Sleep before Evening
(excerpt)

Magdalena Ball


Marianne sat on the beach with Eric. The air was heavy, her fingers sticky with ice cream and salt. Seagulls hung around looking for scraps, one moving close to them, stopping and staring with red eyes in its small white head.
    Eric’s hairy legs looked huge next to her small suntanned ones. The rainbow ice cream was so sweet it made her jaw hurt as she licked around the sides and sucked bits down through the hole at the bottom of the waffle cone. She ate quickly so she could get back into the water where friends waited.
    “C’mon Marianne, haven’t you finished yet?” they called, but the ice cream was endless, its viscous richness dripping down her arm.
    “That looks good. Can I have a bite?” Eric brushed sand off his hands and reached out. “Please? I’m very hot.”
    She pushed the cone towards him, relieved not to have to eat it all herself, but the scoop on top of the cone fell onto his lap, its red, orange, green and blue sticky lump spreading out over his swimming trunks as he jumped up in horror, the ice cream turning to fire. Eric’s scream filled the air, mingling with those of the gulls as they flew off, their white bodies singed black, the air full of smoke as day became night.

    Marianne was alone, shivering as the smoke became her mother’s cigarette.
    “Shhh. It’s okay honey. Momma’s here.”
    She whimpered as Lily held her tightly, rocking back and forth.

“I’m surprised you wanted to see me again.”
    The subway was crowded as usual on a Saturday afternoon. Shoppers with large bags advertising the stores they’d been to mingled together, bribing overtired children with candy. Marianne stood next to Miles as they moved uptown on the C train.
    “You think you’re the first person to vomit on me?”
    “Yes, I did think that.”
    “Nah. Vomit is my middle name. Though you do smell a lot better now than you did last week.”
    “I’ve had several baths since then.”
    “I should hope so. Mind you, I don’t have a bath myself, only a tiny shower, so a bath sounds luxurious.” He leaned over and kissed her head. “Your hair smells terrific.”
    “It’s the mango shampoo – EFA. My mother’s particular about what she uses.”
    “Right. We’re here.” Miles pulled Marianne off the train, grinning like a little boy as they came out of the subway on 81st Street. She recognized the brown façade with its green dome, although it had been years since she’d been to the Hayden Planetarium. Her visits had always been combined with visits to the Museum of Natural History, Eric holding her hand as he took her past the dinosaur halls, describing the habits of the huge barosaurus. The museum dinosaurs populated her dreams long after she stopped talking to her own personal fairy. They always ended with a visit to the planetarium, where Marianne sat under the dome and watched star shows or three-dimensional films about swimming underwater. As they took their seats, Miles leaned in towards her.
    “You’ll like this show. It’s about how the world might end. I’ve seen it like, five times. It’s Sensurround. The seats shake and the room goes hot and cold. Don’t be scared,” he whispered in her ear and licked it gently, while handing her bulky 3D glasses.
    “I won’t be scared, Miles,” she whispered back, and held his arm. “But just in case, stay close.”
    The stars filled the ceiling, and before the show began, Marianne felt like they were in Tompkins Square Park again, but this time without the vomit and headache.
    Then the stars began to circle and Miles kissed her on her ear in the same place he previously licked. She felt the warmth of his breath move through her body, settling somewhere in the vicinity of her hips, and the room began to move, the sun growing as it burned up the entire solar system. As the world ended in a huge fire, Miles’ warmth was protective, a crystal dome around her while everything else disappeared into black. She couldn’t imagine a better way to face annihilation.

“Bruce Juice for breakfast” was written on the desk, right next to a carved heart. “Joey is a hunk by Donna.” Marianne scratched her own pencil on the desk, writing “Miles” with a small heart next to it, and then she stopped herself, blushing, while Mr Nesmith started reading out loud a passage from As I Lay Dying, their assigned book.
    Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian …

    “This is a good example of Faulkner’s rich use of metaphor. Is Faulkner controlling your closeness to some characters and not others? How is this done? You have forty minutes.”
    Marianne looked up suddenly. She had forgotten about this test and had only read half the book. She would have to fake it. She wrote for ten minutes and even managed to put in a remembered quotation from an early chapter, but without knowing the ending, she couldn’t write coherently on the topic. There was no way around that. She spent the rest of the time tearing her fingernails. One went past the quick, bleeding as she sucked it, teasing the torn edge with her tongue, and then she stood up, bringing the partially written paper to Mr Nesmith’s desk. “I’m sorry. I didn’t finish the book. Can I be excused? I’m not feeling well.”
    “Marianne, this is unlike you. But you do look pale. You can take a retest next week if you want.”
    “Yes. Thank you. I think I’d better go see the nurse.”
    She grabbed the chair as the floor moved beneath her feet and, for a brief moment, she was back in the planetarium. She heard the words as if delivered in a classroom lecture: “Astronomers expect the gaseous knots, each several billion miles across, to eventually dissipate into the cold blackness of interstellar space.” She looked at the billions of galaxies swirling above until she too was floating up to the star-studded dome and beyond into the cold blackness of space, alone, a gaseous knot, doomed to dissipate.
    The voice of a lavender-scented angel whispered into her ear: “Open your eyes, Marianne.”
    She reached out her hand. “Where am I? Did I faint?”
    “Shh, honey, your mother is on her way to pick you up. You did faint. Your blood pressure is low. Drink.”
    The woman offered her a cup, but as she threw her legs over the side of the cot, she felt dizzy again and the nurse pushed her back.
    “Sit still, dear.”
    “Do you have anything hot? I’m freezing. A blanket? Or coffee maybe?”
    The nurse, a solid woman in jeans and a T-shirt, not an angel after all, handed her a rough army blanket. “Don’t throw up on it.”
    “I won’t.” She leaned back for a moment and then pushed through the dizziness and got off the cot. “I’m okay actually. I’ll be fine.”
    As she began to walk around, she felt stronger and quickly walked out of the door while the nurse was writing on a piece of paper.
    “Wait! Your mother.”
    Marianne could just hear the nurse yelling, but she was already out of the glass door and, as the fresh air hit her, she began to run towards the familiar path from Lagoon Drive East, across Greenway and down the Pacific Boulevard entrance to the beach, her breathing rapid and shallow and her surroundings blurry, until she felt sand under her feet.



“Guess who?” Marianne felt soft clammy hands over her eyes and knew immediately who it was, pulling them off her face and turning.
    “Hi, Todd.”
    “I saw your mom in the health food store last week.”
    “She lives on those bar things. Calling them healthy is a joke. They’re mostly sugar and fat.”
    “She gave me your number,” Todd said, looking away, “but I didn’t want to call.”
    “Why not?”
    “Are you playing dumb or did you forget completely?” Todd shifted his weight from one leg to the other, an awkward dance. “I was expecting you. It was a good party, you know. I hired a DJ and everything. You would have enjoyed it.”
    “Oh god, I’m sorry. Your eighteenth birthday party.” Marianne hit her hand against the side of her head. “I haven’t been well, Todd. Can you ever forgive me?”
    Todd’s lower lip quivered and he scratched at a red place above his right eyebrow. “Hey, no biggie. It would have been nice to have you there, but it was a good day anyway.” His eyes were a hound dog’s – big and watery – and Marianne gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
    “I’ll get you a present though. I’m really sorry. Look I’ve got to go.”
    “Wait. Marianne, it’s okay, really. I’ll walk with you to school. ET is playing at the Odeon. You wanna come with me on Saturday? The alien looks just like my dog, Buster.”
    “Yes, sure, oh wait, I can’t do Saturday. We’ll definitely get together though. I’m so sorry about the party. I’ll call you.”
    “What about school? Aren’t you going?”
    Marianne walked away so quickly she was nearly running. Todd was a nice boy and she’d been rotten. His drooping face stayed in her head as she headed past the Park Avenue shops towards the train station. She would surprise Miles. His apartment shouldn’t be too hard to find. She had to see him. It was gravity pulling her towards the Long Island Rail Road.

Miles had pointed out his building to Marianne a few times but she wasn’t sure which apartment was his. She found West Houston and Broadway and looked for a bolted metal door with tiny spaceship shaped rivets, set amidst art galleries, antiques, bread shops and hidden restaurants known only to the in crowd. One of the doors looked familiar and she decided to chance it. She knocked several times, pummeling to make a sound, but there was no response. She put her ear up against the door and could just make out music.
    “You made me love you darlin’ … you made me leave my happy home …”
    She banged again, harder. Finally Miles opened the door.
    “Shit! What are you doing here, beautiful?”
    “I found it,” she panted, as he took her coat.
    “I didn’t even know you knew where I lived. We’re rehearsing. Come in. Did I tell you about the band?”
    Miles’ place was a single open room with a sleeping loft above it. Instruments were scattered below the loft: electric guitars, amplifiers, a drum kit and two microphones. A short, red-haired girl stood next to the microphone, dressed in a gray sweatshirt with a jagged cut out neck and black leggings.
    “This is Marianne. Marianne; Cath, Joe, Andy, Mike.” Miles rattled names like fire from a machine gun. Marianne said hello in a shaky voice. Her awkwardness and youth felt a burden as the band continued to play through the introduction.
    “Sit down, Mari. We won’t be long.”
    Marianne sat on an old wooden fruit crate. The singer, Cath, stood close to the microphone, her body gyrating with the music. She had a gritty, bluesy voice, full of pain; a life lived hard. Her hair was hennaed. Marianne recognized the shade from the time her friend Cheryl talked her into henna in the hope that a few gentle highlights would liven her frizzy mop, but she ended up with almost the same electric shade of red. Luckily it faded quickly. Cath’s hair looked deliberate, her small neck circled by a studded dog collar. The punk effect didn’t fit the bluesy singing, but it matched the double fisted dancing, running mascara, pale lips and angry facial expressions.
    While Cath did most of the singing, the others twitched their shoulders, kicked their feet and flapped long hair in time.
    The drummer opened his eyes, looked at her and winked, while his large arms pounded on the drum kit, reminding her of the school band she quit towards the end of last year. She still remembered Mr Springwood’s hurt face as she told him she wouldn’t be coming back in senior year. He took band seriously and her departure felt like betrayal. He was probably right. She couldn’t even remember why she left now. It was part of a gradual sloughing of roles, shedding electives in preparation for an academic future.
    Miles stood in the midst of the sound. The harmonica he played was high-pitched and tinny, circled by the percussion and smoky vocals. Marianne felt a lump in her throat as he increased the tempo. It was as if someone sat next to her, crying. She wanted to comfort him, easing the sorrow that sat just between his lips and his instrument. The other musicians were little more than adjuncts to Miles’ playing once he started, and she lost interest in Cath, singing “If I ever mistreated you darlin’, I’m so sorry that I did …”
    Miles looked straight at Marianne while he blew alternatively into the harmonicas, his green cat’s eyes a pair of disengaged marbles. She wondered for a moment why she was here. Then the five repetitive chords of the music began to take on the contours of her body, reducing her to something primal, a mass of moving atoms, forming and reforming while Miles’ music barked and moaned, playing inside her, snaking round her brain.
    Miles was now singing “blue bird when you get to Jackson …” while Cath shook a tambourine, looking at him with a similar expression to Marianne’s. Marianne shivered, wondering whether Cath had some kind of musical power that she didn’t. The song finished abruptly, breaking the spell, and Marianne stood, knocking over a coffee cup left lying on the floor. Cold coffee spilled over her jeans and she stumbled as she tried to clean it up with her arm, apologizing.
    “Hey, it’s no big deal, let me help,” said the drummer, shaking his long curly hair. Marianne looked over at Miles, packing away his harmonicas.
    “Enough for today guys,” Miles said definitively.
    “That was nice,” she said, and it was obvious from the faces of the band that ‘nice’ was the wrong word to use.
    “Not just a pretty face, eh?” the drummer leered.
    “Not exactly enthusiastic, is she, Sonny Boy,” said Cath in a nasal voice that contrasted with the deep voice she sang in. Her chewing gum cracked as she waited for a response. Marianne wondered how she could sing with gum in her mouth; while Cath glared at her, her hair the red of the melting clock in Marianne’s nightmares.
    “How old are you, honey? Hope you don’t mind me asking.”
    “Um, nineteen,” Marianne said in a timid voice.
    “Yeah right, nineteen my ass. C’mon Miles, you hanging around high schools or something? She’s a little young for you.”
    “Give her a break, Cath. It ain’t your fucking business. Now get going everyone. I’ve gotta practice,” he said grinning his crooked smile. Miles didn’t have to be eloquent. His body spoke its own language.
    Cath grabbed Miles’ arm, leaning into his face. “Yeah sure, sweetie. It’s your life. But watch out for the cops. You just give me a call if you get lonely for a grown up, okay?”
    Marianne’s mouth dropped as she tried to maintain eye contact with both Cath and Miles, but it was impossible. Miles laughed, his body moving even more than usual, and Cath opened the door.
    “Hey, don’t take offence, honey. I’m just teasing. You can take a joke can’t you? Later folks.”
    Marianne felt the hard words aimed at her from Cath’s gun of a mouth. Marianne didn’t fire any bullets back. Embarrassed as she was, she knew she had the upper hand. Miles was hers now and the others would have to go somewhere else in the impersonal New York City afternoon.
    The four band members left in a clatter of instruments and then she was alone with Miles in the empty studio.
    “Hungry?” he asked her.
    “Not really.” Marianne’s stomach growled, but she liked the empty feeling as he pulled her towards him, his rough hand on the smooth of her back.



They climbed a ladder to a loft above the studio. Miles’ bed filled the small space and there was no place for Marianne to sit. The ceiling was a mass of stars. They were gold when the lights were on and glow-in-the-dark when Miles turned them off, which he did for her with a childlike chuckle.
    “Check this out, it’s just like the Hayden.”
    There were no windows and the stars were the only light in the room.
    “Not enough space to swing a cat,” Marianne said, looking uneasily at Miles’ bed; a black futon on a slatted wooden frame. The whole thing felt sparse and she moved away from Miles, pressing her hand against the wall for support. Miles arched his back and pulled Marianne towards him.
    She closed her eyes and breathed in the smell of cigarettes, perspiration, human musk and the tinny residue from his harmonicas. She shivered, trying to pretend this wasn’t her first time. His arms were strong around her, bracing her, holding her down, and she felt herself falling, the glowing stars galaxies, the comets moving in the night sky, and her head spinning as he pressed his lips against her mouth. They were laughing, dancing, and he was licking her face, purring.
    “Meow,” she whispered.

Then Marianne was on the train again, the endless roll of wheels beneath her. She felt homeless, moving towards a destination that had no hard point. She could feel her body in motion, spinning through an indifferent universe as she watched her reflection in the black windows, her face distorted by the condensation dripping outside the glass. Something had changed in her. It wasn’t just the old cliché about sex making your eyes sparkle and skin glow. She didn’t necessarily feel better. It was almost nostalgia. Something had gone and would never come back.
    The train was crowded at 6:00 pm with people returning from work, dressed in their pressed suits and tailored blouses; just another ordinary day for them. Their faces looked devoid of emotion and she tried to conjure the soft life under the surface, something tiny, vulnerable and hidden, even from their own shiny mirrors in which they shaved and made themselves up each morning. They reminded her of Russell just before he left – his continual disappointment obvious as he walked through the door each evening. How did a person get to that point, she wondered. Her grandfather never fell into a grind, an ‘endless spinning hamster wheel,’ as Russell called it.
    Marianne never saw that resentful look on Eric’s face. Right until the end, he was excited about his work, animated when talking to her, or lecturing his students about some idea. What did it matter if he was right or wrong, she thought. His life was full of pulsation and his death was sudden, not the living death of these commuters. She wondered whether she should be happy for him, dying with plans percolating in his head, a single shock of pain. Or perhaps he just never talked about the moments when he sat down, bored and disappointed with the endless administration of papers and dumb questions, asking himself whether he had wasted his life. She wondered whether Eric ever wished he had spent his life doing something more concrete, like joining the fire department or designing buildings.
    She closed her eyes, imagining herself a commuter with a daily routine that killed both pain and pleasure, subsuming the important under the urgent, suspended in the motion of back and forth. Or would she, like Eric perhaps, spend a lifetime creating something useless, but only in retrospect, when it was too late to back down. A life of fairytales and false epiphany.
    The waves broke against the shore, their soft return to the sea masking the violence of the water as it rose and fell against the sand. It was the end of May and the air was summer warm.
    Marianne pulled off her tired jeans and faded T-shirt. The alternative sensations of cool and hot were pleasant as she pushed her feet into the damp sand, walking towards the water. She had the beach to herself, cutting school again in spite of her guidance counselor’s concern. Marianne knew she was only passing because the teachers couldn’t bring themselves to fail her. Her report card for this final semester was going to be terrible, and NYU would receive the results.
    As the water deepened, she swam across the tide, thinking of the Maurice Sendak book she loved as a child, with Pierre saying: “I don’t care.” He was eaten by a lion in the end, but the lion spat him out and he learned his lesson. The little verse was in her head: “If you will only say ‘I care …’” She cared, but her schoolwork felt meaningless. At least the ocean still made sense. The waves were large and powerful in the noonday sun, but swimming was easy. She went out further and further, imagining herself a fish, scales glistening; fins opening and closing to let air in.
    She was a long way out now, carried by a rip, and would have to fight her way back in. She was a strong swimmer, even a lifeguard one summer, laughing with friends on a tall deck chair. Where were all the friends she used to have? She’d had those clannish visits to the beach, talent shows and pizza lunches back when she first started high school, but she always held something back, and that something grew larger in her. It was no longer a small grain of discomfort lodged just beneath her skin; it was now an abscess that continued to increase in size.
    Cheryl was her best friend since sixth grade. They’d done everything together in the past, but somehow Marianne avoided Cheryl the whole senior year.
    Feeling the current’s pressure, she assumed the correct position, her body vertical, arms and head dangling in the water. She wasn’t frightened, although there were two deaths last year from rip tides. What else could kill her? Rocks, sharks, drowning, hypothermia. It would be easy to give up, sucked back into the water out of which her species once crawled.
    She never had to rescue anyone as a lifeguard. They just did CPR on a plastic dummy and raced each other on the beach. Now she swam against the weight of water, wondering how such a fluid medium could be so powerful. Marianne had to angle herself and swim parallel back to shore across the narrow current. Her body stung with cold and her lungs ached with the effort of swimming.
    Eventually she got to shore, her legs lumbering over the rocky bottom, still fighting and breathless. The air was cold now and she couldn’t stop panting as she ran across the sand, seawater flowing out of her nose with mucus and salt as she wrapped herself in the beach towel, lying down to try to warm up in the remains of a setting sun.




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