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A Last Knot In This Braided Life
A Last Knot in this Braided Life
“I told another lie today.”
And so it starts again. The glazed stares, a weak attempt at conversation. Her eyes are bloodshot, from insomnia or something else, I wouldn’t know. She takes a slow sip from a chipped mug, grey, the color of her eyes. Frosted. And so I shiver. Her words again, are met with silence.
There is a mole on her cheek, dark and raised, and it seems to pulse with an unknown force too distant to my knowledge. She glances shortly at me, with those deep frosted eyes, then coughs. I hate this, and the room is quiet. I twist the string within my hands, and tie a simple knot, a single bump to go along with all the others.
“You want to know what it was?” she asks, and I feel myself shrug. The question is innocent enough. Just enough. But with it comes a warning, a subtle warning that this conversation will be spread, diluted, thinned until you can barely taste it. I suck my teeth. It’s always like this. Another cough. Another knot.
I feel like I’m underwater, and everything around me floats into cool, murky oblivion. She clears her throat, a crinkled sound, touching her neck with long fingers, dark moons of dirt under chipped nails. I like her hair, I decide, because it’s long and dark and beautiful and it floats around her head like rippling satin. I like it. My hands lay still. I shiver, gooseflesh spreading down my arms and across my back. Rigged little bumps. This water is frigid. But all I can do is wait and wait, wait through this conversation.
“It was to Peter this time. You know Peter, don’t you?” I nod, and the current around me moves, pushing everything in the small apartment to the left. She runs her hand through that dark hair, oblivious to the shift, pulling through a snarl before tucking it behind her ear. They’re round and small, her ears, studded with countless jewels and loops. Perfect. My hands don’t move. She’s left the bottom hole empty, a ring of green around the puncture. I know why. I feel my own fingers against my single earring, pressing the back until it hurts. The front sinks into the skin until it’s barely visible. I wince as the lobe starts to throb, jammed between the metal.
I touch the other ear, the empty one, and feel the small raised swelling that bubbles at the back. It’s infected, no doubt, but we don’t have the money to fix it. If we did we still wouldn’t fix it. But we don’t. My sister has one too, an infection. But it’s smaller, more subtle behind the rows and rows of studs that tuck it from sight. I hate her ears, because they’re too perfect. I tie a knot with a single hand. The gooseflesh lingers raw, tightening the back of my neck.
“I told him that I was moving.” I shrug again, my fingers slipping down from my ear to my collarbone that juts out from my chest behind a layer of freckled skin. She follows my hand with those eyes of hers, like argent, like clouds, like cats, like anything else that is grey, picking her eyelashes unconsciously, letting them drop somewhere to the ground, to the fate of a sweeping and a life amongst dust. Good. Knot. I remember my mother screaming at her, saying that one day, they wouldn’t grow back. But they always did. Thicker than before, as my own thinned and shortened into horse-brush bristles. I feel a surge of jealousy, and the gooseflesh returns, but for a shorter stay, the bumps sinking back into my skin for the last time. Knot. They’re the only thing she has going for her, I decide. Ugly hag.
Another knot. I don’t mean that. But she is ugly. Knot. She bats them now, those beautiful long lashes, her eyes disappearing and reappearing like exotic fish, ducking between the corals. Except the fish are grey. As grey as silent ash, charred and blowing through a honeysuckle breeze.
“I told him we were moving to Jacksonville. He believed me, too.” She lets out a clipped laugh, running her hand through her hair again. A lock falls across her cheek, and she brushes it away, licking her top lip in the process. She thinks she’s pretty when she does that. So I look down and pick at the hangnail on my thumb. The water shifts again, more to the left. I hear a whir, but don’t look up. I tie the string around my index finger. She says it like she’s proud. She has nothing to be proud of. Another knot.
“Well, what do you say?” Nothing, I think, pulling the hangnail so hard it draws blood. I wince, because it hurts, and my teeth clench as I raise my fingers to my mouth, the string tangled around my pinky.
“Don’t suck the blood, you haven’t washed your hands.” She snaps. I shake my head, my thumb already to my lips. I have to, I think. The voice in my head is but a whisper. Because if I don’t, the sharks will come, their long, leathery bodies curving through the doors, their jaws opening into endless rows of jagged teeth. The taste of metal tastes sharp between my gums. My sister wrinkles her nose in disgust, flinching a little before turning away. I feel another rush of anger, clenching the lungs beneath my chest. She should be thankful. I saved her from sharks. She is ungrateful. But so am I. Another knot, bigger than the others.
“Peter says he’s going to throw me a going away party. You’re invited too, of course. He thinks you’re leaving, too. With me.” I nod again. She lacks intelligence. Knot. I don’t bother to dry my damp thumb because we’re in water anyway. My sister’s hair floats around her head. I don’t hate her, I decide. I like her even. Love her maybe. She lacks intelligence, but I love her. My hands are still again.
She stares at my eyebrows; I can tell because her gaze is off, slightly higher than the average eye-contact. I know she doesn’t like them, but I don’t mind. I stopped caring for them. I stopped caring for her opinion about them as well. I suddenly wish I have blond hair. Blue eyes and blonde hair because maybe then people would like me. But the feeling quickly fades, because here is no use wishing if you cannot change it. Contacts. I push the thought from my mind. I’m cold. I hate blue eyes. No I don’t.
Her attention drifts from my eyebrows to her cup, and she takes a sip, swallowing slowly. I don’t know what’s in the cup, but I know it’s hot because her fingers touch the handle lightly. That’s how I know. If we were in air, steam would rise from it and into her hairline, causing the baby hairs around her forehead to stand straight. But we’re in water. And it’s chilly. And cold. Because of her. She is what makes it cold. Knot.
I want to go to Bali, I conclude. Everything in this room, this small little flat on the sixth floor, is grey. The walls, the carpet, lamps, blankets, curtains, my sister, her skin, her cup, her eyes. The water. Bali sounds beautiful, a burst of color on the surface of the world, streaming with red and gold and blue and every other color that fills the vision. I want to go there. I don’t want to see grey anymore. The name itself reminds me of coconut. And I hate this place. Knot.
There is silence again before everything shifts right, and the water starts to drain from the room, the furniture floating back to the original places. My sister’s hair falls back into place, perfect, dry. Everything is soaking, water drips from the table. Everything except my sister’s hair. Sweat beads at her hairline. She’s ugly. I sniff. No she isn’t. Knot.
“Why won’t you speak to me?” She asks through her teeth. There is a quiver in her breath. Her words are ice. I cup them in my hands, her words, and put them to my ear, feeling the quiet roar of the sea through my fingers, the blood pulsing through my temple.
There is a cool hand on my wrist, and it pulls my own gently down, down and away from my head as if it were the most delicate thing in the world. I loosen my grip, and the words slip away, butterfly wings, the flutter dim until it is heard no longer.
“Why don’t you talk to me anymore?” She says, not quite repetition, but the subject’s the same. I sound it out on my tongue. The talk tastes like clover, the any like milk. I shake my head, and feel the clumps of hair fall and roll off my shoulders, drifting to the hardwood floor beneath my chair. I hate her. Knot. I feel her touch against my skin, brushing the loosened strands away, elbow shaking to keep her steady. Soft. I stare at her mole.
“Don’t you have to scold me? Tell me not to tell lies anymore?” My lips have parted, but still, no sound escapes them. I want to go to Bali, see color. I see her search my face, looking for a sign of life, anything to tell her what she knows is wrong. She is grey. But she is beautiful. My hands are still. My body is still.
“Well, if you don’t say anything, I’m going to tell another one tomorrow.” The mole grows until it’s a shell, a brown tortoise shell with diamond patterns of yellow and green, and then legs appear and a small head with beady black eyes peeks out and looks me straight in the face with a “How are you?” But I don’t reply. I can’t. Knot. My breath is staccato. I blink, and he’s gone. The turtle is gone. The mole is the same. My breath is staccato, I realize again. Just breathe. I can’t. Then it stops. It’s normal. I breathe in again, this time as slow as my body will let me. I should stop breathing in general. I tie a knot. The air is damp. Everything’s damp. Except my sister’s hair. I breathe.
“I’m going to tell Peter that I met John Ross. And that he bought me a glass of orange juice.” Her words hang stale in the air because she is trying too hard. Knot. The whir of the fan suddenly stops as the power cuts off. That’s what I’ve been hearing, I decide. That was the whir. It’s only off for a second, the power, before it restarts again. I see the lamp flicker. It’s my favorite thing, that small glimmer behind the cloth shade that throws a shadow on everything on the room.
“You know once I start, I can’t stop. Lying. I won’t stop.” She continues this one-sided conversation because she’s oblivious to the power surge that has stopped time around us and set us backwards. She’s always oblivious. She lacks intelligence. Another knot. The beauty vanishes behind the lamp cloth as quickly as it comes.
“So you better talk.” She says. “If you don’t, I’ll keep telling lies. So you better talk. To me. Just me.” Her words are meant to be a threat, but they’re strung out like a plea, a desperate, dying plea that hangs before my eyes in darkened blood. I see her chin quiver, her jaw clench. Good, I think. I’m happy she’s upset. Knot. The room is dry now. Completely, I think, because the water is gone.
“Speak to me.” It fades on her bottom lip, sinking back into her skin. I shake my head solemnly, my gaze never quite reaching hers. I cannot speak to her. My throat is dry, my tongue swells inside my mouth. My vocal chords are made of stone, the air in my lungs now only passes through my nose. I’m cold.
I cannot speak to her because I no longer know how to. We’ve lost that connection we used to have, when we spoke for hours about nothing of importance to anything or anyone but us. Too much pain, too much misery clouds my voice. They are not butterflies, these words, because they are black smog, swirling through my throat, contained only by silence. I cannot speak to her.
If my voice be set in motion, the truth would never stop.
I stand abruptly, the force of my movement colliding with the table and setting everything upon it airborne. The papers scatter through the room as my sister’s cup slams to the floor, clay shattering across the wood. Then the shards are birds, grey smoky sparrows that rise to the ceiling and spin, a ceaseless dance beneath flowered molding. Another knot.
“Are you drunk?!” My sister screeches, but I turn away, my mind blank, legs leading me to the hall. The darting sparrows fall dead behind me, muffled thumps bruise my skin. Knot.
“What’s happened to you?” I hear. “Where’s my sister?” The screams echo off the walls, their impact dulled to nothing. My body numbs. I clutch the string between my fingers, the knots hard in my palm. Sweltering. My flesh is hot. I am no longer cold. I walk in only one direction, and that is north. To the north. To the window.
I never quite knew what happened to me. I used to be happy, these visions of water and sharks and turtles and birds never came to me before. But now they come forever. Forever as they come, and I no longer love my sister. I’ve lived in clouds all my life, and this is now, and only now that I have realized that I have crashed to earth. But I have landed in grey, darkened abyss, and this is not where I belong. I belong in Bali, a land of color and heat and fabric and jewels and life. I hate this place, but this time, I have the right. I do not add a knot to the thousands of others on this wrinkled string. I see the window at the end of the hall. My hand drags against the wall, I feel the paint bubbles, I feel everything. My brain fuzzes. Maybe I am drunk. I don’t remember. But my footing is steady. Sweat forms on my upper lip.
I unlatch the window, swinging it open and letting the breeze rush around me. The blast of engines and speaking and honking and life surround my body. The lights of the night below glimmer in red and yellow dots on the street below. Bali is below.
I carefully place my foot on the ledge, the chill of the metal on my bare feet sending chills down my spine, but no gooseflesh. My other leg follows, and I lift myself up onto the window pane, blood hammering through my arms. I set myself steady, my mind clouding in fog. The lights flash below, the wind blows my hair back. Maybe I am drunk, I think. It wouldn’t matter now anyway. My teeth chatter, knocking together, chiming into the night. The drop is six stories. Six stories down to Bali. My breath is staccato. I’m drunk, I think again. I don’t know what to think.
But then I do. I do think. I think about everything at once and nothing forever. The drugs. How Peter is not alive. I think again, and this time about her, my sister, how I don’t remember loving her at any time at all. My head clears. And so it all makes sense. This is the dream, a horrible dream that swirls around me in endless dust, and the real world is down there, down in Bali, and I know what I must do.
It doesn’t seem so long from here. I see the cars drive by, the streams of color on a watercolor backdrop. My eyes stream grey. I never had beautiful eyes. Not like my sister. But I don’t add a knot this time either. My muscles tense, the beat of the drum continues louder, growing over the noise below. I know that if I listen much longer, I will no longer hear the colors of Bali. If I wait much longer, they will go. They will slip away behind the roar of this drum, and turn back to the normal New York street that it used to be below. My hands clutch the frame. I study them, the tendons that roll beneath my skin, the chapped palms that used to love, to give.
I lean onto the shutter, and slowly unfold the string from my fingers. The loops give way one by one, until the string is just a line of a hundred tiny knots that shakes in the wind. This string is the epitome of what I am. The thousand knots, the tangled mess of what has become. The reason my hands are callused, the reason my life has paled.
There is one last space left. The last. A gem. Bali waits for me below. The lights, the color waits for me. I can feel it. I can’t stay here any longer. The smell of coconut churns in front of me milky sweet, because I know what I must do. I hate what I have become.
It is better if I go.
With shaking fingers and a dying heart, the beat growing ever stronger, I twist the chord into the final bond.
A last knot in this braided life.