Autumn

I zipped the cold into my boots this morning and it’s lingered there all day. Thoughts of duty wander through my mind, never settling on an action enough to pull me off the couch. I nestle into my down-filled sofa, wrapped in a big quilt. The fall is domesticating. The fire-colored leaves remind me I’m not quite as wild as I used to be. I go on a fall-food hunt, analog style, ruffling through my grandmother’s cookbooks to find the her pumpkin muffin recipe. I’m in my tiny apartment. My space heater is close, oscillating, leaving me alternating between seeping chill and scratchy hot.

I think of my big, old house and wonder if I miss it. Thousands of square feet to roam, decorate, to vacuum...to insure. No, I guess not. Insurance...car insurance. I have to pay that today. Must get a car part. I sigh before I open the quilt and shut off the heater, grab my cold metal keys and head to the auto store.

It’s a manufactured cold in there and it smells like rubber. I researched what I needed before I came and it takes me a few minutes to find it. I only hesitate for a moment with my fingers resting on the orange bottle of dashboard cleaner, reminding myself I’ll never use it, and I walk away. I pick up the fuel injector flush and I get in line to pay. There is a younger girl in front of me. She is on her phone, talking about her evening plans, but she’s mostly playing to her audience in the store. The rest of us are silent. She gesticulates and a quarter drops from her hand, clinking and whirling on the linoleum. Bending to pick it up, her mini skirt gives everyone a glimpse of red floss disappearing between her round cheeks. The backs of her legs are dimple-free.

“Next.”

She’s next, but she’s making a show of picking up her money. Like a stripper, she arches her back and presses her ass into the air, fingers lingering in a clumsy fashion, scraping up the edge of the quarter. Her audience holds our breath until she straightens and walks forward. She elongates her stride and forces her quads to tighten, flex, and shine beneath the lacquer of lotion she’s rubbed into her legs. Leaning on the counter, she holds her head prettily. She glances at her reflection in a hubcap, then looks at herself on the closed circuit, anti-theft camera. She is still on the phone when she asks the cashier to install the part she’s just purchased in her car. Her pouty mouth rolls out in a childish gesture, and as I watch in the reflection of the hubcap, I see with smug satisfaction that her red bottom lip has left a half-crescent of color on her chin. The rest of the line rolls our eyes. I judge her and then I am embarrassed that I judged her, and then I am nostalgic:

Two in the morning at Wal-Mart, tired college eyes—Tova and I are picking out the best mascara, spending stupid money. Peppermint Chapstick swiped under my eyes at 9:37am on a Tuesday in Dr. Boar’s atmospheric science class—hoping the burning sensation will keep me awake. Up all night in young, anxious love, not daring to break conversation, but having to pee so badly. Stuccoed, whispered conversations, splayed on the hood of my car by the lakeside, looking at light pollution, swimming in humidity, pretending we don’t feel the mosquitos. Rivers of sweat on foreheads, embarrassed in front of crushes. Singular mind: trying to choose money and dreams. First cat, first mouth to feed, first benefactor’s anxiety. Putting down the second cookie for the first time. First bottle of wine purchased at the drugstore next to the art store where I picked up a canvas and some paints and a jazz cd: first content night alone. That shaded summer when he quit me, blue tar-ish feelings, then sludging to rebuild after.

“Next,” the cashier says, snapping me back. He’d just returned from helping the young girl while the line shifted from foot to foot, picking up and smelling the Christmas tree air fresheners, some huffing and leaving the store.

I walk forward and put the fuel cleaner on the checkout desk and I swipe my card. Gotta pay this bill.

As I drive home I listen to the radio and I don’t touch the dial to try and find the perfect song; I take what the DJ serves me. I don’t roll the windows down because I’m on the phone with potential clients while I sit in traffic.

As a child, being nervous was being called on in class. As a teen, being nervous was taking a last breath as he leaned in for the first kiss. As an adult, it’s called anxiety and it’s hiding behind every flashing dashboard light, indicating something expensive is wrong in the car, and it’s in every girl in line reminding me that I am getting older. But I am happier now, putting down work on a cold fall day to make tea and scavenge my kitchen for pumpkin muffin recipes.

When I get home, I take off my comfort-over-style boots and turn on the space heater, stretching my toes in their non-matching woolen socks I’ve knitted for myself. I don’t mind aging, I decide. At least I’m not in a miniskirt on a cold day.

Louisiana Air

Louisiana air feels like a green veil. The humidity is close and dampening. Low-clinging cloud cover and towering thunderheads make it like a greenhouse, which explains why Southern ladies have such supple skin. Westerners herd cattle all day, making them look like they were tanned by a leather smith. Easterners stand all along the Atlantic coast, the gale winds blowing their skin back until they look like stretched canvases. Northerns live in frigid cities where tall buildings block the sun; they look grey, like lumpy, day-old oats. But Southerners—oh, Southerners—wrinkles wouldn't dare. Southerners look daily-dipped in golden butter ‘til they die.

The air in Louisiana presses silence into your ears, as if the whole of the region were a soundproof room. It lingers, all thick and warm, tangible and tactile. Before a thunderstorm, even the atmosphere is voluptuous and rich, charged. In dry climates, the thirsty air evaporates a person’s glow.

In Louisiana, the steamy days make simmering nights. Love strikes young in the South, and I think it’s because of the humidity. Everyone’s skin holds a glittering sheen of sweat; even bringing in the groceries flushes the cheeks to an unchaste color. The soft-gauze haze filters faces, like a Vaseline smear on a photographer’s lens—the air makes everything feel more sensuous. Every word attenuates into whispers in the viscousness, and in that, there is a certain kind of heightened intimacy.

The streetlights, surrounded in swirling mist, start switching off; it's early morning and you should sleep. But you keep talking to that boy. Humidity gathered in his hair, giving him a silver-spritzed halo. The droplets that surround you are too small for gravity to have its way; instead, the dew hangs suspended, like plankton drifting in the sea. You were both raised near the Mississippi River, and neither cares about the glisten gathering on noses and cheeks; you’d rather stay in the warm blanket of nature than go into the chilling bite of air conditioning. He leans and kisses you. The breath between you warming the sweat that’s slicked on your face, his lips are already moist, and then he leaves. You watch the red aura of his taillights disappear around the corner. You go inside and pour sweet tea from the fridge and shiver, clothes damp. The whiskey-colored pitcher is full of fresh mint, which grows like a weed because of the humidity.

Mom's Last Ride

Martha woke up on a beach. Around her, scrap metal and random clothes tumbled in the surf at the edge of the water. After stretching and finding she wasn’t injured, she walked around the entire island in an hour. It took her a full day of waiting, hoping, to realize there were no other survivors from the plane crash.

The morning she left her daughter’s house for the airport, she knew her daughter thought the departure time was a few hours too early in the morning. The sun wasn’t even up yet. What Martha didn’t tell her daughter was that she felt her departure time was a few days too late. She wanted to hurry home to her pristine garden, her interior decorating magazines and sweet tea. Then she got on the doomed plane, and she could think only of the things she’d left unsaid.

Her daughter’s house had been cramped. It wasn’t clean, either. Her daughter and son-in-law both worked. Their kids were in daycare. She asked why, if no one was ever home, the house couldn’t stay clean. If she’d have married a doctor they’d be able to afford a maid. If she’d have been a homemaker, the kids wouldn’t be the latchkey kind. But she had found a colony of birds and a source of fresh water and fruit. She hoped the food and water source could last until she sent someone a message.

It didn’t take her long to capture three of the island’s birds and begin to train them with short trips between trees. She taught them to read hand signals, and within a few weeks she could give them extensive directions to other islands. They always came back to her, and she rewarded them with a roasted piece of one of the other birds.

After studying the local marine life, she found that the poison in a certain kind of jellyfish was sticky enough to cement dried leaves she’d ground into pulp. It took months of experimenting, but she created perfect waterproof parchment.

Each morning, she plucked and carefully braided four strands of her hair into a strong, silken fishing line. She used decaying bird entrails to wave through the waning tide and catch tiny clams, yanking them up and spearing them on bent sewing needles she’d found in washed up luggage travel kits. She caught different kinds of fish and saved the blood, writing experimental samples on the parchments to see what kinds of fish blood stained the the best and didn’t dissolve in rain.

During the evenings around her campfire, Martha whittled twigs into bevels to build the most precise, mechanically engineered trap. After covering it in sand and leftover food, she caught a seagull who’d tried to steal her food over the months. She didn’t even bother to roast it and eat it; she only needed the feathers for quills.

When Martha created the perfect writing utensils, and the last remaining bird on the island had flown and returned with such precision from the different islands she’d sent it to, she knew she was ready for her task. She’d used nearly all of the jellyfish glue, and had nearly run out of the best kind of fish blood for writing. All of the rigorous training of the birds she’d caught caused multiple deaths, yielding her one chance to get her letter into the correct hands.

The last morning with her homing bird, she fed him large portions of fruit, from her hand, for his long journey. She’d written her note days ago, making sure it dried properly in the sun before she rolled it into a tiny scroll. She used a sturdy twine of her hair to tie the short message on her hand-crafted paper to his sinewy leg. At long last, she moved her hands in the repetitive patterns, making sure his beady eyes were trained on the directions she was giving. She whispered a prayer, and flung him into the air, her last hope of communication.

Martha stood on the beach a long time, praying the last message she ever sent would reach its destination. Her legacy depended on it.

___

Claire was sipping coffee at her kitchen table, still checking the paper, six months later, for any more news on the plane that had disappeared with her mother on board. They’d found no survivors, but she’d hosted a small memorial in her hometown. She heard a faint tapping on the window, and lifting the blinds, she saw an odd bird perched on the sill with a tiny piece of paper attached to its foot.

To her surprise, when she stepped outside and extended her hand, the bird flew right to her and let her untie the scroll.

She opened it, unrolled it, and sending the bird off, stroked the rough paper between her fingers. She had a sense of awe, as she’d found a message in a bottle on a beach, sent to a lover from a foreign land.

But she recognized the handwriting on the outside immediately.  ”Read me.” Her hands began to tremble. It had decorated her brown paper lunch bags, signed her permission slips. When she was older, it was scribbled in margins of ripped out magazine articles she’d gotten in the mail that were titled things like “Ten Things Millennials Don’t Understand.”

The scroll paper was yellowed, crispy almost. As usual, she followed her mother’s instructions, so Claire unrolled the curled parchment. The ink had a dark brown tint to it and smelled faintly of iron and salt.

“Lose a bit of weight, darling.
Cut your son’s hair—he looks like a girl.
Try to be more like your brother.”

The Middle

In one of my efforts to keep fitness fun, I bought rollerblades. The Amazon delivery guy left them at my door, and I was already waiting in my tall socks on the couch when he knocked. It took me only a minute to tug them on and head out to my alleyway—the only non-car patch of concrete in Los Angeles. 

I clutched the courtyard gate for awhile, staring at the small drainage slope I'd have to cross. As soon as I let go, I skidded on a broken patch of asphalt and fell. I touched my thigh, pressing to test the depth of the damage. Small, red dots started to appear through the fabric and the brightness of the pain registered like scalding water down my leg.

I suddenly felt 12 years old again, biking to a friend’s early in the morning. Her parent’s new refrigerator had been delivered the day before and we planned to turn the box into a five-story Barbie mansion. I hit the curb wrong and my bike tires skidded sideways. Sliding on the pavement, I ruined my new Hawaiian-print summer shorts. I had to climb back on my bike and the mottled skin on my leg stretched and bled, staining my socks as I rode. When I arrived, her mother gave me Advil and a ziplock of ice cubes. My friend and I worked all morning, our palms and thumbs aching from cutting the cardboard for paddock dividers; we decided to make a stable for our toy horses instead.

That evening, I went to hang out with some friends from school. The cutest boy in my class would be there—mom was driving us all to the movies. I took off my shorts and bloody socks, surveying my scratched leg, and I stepped into the shower. The water stung the white-streaked, red flesh. I shaved my legs because it was still a right of passage into teen-hood. I carefully guided the razor around the scrape with the care of a sculptor smoothing clay. Looking closely at the raw rips on my shin, I could see the hair sticking up, soldier straight. Should I use fingernail scissors to cut it? It’s too big for a band aid. I knew in the coming weeks, hard scabs would mingle with the prickly hair, and I would touch it while I was in class, grimacing at the odd texture.

I covered up the scrape that night, not wanting my school friends to see my clumsiness. I’d tell them I was playing tennis, if they asked. I wasn’t sure any of them rode bikes anymore. We sat around and listened to music in someone’s house after the movie. I listened to them talk about who liked who, which teacher was a “bitch.” It was forced cursing, wielded like an awkward weapon, too heavy for their acne-ringed mouths. We all noticed but no one dared buck the system. When I got home, I slept in the bandage, the next morning I didn’t bother to change it. I was going back to finish the horse stable. I walked so I could hobble, rather than pull the scabbed skin with each flex of my ankle on the pedal.

Neighborhood friends are those you can stay young with, longer. Their house is close, so you run the risk of seeing them every day, and developing long-standing hobby habits. Things you’d have given up with puberty—like Barbies or coloring—you can keep alive with neighborhood friends. School friends are for aging up. They teach you about which of your shoes are uncool, and they pluck your eyebrows for the first time in the five minutes after gym class before the bell rings for lunch.

In those middling years, I’d bike to the pharmacy and spend an hour choosing a new razor—are four blades enough or do I need five? But I’d also buy a ring pop, or a small, poorly made, velveteen plastic horse.

In my alleyway, I stayed glued to the pavement with my legs still out, looking around for neighbors who were peeking through their blinds. I groaned when I moved and unstrapped the clunky plastic boots from my feet. That afternoon, I stood under the shower nozzle, feeling the stinging flesh, waiting for the sensation to go away. 

It had been a long time since I was stuck in that middle-school-middle, where I was still playing with Barbies, and playing at growing up. Now I'm in the new middle—building businesses and paying bills, still staying in youth hostels while traveling, my search history showing a hunt for the perfect wrinkle cream.

I grabbed my four-blade razor and hesitated for a moment, trying to remember how to shave around a scrape.