My first trip to California was when I was a kid. I loved the long car ride. Janie and I sat in the backseat and drank Kool-Aid from paper cups. We were in the belly of a lion. The cars we passed were hunted game. Mustangs and elk fell beneath our giant paws. If we were passed it was a wound, never fatal. Incantations and chants. We vowed revenge.
When I left Chicago for Los Angeles I pretended I remembered the route in detail. Motel rooms and roadside tables and certain stretches of highway disappearing into the horizon. I imagined finding a stone, a pine cone, some kind of souvenir. I would bring it to Janie and my sister would see it and smile and remember where we’d been. Magic.
Janie lived in an apartment complex in West LA. The grounds were covered with waxy vines and beautiful bamboo. Sprinklers came on twice a day and the scattering drops rattled the stems and broad leaves like hollow wooden chimes. We got up before daylight. Cold mornings. My throat dry and tight. I made coffee and we drank it while Janie dressed for work. When she left I could hear the ring of her high heels on the walk beneath the window.
“I just can’t sleep anymore,” Janie said. “I don’t know why.”
“Ask your doctor.”
“It can’t be because of that.”
She was sick, something wrong with her blood. Before I moved I used to call her long distance late at night. Lying in bed, the receiver pressed to my head, we were kids again and she’d crawled into bed to whisper in my ear.
When we were teenagers Janie and I recorded songs from the radio and replayed them at night. We’d fall asleep listening to the music. “We’ll learn the songs in our sleep,” Janie had giggled. “Perfect sync.” Hands pressed to her flat chest, eyes closed, she swayed and mouthed the words and the voice became hers. I remember the darkness and the tape winding and wrapping around the tiny spool.
“I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“I’ve got a section of idiots this semester,” Janie said. She taught a morning class at a city college. “They can’t read to themselves without moving their lips.” She brushed and pinned up her hair. Her movements were precise, quick and sure. The illusion returned. She was invincible.
Magic tricks. We performed them. Janie had been the magician, I the beautiful assistant. Waving her arms and chanting she made me disappear. I hid in the old wardrobe and the heavy fabrics brushed against me and when I reappeared my skin and hair smelled of dust. Sometimes both of us vanished and we giggled and sat beside each other. Thin legs and arms, I remember, like brown spiders.
“We’ve got to get out more. We can’t just dwell on this.” Janie smiled, white teeth between the dull red line of her lips. She leered, “Our craze to be Japanese.”
We found an evening class. “Adult ed. My god.” Sumi-e, ikebana and tea ceremony. Rituals. The class met on the second floor and after sunset the windows were opaque and the room’s reflection floated in the air outside.
“Essence and empty spaces,” Professor Amimoto said. A lock of hair curled above his brow like a bird’s crest. “A single stroke can be a masterpiece. Do you see? Light and dark, broad and delicate all in one.”
“Wait till he sees what I’m doing over here,” Janie whispered. Amimoto began to circle the room and Janie tore away her practice sheet. “Hurry up,” she giggled, “you’re going to get caught.”
But before I could hide my work he stopped at our table and tapped my hand. “No,” Amimoto said, “not like so. Do you see what is wrong? Right now. Do you see?” Close behind me, left hand on my shoulder, his right smoothed down the line of my arm. “Do you see? Stiff.” Amimoto put his hand on top of mine and guided the brush. “So first we must be more like so.” Our strokes across the paper were first wide and flat and then more tones of gray appeared. “Like so and so and so. Do you see? Different colors. See? Now begin.” He guided my hand to the ink and together we dipped in the tip of the brush and against an empty corner of paper stroked it clean. Again. Each time we hesitated as if he were reading those stray corner marks.
Amimoto sighed and the warm pressure of his hand was so slight I thought he guided without touch. Quick fluid strokes. He was finished in an instant and it was just as he said. Light and dark, broad and delicate all in one. Bamboo leaves. Three graceful lines frozen in the slightest arc.
Amimoto released my hand and stepped back. “You must do it quickly, like so,” he smiled. “It is the way monks and masters paint.”
When he walked away Janie waved her dry brush through the air. “And so and so and so.” Quick crisp stabs. “A masterpiece,” she giggled, “is it not? A masterpiece.”
After class we drove along the coast. The sea glittered and deepened in color and the line between water and shore faded. Janie brought a bottle of wine and I sipped and held the liquid in my mouth until my tongue was thick, almost numb, and when I swallowed it was always bitter.
“My doctor says I can put Rhine wines back in my diet.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I like saying it, though.”
“Are you drunk?”
“You’re the one who’d better be careful.”
We were laughing. On the edge of my vision her profile was printed on the road.
At night the apartment was a cave. Soft light spilled across the gritty white walls. Janie called me and I found her in bed with her legs curled, hands pressed between her thighs.
“I’ll run a warm bath for you.”
One hand on her shoulder I helped Janie stand. Her pillow was wet with a circle of spit. Her breath on my face was strong as though she were starving, nothing inside. Without clothes she was shrunken, peeled like an almond; her skin was cool wax.
I watched her drift asleep in the tub. Tiny drops of sweat on her forehead traced the line of her face. Motionless she slipped into the water. Melting down, her hair black dye in the pool.
A game. Pretending to be hypnotized. Janie and I had played it. I sat beside her and mimicked. My arms limp, my eyes staring. I made believe I had lost myself. But really I hid behind my body like a door. Peeking through, I saw everything. And that’s what I thought it meant to die.
In January Janie went into the hospital. She had a room high up with windows from ceiling to floor and when we looked out over the streets and roofs the clouds in the distance were mountains covered with snow.
“Bring food, no flowers,” Janie laughed.
And I did, more than we could eat. Rolls of seaweed and rice lying on plastic ferns. Manju and crackers stamped with designs and pictures. All in white boxes and tied with gold string. I imagined filling the backseat of my car.
“I’m the only guy gaining weight staying in the hospital.” She leaned forward and laughed. Her brown arms were thin sticks poking through the gown.
I remember a white winter sun, its light cooled by the deep expanse of blue; Janie had taken me hiking. The trail followed the gentle slope of a hill. Dry sandy ground. As we climbed, gray dust powered our shoes and socks.
“It’s so strange. In a couple months it’ll all be green from the rains,” Janie had said. “You’ll like it. Ice plants along the freeway that bloom like crazy. Beautiful flowers. By summer everything’s brown again.”
Midway was a look-out point, a garden facing east. Small yellow-leafed palms, a jade tree and dry stalks like sweet william.
“They use this for sunrise services.” Janie bent and drank from a rusty spigot. Cupping her hand she splashed her face and neck and when she looked up and smiled her skin was bright with water. She flicked her fingers and a shower of drops arced towards me, fell short and beaded in the dust. Janie raised her chin and laughed. The front of her pale shirt was stained with water and sweat.
We rested on a chalk-white rock. In the shade the ground was hard packed and cool and smelled loamy-rich like an overturned stone. Below us aquamarine swimming pools and tidy, bright lawns of Bermuda grass. Farther still the dark enamel buildings were crisp lines against the blue sky.
My forearms were grainy with salt. “Come on. If we don’t get moving we’ll be too stiff.” Janie smiled and rose slowly. “Carry me.” Stooped, she giggled and clutched my arm, her palm warm and wet. “Carry me,” she whined. “Carry me.” And I laughed, put my hand atop hers and drew us back onto the dusty path.
We climbed; the trail narrowed and the eastern slope fell into the summit’s shadow. At the very top there was nothing green. The air was incandescent. Hard. Branches and pebbles cast beautiful shadows stark as woodblock prints.
Double images and multiple reflections, the smallest strands suddenly graphic. And Janie’s voice was the music tape, the sound waves heavy black marks hanging in the air. Wide strokes on a clean sheet. Patterns and textures and tones familiar. I knew them all by heart and could pull them without effort from the blackness. Sleight of hand.
“I believe in God,” Janie had said, “and I am saved.”
Years ago outside our bedroom window there had been a silver maple. In the mornings its leaves cast floating shadows inside on the floor. We had sat facing each other. “I believe in God.” Slick varnished wood beneath our legs. And later, out among my mother’s flowers, we cleared a small space, a tiny plot bordered with white gravel. We scratched out simple messages in the dirt. Scriptures from a black, leather-bound Bible. Elaborate handwriting. The curlicues and swirls filled in with petals and seeds. Our own mosaic. Saved. Both of us. We memorized prayers like magic spells. And then when were older we laughed at ourselves. Janie would smile, her hands on my arm, “Oh, but what beautiful handwriting you had.” I remember praying at night, pulling the cool sheet over me, the whispered words a holy sound.
“I am saved.”
Alone in the apartment I still woke early. It was winter and the air was cleaner. When it snowed in the mountains I could see the real foothills dusted white and when I drove the streets, La Cienega, La Brea, Olympic, I repeated the names like a chant.
I had found a job at a daycare center and I liked it. I spent the days watching the children model clay and string beads and paint with deep liquid colors.
Stacy came to the center in winter, a tiny girl with platinum hair and snowy hands and arms. “She’s in foster care now,” the director said. “Go through her file when you have time. You wouldn’t believe it.” She shook her head. “We’ll see how she does.”
But Stacy did not play with the other children. At nap time she lay beneath the curtains rocking herself, turning her head from side to side. She hummed and as she relaxed the motion and sound dissipated. She slept as though drugged and woke sweating, her hair dark with oil, her pants and bedding soaked with urine.
“Jesus,” Janie said, “I never knew you could get so messed up so early. Poor kid. What’ll happen to her?”
“They’ll have to take her out and put her someplace else.”
“Jesus.” Janie’s face was bare of make-up. “Where will they put her?”
“A children’s ward maybe. Somewhere they can watch her all the time.”
A hydrocephalic baby and children who didn’t move. Old women with clouded eyes. I’d stayed in a ward once in a hospital in another country. The other patients all had a relative or friend who stayed with them, took care of them, slept beneath their beds. I’d wake in the early morning and hear footsteps like soft slaps. Shiny, shadowed floor. Two figures with arms wrapped around each others’ waists. They moved past my bed and down the hall. Siamese twins locked together.
She was squatting naked in the corner of the playhouse. Sandy floor and rough wooden walls. Star shapes and moons had been cut for windows and the sunlight came through in pale patches.
Her feet and ankles were gray with dust. Hairless legs and crotch. Her thighs were red as if she’d been beaten or burned. I thought she might have wet herself, but her pants were clean.
“It’s time to go in now, Stacy.”
I knelt and held her and her body relaxed and folded over me. Limp arms and fingers. Skin a satin covering. I rubbed the curve of her back and she closed her eyes.
“Childhood psychosis.” The director sat on the edge of her desk. “It’s important to know that you can’t cure her.” She stood. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” She touched my shoulder. Her fingers were stained with blue-black ink.
Through the curtains and glass, the stretch of space, I saw Stacy on the playground spinning like a dancer. Alone. She moved in a tight circle. Her arms were lifted in imaginary flight.
And when I visited Janie that night I found her sleeping, sinking into the bed, and still I laid out the boxes of food and sat and waited. I remember the priest in the foreign hospital who had put his hand on my forehead and mumbled and the women around me had laughed and explained in Marshallese his mistake. He pulled the sheet away from my face and neck. My reflexes suddenly gone, I had lain without flinching.
“You are saved,” I whispered, my hand on my sister’s cool curved fingers. My breath stirred fine strands of her hair.
In the morning I rode with the teachers and children out of the valley into the mountains. The ground fell away and the road was a frozen bend woven through the trees. We found a sloping field where the snow was fresh and we made snowballs and snowmen. Lying in the soft drifts Stacy and I printed out the shape of angels.
Eyes gleaming, nose and cheeks red from the cold, Stacy came to me to help her shake the ice from her boots and mittens. I knelt beside her. Our single breath a cloud of mist. When she ran I watched her tracks cut in the clear snow.
On the way home most of the children slept. Stacy leaned against me. I thought she might sleep too and wondered if she would dream. But when I looked she was staring out the window. I stroked the top of Stacy’s head. She pulled from her coat pocket something wrapped in her wet mitten. A pebble, a stone, or a piece of ice to remember.
“Stacy, we’re in a lion coming down the mountain.”
The sky was almost violet. Vapor trails and shimmering blacktop. I put my arm around Stacy and she snuggled to me. I felt her hand between my legs trying to touch me through the fabric. Quick and fluid just like Amimoto’s monk. “Stacy.” White hair and pallid complexion. All the color held in her eyes. “Stacy.” But the little girl looked back at me without expression, hypnotized and safe in the belly of the lion.
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