This is your opus.”
At the beginning of what is now Alaska’s first plain, where discoverers went to discover things (as we did) and where discoveries should have been made, before the Inuit cultures and the nose kissing, there were these strangers. And they would never say it’s so damn hard to meet people in cities, but they knew it’s not as easy on frozen lakes.
We tried on different hats in peculiar places: one’s for fishing, one’s for hunting, but they both kept our heads warm. We bought one of each and headed out to the lake.
We stood with parallel feet, two never intersecting lines, my lips on your forehead, pushing the steam to cool your hot head, which is all that was heating us before the next big push.
I wonder what’s left to hurt. Is it your frozen toes?
You told me the first time you got home from the hospital that your mother had lined your coats with longhaired carpet samples.
You said, “She knew, you know?”
When I glanced down on this frozen lake I met the breath that left my lips. I tried pulling it back in, telling myself I was just steam-breathing to clear my throat, so I could tell you all those haught silly things caught like ghosts. Like how your ears will never actually hold your hair back (I’m sorry), and I can finally say for sure I’ll never beat you at Boggle.
I’ve clipped my index finger through your belt loop and drawn our hips together. I call myself your carved-out keychain. I’m keeping you, with all your tiny and easily forgotten and endlessly important things- your tools for discovery.
We were two people, with a grand piano on thin ice. We pushed it far enough to see the ice crack like the high notes it would play. I’ll push you out with it until those cold fish can enjoy the music with their cold deaf dumb ears. We will watch them struggle and wonder how it tastes when they push their snouts to the pane, painting breath, touching face, swimming to the surface. I’m sure it’s such a new and exciting air raid.
What were we doing?
I guess we were two kids playing feed the ducks in the winter, playing dance at the funeral, playing take the plane, the earthquake will soon be over.
Painkillers were holding your hand after you coughed but before you wiped your jacket.
Painkillers were the half curls in your hair, that you yourself didn’t curl, that curled themselves either out of routine or out of unease.
Two years ago you were Maria and you played the piano endlessly. You stayed in Spokane and I moved to San Francisco. Your fingers were always long enough to make a point- they were your smallest bones and they were your favorite.
So we set rules. No, we set regrets. Your hair was at your shoulders and curly taut under your favorite beanie. You were a party favor smiling in winter. Maria you were half native and half unsure, and as often as the fishermen caught colds, they would say, “as long as paradise is never, then she Maria, is ever, ever, ever more.” We decided if ever we were to return to each other, I to Spokane or you to San Francisco, that leaving was a mistake. Breaking up was a mistake, a foul note, my old friend the delete key. Then we would have to deal with all that time we spent apart, that buried time, and we’d be cross wondering what we did right. Then there were the butterfly effects, and forks, and cysts, and poorly timed immeasurable things.
What a terrible life like dominos, is what I had said.
When we dragged that impossible immeasurable thing out to that terrible lake neither you nor I would seem to fall over.
I was fine in San Francisco, regrets be damned. I gave you my address and said show up if you’re ready to jump out of a plane. That was my promise to you, Maria-afraid-of-heights. Come to me, admit that you’re wrong to let me leave you, and jump out of a goddamn plane with me.
You can blame the mime, I’m pretty sure some people are still speechless.
I will admit I was drunk on our last night together and dreamt of you losing your old off-white beanie on our way back to earth. I heard skydiving is the most extreme way of being born again. We would leave everything’s everything, and the fresh air, oh the fresh air. Some say the fall smells like a labor room, and then I wanted to take all of your favorite nurses skydiving. Then I heard it just smells like what you love most because your adrenaline is cooking.
And Maria, your adrenaline smells so good.
The chalk board scratch sound of piano legs on ice is not so terrible to hear when you can measure the notes by how thick the ice is, and you can tell that less than two measures ago you were safe. So you play castanets with your frozen fingers that sound as beautiful as breaking glass. Thick spots sound like a chandelier reuniting with the ground, in the two-two timing of your favorite handclaps.
Oh Maria you were old for twenty-two. You were always spying knitting needles and staying in. Your hips worn like a veteran waitress, bouncing back and forth between staggered tables. In Spokane, in winter, you would brush your teeth with hot water, and it was disgusting.
So we pushed that piano out and made snow angels, except on the ice we called them ghost angels. Yours was called Flight and mine was called Weightless.
Two years after I said goodbye a big brown package arrived, a parachute, with your name on it. I had to sign for it; someone had to know, that I knew, it hadn’t merely fallen from the sky. I opened it in my apartment, it was the size of my apartment, and in the middle of all that vinyl and rope I found a three-page note.
I pushed that piano onto that lake and your cheeks were the roses you were thrown. Your frozen hips bowed only because the cold had broken them so.
In the note you spoke of holding your own estate sale. When people asked you who had died you would just laugh, and brush your ever growing hair back behind your ears. You would cough a little, then point and raise the price of something in a fit of transference.
I remember when we used to go to estate sales in attempts to figure these people out, the dying, using only what they had owned as clues. In memory, obituaries seemed tell their tales out of respect, the way formal photographs hide scars and birthmarks. How we would brag of collecting dead grandfathers. Remember that board game Guess Who? We were trying on their winter coats, hiding in their closets like ghosts. We hoped the man who owned Venus in Furs had a hidden passage. If only we pulled the right book, perhaps something from the Marque De Sade, perhaps The story of O? We bought their old war periscopes, we lied and called them our family heirlooms. We said they were left to us with keys and maps. We were the children of sailors, pirates, and butchers.
Your note told me no one messes with dead peoples’ things when they aren’t dead yet, they just look at you while they’re touching them. You said that people only bargain at estate sales when the dead aren’t in the room. They will, however, sneer as if you’re leaving the country with their currency, as if the price of this jewelry box should be lower because heaven knows you won’t need it where you’re going.
When we pushed that piano out I knew you played much better without gloves or mittens or cancer too. You were once the little girl in church running loose with a bed of hair upon your head tied in ways only mothers knew, wearing those horrible PTA sweaters adorned with oversized treble clefs.
You said I had to come back and make my regret, I had to break a promise or two.
You were diagnosed cold, in a stale white room. You said it smelled of bleach and peanut butter, and you said you were so sure of it. I packed up the parachute, the note, and some endless amount of jackets.
Now you can imagine me with a carry-on parachute on a commercial airliner, promising everyone, “I won’t be opening it, it’s really all I have to have.”
On an airplane they will not believe you when you say a parachute is all you have to have.
I guess you took all the money you earned from that estate sale and bought this parachute, and it was two thousand dollars on sale.
You bought a parachute on clearance.
I laughed, a dying girl blows her life savings on a parachute, how cliché.
So I sold all I owned and bought a plane ticket.
It was the last available seat on the worst airline they had available. I bought it with the insurance of my own parachute.
By the time we got that grand piano to the middle of the frozen lake we shook hands in mitts so quickly I’d thought we’d start a fire in friction. I was afraid of falling into the lake like I was afraid of being hit by a train, or skydiving, or of dial tones, and other serious life-ending things.
On the flight to Spokane I hugged the parachute like I was holding you. To the frightened flight attendant I could not stress enough, this is not a bomb… this saves lives. Besides she was only doing her job working for a terribly complicated machine she will never understand. She was, after all, an American.
They knew there was ice on the runway and they cut off our drinks as soon as we began the landing procedure. I had never flown before and those busy flight attendants strapped next to their TV dinners and mini-bar liquor kits just seemed to smile so nervously. I’ve seen those faces before. I once saw a National Geographic about the people who survived from being stranded on desert islands. They would make the same face when planes would fly by even after they were saved. I’d figured by the end of the program that these survivors would have all the answers too. They didn’t. Worst of all they didn’t even start up the show with “If you were trapped on a desert island…”
These people stranded on desert islands dreamed of the same planes that flew the people stranded on crashing planes dreaming of desert islands.
Sure enough when the turbulence started everyone looked at me as if to say, “Why didn’t I think to bring a parachute?”
Even the flight attendant, I can see it in her eyes, she thinks it for a living.
The captain slides and kicks the plane like a filthy pig in frozen mud, his only two feet jabbing at the darkness below his swollen belly at those numerous pedals. Everyone on board claps as we land, though I remember the in-flight film ended hours ago.
“Welcome to Washington.”
Laughing like the veins on our foreheads.
I am home.
I throw the pack on my back with my extra jackets and run straight for the exit terminal, still having never sky-dived despite my best efforts not to. Congratulations Maria I am still without regrets.
When I’ve reached your doorstep with my tire-chained-Alamo-escorted-Chevy-Aveo, your house doesn’t have a quarantined circus tent, E.T. doesn’t even live here. When you answer the door you aren’t all nose-tubed for oxygen, you aren’t in a bed with those tie-down steel rails, you aren’t even limping. You’re just eyes and lips and ready for everything, still all bones and movement, still wearing no shoes in the snow, all Maria with your hair down, this time to your elbows.
“What do we do now?” I asked you, parachute on my back, spinning the rental car keys around my fingerless gloves with the same grace as anyone wearing about ten layers of California clothing, about ten layers not enough.
You say you don’t know, and smile as much as you’re allowed. You skip through the snow to the rental car, open the door, and sit down.
While I drive you aimlessly around I’m staring at all the drivers and passengers we pass by, mostly soccer practice in the snow, mostly Christmas shopping. I try so hard to give them a more difficult deed than the one I have in my passenger seat.
You say you’re hungry but don’t know where to eat. You say the lake is frozen but only two feet. You say San Francisco must be beautiful compared to this and apologize frequently. I head straight to the worst and slowest stoplight in town and wait. Right before it turns green I lean over and give you the worst kiss I have ever. It’s all teeth and bones like preteens, k,i,s,s,i,n,g, and then the light goes green.
“Where’s the piano?” I asked kicking the front tires in the snow.
“Behind the high school. I’ve tenured the Make a Wish Foundation” you laugh.
You aren’t supposed to be good at this.
You’re supposed to be all awkward and ill and tired. Maybe you’re moderately deranged, or awfully offended by how terribly I kissed you. Maria your hair’s supposed to be shorter, falling out, falling apart.
I’m straight to the railroad tracks off Fifteenth street. You used to take me here. Standing on the tracks we would count down the first thirty seconds, and then kiss the second thirty knowing full and well the train would hit us if we stayed for the whole minute.
You told me this is how we ration; we have thirty seconds before impact, thirty seconds to forget everything.
We had some close calls as most all teenagers do, and we always said while we were walking away, “If you loved me like a French film we would both be dead.”
Here we are and you are so cloudy confused it isn’t until I start counting down from thirty that you realize I’m wearing a watch. I’m wearing a wire. We can kiss or you can laugh but I’m hoping we can still just be children playing with death. Instead it’s just one tear after another and I yell, “GO,” at five seconds, and find out you won’t be carried, you must be thrown.
I throw a scarf around your neck and wrap your face so fast I call you a ninja. You call me the new light speed champion. You tell me now that I’ve saved your life I can finally take it. I don’t know what to say so you call me a stupid head, then you tell me it isn’t in your brain.
We’re off to our favorite park in winter, the frozen grass cracks under our feet and there are no geese to feed so we will eat the bread we brought. The sun sets sometime we’re unsure of, the clouds are just playing that game. I give you all the jackets that I brought and am not currently wearing. You shine them on and wear them like surrender blankets on your shoulders, never in your arms.
Aren’t you supposed to need these things?
Every time the park patrol rolls by we hide, lying flat on our backs. I get to hold your hand and freeze my ass off and exhale and pretend that I can breathe when the wind stings my lips. The long white frozen tips of the grass reflect brightly off of their flashlights, it’s blindingly beautiful, just enough to hide me, to hide us. Still they push their flashlights across us like a Sonogram, like a CAT scan, all bright white waiting for a dip in the radar.
You roll over and kiss me and tell me, “We can be the illegal growths of this park. We can hide beneath the radar waves, and we can kick and roll our arms and make cement handshakes and snow angels.”
Then with your excitement up in flames he sees us, and we’re off running fast. We’re burning coal and spewing breath and when we’re safe, we’re safe behind that dumpster behind that strip mall, and you tell me it isn’t in your lungs.
I wonder if this isn’t an elaborate hoax.
When do the goddamn fireworks begin?
Who coined winter wonderland? Were they not aware of hypothermia and giving up, and goddamn Spokane?
I swear Maria, I can aside, and I will.
I’ve never been to a funeral. I’ve never helped someone die. I am the blind child running up and down the pews, smelling the oak and listening to the bells.
Where are your bells? Your red flags?
We’re all just showing ribs when we’re weak, and I can almost count your… thirteen? It’s a shaky destiny.
On our way back to my single room at the Double Tree we pass healthcare billboards asking us about “The Essentials to Health” to which you respond with a delicate snore. I’ll help you to my door and this is where you can and will pass out. I ask you what your parents might think and you tell me, “If you had X days left how would you spend them?”
I tell you, “Maria I would care less.”
“Good, you see what I mean.”
I ask about your diet as we lay on the bed eating all the candy bars from the mini bar and then surgically replacing them with items around the room in their body bag wrappers. We put the toilet paper core in the Snickers wrapper, the toothbrush in the Toblerone, and filled the little gin with a little mouthwash and seal the plastic with heat and steady hands.
“How would you eat?” Is your response, “How would you live?”
“Yeah but I’m not the one who’s…”
“Never mind,” I roll over and wrestle some pillows.
You kill the lights and I can feel the bed creak and warm as you shuffle close to me. Then you breathe into my left ear, first breathing light as if to say listen to me, then heavy like please stay asleep, don’t talk back, just keep listening.
I am awake and listening.
You tell me the doctor told you there will come a day when you will wake up and will have forgotten which hand you write with.
You tell me your mother sewed small pillows into the knee caps of your jeans just in case you took up prayer. She knew your skin was weak and would break so much easier.
I remember when you used to stay up all night dripping wax between the keys of your piano, saying your fingers needed to be stronger, your favorite little bones. I asked if you would ever sleep, and you would say you would when you were dead.
“Maria…” I whisper, “Where is it?”
I woke up to you underlining numbers in the Gideon Bible and then ever so carefully, without causing a crease in the spine, taping a hundred dollar bill to a certain page, then replacing it in the bedside table drawer.
You were either leaving a treasure hunt via some insane mathematical equation for the next devotee, or simply underlining all mentions of the devil and greed. Then taping the bill to page six hundred and sixty-six.
Someone, somewhere, will someday, never know you, and know this.
It’s easy to assume, and figure, it figures.
I roll over and scratch your back asking if you’ve given god any thought. It feels a little as if I’m just cheating on your exam, prepping myself for this awful experience I have no experience with.
“No, why would I?”
“There was a one-in-seven chance. When do you fly back?”
I sit up and find the back of your neck with my lips, marching them up and down the arch between the two straps of your beautiful, tired, pink slip, which I’m pretty sure looks dated back to the 1920s.
“Good morning to you as well. I haven’t bought a ticket. I was thinking of taking the train.”
You don’t hear me, maybe you do. You just turn around, and fall back into bed.
“Where did you get this thing?” I ask as I tug at the borders of lace that frame you.
“An estate sale.”
With that I’ve forgotten that we’re not two years ago. We’re not waiting out another winter. We’re not sleeping in until the sun saves us. You encourage my crooning kisses and lean back into me. I tell you (like they do in the movies), “everything will be all right.”
You’re back brushing your teeth with hot water and you bite off the hair of your toothbrush, to find your subtle strength. It was everywhere, you said, “and it’s all mine,” foaming at the mouth with paste. You’re laughing too loud to finish your own joke. You were fighting cancer, one wrecking ball gasp at a time, still strong enough to make your own knees weak.
You asked me why my lips were so torn up, “Have you been biting them? Who’s been biting them? Is it the cold?”
You’re worried, like you’re worried, and I like it. Once again you’re late and just in time.
“It just feels right here, in Spokane. I think I’m biting them because you aren’t.”
Then you hit me because I won’t hit you back.
Then I run outside and I’ve warmed up the car and I joke about it. It’s not because you’re dying, it’s because I’m a gentleman. So you hit me again to make sure, and I kiss you to finalize it.
Our first stop today is the U-haul lot where we convince a man this steer of a Chevy Aveo (a subcompact economy pushcart) can pull a trailer with a full size piano in it through fresh snow. I feel foolish, and I know it’s probably not going to work. So I talk up the tire chains and the torque and catch him winking at you just before he says alright.
All right, all right…
I know now, everyone knows, Spokane knows, you’re dying, and I try hard not to obviously swallow hard.
I take the keys from the clean counter top and lock up the unstable, unsafe trailer. When you see the brake lights communicate with my right foot, you’re so beautifully thumbs-up through the frost bitten window. You run back into the passenger seat and press your long fingers into the grated heater vents, turn and smile, “ready?”
“Ready as ice to melt.”
Stoplights this time around mean I’m looking up various definitions of “Assisted Suicide”, on Wordbook, on Wikipedia, on an Iphone. My cracked cold brick fingers are bone sticks, they’re locked. They’re blindly jabbing flesh daggers, darting like I’m spear fishing on a touch screen. I laugh blindly, sluggishly, remembering and placating my old friend the delete key.
“Assisted suicide is the process by which an individual, who may otherwise be incapable, is provided with the means (drugs or equipment) to commit suicide.”
When we pushed that piano out on that frozen lake the dents and dimples in the ice shook and fought the key’s hammers into tickling the strings. This brought it to play like a small-time Richter scale, measuring the punching suspension and depth with sound; and we laughed like metal detectors in a minefield. So we pushed it carefully, and I remember when we used to play that board game “Operation” with numb hands, except we called it Eskimo Doctors.
“Suicide facilitated by another person, esp. a physician, who organizes the logistics of the suicide, as by providing the necessary quantities of a poison.”
We dragged that black piano out like a casket to the white ice of the frozen lake, like the top of our wedding cake.
While I was away, before you played calendars like chess games, you practiced all of your favorite artists’ last works. I remember on the way to the lake that day listening to Beethoven’s fifteenth, Holy song of thanks, and Mozart’s deaf Requiem.
“But what are you closing with?” I ask as you shuffle through your latest mix tape while we pass by a church that just let out. The partitioners are all penguins in big black and grey coats, they all seem to start to gossip about a runaway piano, a real tear jerking symphony. I can tell that they’re talking about us. We have to slow down because they’re mostly old, and the ice is frozen. I had to lay on the horn to break their idle chitchat, to change their subjects, and I don’t miss home that much anyway.
“I’ve been writing since you left, I have a couple compositions, I had to have some.”
“Are they recorded? Can I listen to them, all wrapped up in my new parachute?”
“HEY! That parachute is for jumping first.”
I get it Maria, you’re smarter than I knew; you’re making your regret come true too. Everything you owned, everything you ever were, everything was sold, liquefied into a parachute. So when I jump you’re jumping with me.
“I get it.” I want to say “cop out,” and “cheater” but you’re doing the best that you can do.
“But yeah I made a tape” you pat your red coat pocket. “It’s all that’s left.”
“Is it any good?”
You respond with a couple slugs to my arm, and I laugh, and you point to the road.
After I pushed that grand piano into the middle of that lake I stood up all mittens and pea coat, yelling, “I grant you Exodus!”
I backed it up into a tree, into a rock, and I think under that patch of snow over there was a creek. I was delaying the inevitable and endlessly inexperienced. I wonder if the U-haul guy was okay with the rental because he knew we would fail. Those hairy thick forearms resting on the counter like the countless logs in our path. We kept circling the lake looking for hidden paths, and when I found your favorite my hands finally begin to shake. Luckily the cold already had my nose running and red.
“You okay?” you ask as I catch my breath just a tiny bit too violently.
“Yeah this cold just kills my sinuses…”
Kills, yeah, it kills them.
You’re so strong, pointing me with mittens in tow, getting out and guiding me with those thumbs up and come hither signs. Then comes the all feared two palms up, the stop, and then the wave me out, the “here we are,” and the “let’s do this.”
I drop the gate to the trailer, and it comes crashing down loud enough to scare away half the birds on the lake.
“I thought they knew you were coming. Where are they going? You told me this was a sold-out show…” I say to you.
“Comeonletsdothis,” you say.
“I said come on, help it down the ramp, the legs will break if we’re not careful.”
“We don’t have to do this,” I plea.
“Yes we do. You promised. I said I would sky dive, and you said you would help me play on a frozen lake, on this frozen lake.”
“You’re right. How far are we going?” My voice trails off because I don’t want you to hear me, because I don’t want you to say what you’re about to say next.
“To the middle, to the very middle, where the fish can hear me best, where the ice is as thin and tired as I am, to the middle.” But you still said it, and you said it with every word louder than the last, because you wanted me to hear you, so that I would say this next.
“Get the left side, the hammers and strings are heavier on the right, watch out for that root by your right foot.”
Down the ramp we lost the wheels off two of the legs. We lost the second two due to weight leverage issues on the ice, and they cracked popped like stomping on Christmas lights.
When we got to the middle we were tiptoeing with a grand piano like a pair of professional circus thieves, the legs now sharpened from the spinning slide across like ice skates.
“What if you play it and it doesn’t fall in?”
“I don’t want to die in a hospital.”
“What if you played it and it fell in but you got away?”
“I don’t want to die in a hospital, it smells like bleach and peanut butter.”
“We could go back to San Francisco and jump out of airplanes until it kills us. We could be born again, and again, and again, until we got it right.”
I can tell you I’m not afraid of jumping out of planes. I’m not afraid of getting hit by trains. Right now I am scared of frozen lakes, and of cancer.
I ask for the tape and you give it to me and I start to walk away.
“Wait, Maria… Where is it?”
“It’s in my bones.” And finally your voice breaks.
I walk far enough away to consider myself safe. Then I walk ten feet farther and lie down and remake my ice angel, “Weightless.”
“This is my resignation to a frozen lake. What did you do over winter break?” I say to myself.
It must be two o’clock because the sun is so high and the town is so quiet. You told your few favorite friends to listen in at two. I wonder if they’re poaching the woods, and where they’re poking out their heads. Or how they see me in this situation. The ex lying cold on his back. The ex that came to send you away because all the other boys ran when they saw your bloodwork.
Oh Maria, how your blood does work.
You start playing so I close my eyes, and I can feel it, I can feel you, just like you wanted me to. It’s turning in my back as much as it is in my ears. It’s beautiful and I wish you could feel it like I do.
Maria on ice, you’re so cold.
I turn my head and you’re playing like an Eskimo wedding. With your favorite tiny dying bones, and your hair down to your lower back. Your fingers lifting fancifully, and then falling back down like guillotines. It is priceless, and I regret leaving you, I regret not making more of you with you. I regret running away with an endless breadcrumb black cape, and the teasing, and the games.
You just made my regrets, our regrets, and your regrets are now everyone’s regrets. It’s graceful, like dominos, we all fall in love, with all these regrets. I’m left prize-fighting my way across the ice, clumsy with no piano anchor, and no steady Maria. I hope her friends see me too, and I hope they’re laughing.
I give up again. I’ve fallen down, and I’m ear to the ground. I’m frostbitten and if my heart could slow down I would tell you this.
You aren’t (despite your best efforts) left.
I’m going to listen until you fall in, and even then you haven’t passed away. You’ve preserved in me, and I’m staying alive, parachute in hand. I’m an escape artist dying to stay.
With my ear to the lake I can hear your toe tapping, and the vanilla C sharp, and the deep chocolate E. I can see my breath pushing faster to the beat. I try to lift up but my ear is stuck. I’ll wait through spring and buy the lake house on the North end. I’ll play your tape every Friday night to the fish.
And you won’t die in a hospital.
And when you forget to remember what we always did, we discovered Alaska’s first plain. We pushed our noses together, and made the mistake of meeting on frozen lakes, born clumsy and died the same.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sean Taylor has published fiction in Instant City, Evergreen Review, 16th and Mission Review and was nominated for The 2012 Pushcart Prize by Sparkle and Blink. He is currently working on his second collection. San Francisco is his home.