THE FIRST TIME
Someone asked her if she needed the extra chair scooted under her table; she didn’t. She rearranged herself in the stiff-backed seat, smoothed her right hand across the lacquered wood of the table, felt the itching crumbs of her half-eaten scone brush against her skin like sand.
Samantha turned off her phone, removed her fingers from the keyboard. No more noise escaped her corner of the café. She willed her ears to create silence, to make everything invisible, and then allowed the world back in, one sound at a time.
The vague music from above, lyrics only occasionally decipherable, the beat steady and comforting like a mother’s heart. The rapping, grinding, whirring, and release of the espresso machine. The shouts of the baristas, now calling out a vanilla soy latte, now announcing that Sarah’s drink is ready. The kitchen crew dinging their bell, slinging pots and pans, crashing metal against metal. Samantha’s heart beat fast, her eyes filled with tears, her chest clenched into a tightness that she couldn’t will away, didn’t want to will away.
She reached for her coffee cup and found that her arm was a cloud, her fingers a mist with no grasping power. Her vision fogged and she tried to blink; no more could she blink than fly.
Relief flooded over her, a welcome torrent. She wasn’t Samantha, she was bigger than Samantha; she was the world. She had exploded into the noise, become a part of something; she and the sounds of the café had fully integrated. Although she couldn’t hear them anymore, the cranking, the beating, the shouting, she couldn’t hear them because she was them, she was noise and sound and volume and cadence and rhythm.
As quickly and strangely as it had happened, she suddenly came to, and she blinked: a real blink, with eyelashes meeting eyelashes, and the papery skin of her eyelids stretching and folding. Time started again. Her hand wavered over the coffee mug, no longer a cloud but flesh and throbbing blood.
She knocked the mug over, shaking. She tried to thank the young man with the mop who appeared at her side to attend to the lukewarm puddle on the floor, but her tongue sat heavy and dead inside her mouth.
Samantha’s reflection bounces up and down in the mirrored wall. At 2:15 p.m. people are neither on their way to nor from work, so her reflection has the mirror to itself. Right now, Samantha doesn’t have a job to go to or from; the first Tuesday of November has passed and her candidate has won. She is doing some consulting here and there for a few exploratory committees, helping potential candidates analyze voter data and demographics and economic predictors to determine if it’s a good idea for them to run in the next cycle or a terrible one; but this work is straightforward and simple, requires no commute, and allows her to enjoy the winter vacation to which she has become accustomed.
She always spends these few months eating green salads, drinking kale smoothies, and running daily – to lose the weight she has inevitably gained when surrounded by pizza and late-night burger runs on the campaign trail. This time will be no different; she will continue these habits, even though no one will notice.
No one notices now, she corrects herself. No one notices anymore.
As she runs, she thinks about her feet as they hit the rubber mat, her arms as they swish against her hip bones, her legs as they roll in waves. She sees her reflection; she exists with every thump of her feet. Running is the opposite of faith; running is fact. Her feet on the rubber, her socks on her feet, her feet in her shoes, her muscles clinging to bone, her bones jointed together, her cartilage contracting and protecting, her spine curving, her head swaying on her neck.
Samantha knows that she runs, knows that she survives, knows that her mother is dead. Believing in those things requires no faith. Faith requires ignorance, and only the ignorant really think that prayers make feelings go away, change lives, or bring back what you have lost.
Even I know that.
“Mom,” she said. “I’m just saying you need to be more involved, that’s it. Look – I found this meting for you, the Little Rock Township Democrats, and they meet right down the road. And it’s even on your day off, so you don’t have to rush after work or anything.”
“Samantha, I want a day off. I want to rest. I work had, and I need a day off. It’s not that I don’t care –”
“But that’s what you’re saying, right? you just don’t care enough?”
“Seriously, Mom – the country’s a mess, these terrible people are making decisions that are going to affect us for generations, and the least you can do is go to a meeting and see how you can help.”
“Darling, how many times do I have to explain myself? I help people every day – every day, Samantha.”
Her mother had worked as a nurse for thirty-seven years. She believed the best way to heal the world was through healing the bodies of the sick. She believed that by giving life and saving life the balance would be restored. It’s true, that balance is in life and death, mostly – but it’s in the in-between that I’m the most interested.
“I donate every month to the food bank,” her mom continued. “And I foster kittens in the summer, and I always give my spare change to the panhandlers outside of the hospital. Just trying to give people a little extra boost, whatever it is they need to overcome that day.”
“But you do realize that does nothing to address the roots of all of these problems – you realize that, don’t you? How many times have you told me how unjust the healthcare system is? About all of the roadblocks you come up against when you’re trying to help a patient? The bureaucracy and the legal barriers?”
Samantha’s mother took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh that said oh, how my daughter will suffer, “Sweetheart, there is more than one way to skin a cat.”
“Yeah, sure, Mom, I know what you’re trying to say, but look – sure, there are different approaches to change, I get that. But there’s one that actually makes a difference quickly and materially in people’s lives, and there’s a long-term solution that goes along with that and supports it. Giving change to homeless people isn’t helping them to not be homeless – electing someone who will vote for laws protecting homeless people is. And what we need right now is more of those people,” and her voice raised here, in pitch and in volume, like the sound of an approaching siren, “—which means we need phone-bankers and door-knockers and organizers to hit the streets and turn people out for progressive Democratic candidates.” Samantha breathed, almost panted, shook her head at her mother. “That’s literally the only way I see it.”
“Well, that’s fine for you, sweetheart. And you know what? You keep doing your job and I’ll keep doing mine, and if everyone does their part I just know the world’s going to get better, someday.”
“But what part are you going to play, Mom? What part am I going to play? We have to be doing what’s right – work smarter, not harder. Who knows how much time we have left, really.”
“Samantha,” her mother said, and she wanted to say, you’re much too hard on yourself, you’re carrying too much weight, you’re under too much pressure, but she said, “Samantha,” again, touched her on the wrist, “It’s going to be okay.”
During American History, junior year, when Samantha had already been dreaming about New Orleans from the halls of Little Rock? High School, they learned about Manifest Destiny and the city became hers.
Highway 40 and the plastic booths of the Dairy Queen and the backseats of volleyball players’ hand-me-down sedans could not compare to the city that called to her, music notes drifting across state lines, rhythms thumping up the river like tugboats. In Little Rock she had a boyfriend, she hung out with his friends and their girlfriends, she went to football games and house parties, visited Hot Springs, went camping in Ouachita. She went on long runs, looping through her subdivision, dragging along her mother’s dog, waving at neighbors and the little kids she babysat.
She was bored.
Samantha wanted the romance of having a voodoo priestess as a neighbor. She wanted the grit and squalor of the Ninth Ward. She wanted to be a part of somewhere that threw every obstacle at its people and then helped them to stand again. She read Truman Capote and William Faulkner, fell asleep reading Anne Rice and dreamed of loving vampires. She memorized lyrics to every expletive-ridden Lil’ Wayne song, decided his words and experiences would make more sense once she had settled in New Orleans, a kind of cultural osmosis. She performed an Alice Dunbar-Nelson poem at the annual oratory contest, didn’t win, didn’t even place, insisted to the principal that the student judges were racist because the poem was entitled, “To the Negro Farmers of the United States.” The principal took in her sandcastle-colored hair, her peachy skin, her cornflower blue eyes. He told her there was nothing he could do.
Once her boyfriend bet his best friend that he could find and name more black people in the yearbook than he could. Samantha felt a pinch in her stomach, but the feeling never manifested into words. She laughed a little, sipped at her soda; she didn’t participate.
You all get a little muddy, at times. Depending on how you feel about it, you clean off your shoes to hide the evidence, you wear the mud proudly, or you are tortured with the decision that lies somewhere in between. Samantha understood that the world was uneven; she had evidence. Her father in prison, her grandmother, addicted to meth, wasting away in a nursing home. The elementary school serving the black neighborhood with its bad reputation, the lack of black students in her honors classes or in the varsity orchestra.
“Caleb is so weird,” she wrote in her diary that night, of the incident. “I guess I should be proud, but what a stupid bet to make. I’ve decided I’m not going to pay attention to things like that anymore – to the color of people’s skin. There are more important problems in the world we need to solve, instead of judging each other.”
Samantha tottered along in Little Rock, stepping carefully, but willing to track through the mud if the path veered into a direction she didn’t much care for. She got muddy.
Samantha’s mother lived in a house with extra blankets in the linen closet, a pantry stuffed with cans of clam chowder and snack-size bags of Lays and boxes of name-brand mac n’ cheese, a fully furnished living room perfectly laid out for reading at the window and writing job applications at the secretary desk by the front door. It was a place of rest, where Samantha went to spend her winter vacations, to recover and recharge.
The first week continued much like her life on the campaign trail. Samantha dipped chips into salsa, made late-night Steak ‘n’ Shake runs, devoured mint chocolate chip ice cream by the pint while watching late-night tv.
“Samantha, you get more beautiful every day,” her mother declared, one morning as she watched her daughter pour coffee at the kitchen table. Whether truly a compliment or a veiled comment on her size, it was routine, as is what followed: Samantha’s big show of waking up early to walk, then to run; her mother’s big show of buying salad mix, fresh fruit, salmon.
“You’re working so hard!” her mother said. “I’m so proud of you! You’re getting healthy and that’s so important!” She patted her own generous stomach, square and soft, like a pillow had been tucked beneath her shirt. “So you don’t end up like me!”
Time slowed down and expanded. She and her mother spend days in bed with coffee, watching the morning news shows as they turn into daytime soap operas, go to a yoga class together, select ready-made salads from the grocery store or opt for the Smoothie King drive-thru. This was how they always passed their time, or perhaps how time passed for them.
The vacation ended when the field director for a new candidate offered Samantha a job. Samantha felt her mother understood, took pride in her; they both wanted their lives back. She bunched up her dirty sheets in the laundry basket, grabbed a few extra rolls of toilet paper, a tube of toothpaste, a pair of her mother’s earrings she’d been meaning to borrow. Her mother cried and clung to her, suddenly desperate and emotional and almost pathetic. They both knew she wouldn’t be back until next winter, at the soonest, that she probably wouldn’t even call for a few months as she got set up in her next job.
“I love you baby,” she said. “Don’t be a stranger – you know I’ve got your room ready for you whenever you want to come visit.”
New Orleans did not make space for her.
Samantha had been determined to curate a group of diverse and political friends. The city sheltered so many democratic clubs and groups that she had assumed this would come easily. Each group had a focus: Black democrats, Hispanic democrats, LGBTQ democrats. She went to those meetings, but after each meeting she tried she left feeling unwelcomed, discouraged, and offended.
She didn’t want to say she had given up, that she had exhausted every possibility and found success and acceptance nowhere. She didn’t want to say that she had begun to resent the city of her dreams, this city she had imagined as easy and open. She needed to be re-energized, needed a shot, an inoculation, the kind that makes you feel just a little sick after, a warning, a reminder of the blessing of its protection.
Samantha ran the marathon one spring, after preparing for months, running up and down the Mississippi River, around the French Quarter, sweating, sending pigeons up like a spray as she crashed through the stress, through puddles. Someone with a baseball cap handed her a plastic cup of Gatorade at the end. She had brown hair, tucked into a bun at the nape of her neck. Samantha didn’t say thank you. She breathed, huffed, sweated. She wasn’t paying attention. She wasn’t looking for anything.
But she was thankful for the cool liquid, for the respite, so, “Thank you,” she said.
“Sure,” the someone said, and she introduced herself as Cameron, and her eyebrows arched above her honey-brown eyes and her eyes held home and comfort and care, and Samantha smiled a different smile, a vulnerable smile, a smile that was easy and open.
They went one exactly three dates, before Cameron disappeared.
Date Number One: a café in the Marigny. Cameron ate pancakes topped with blueberries and whipped cream. She drank a vanilla latte. Samantha had a cappuccino and a spinach frittata. They held hands beneath the table. Cameron kissed Samantha on the cheek when they left.
Date Number Two: Samantha met Cameron at the address she had texted her.
“No pressure, really. It’s just a backyard barbecue with some friends. Everyone’s super laid back and friendly and they’re going to love you, I promise. Just be you and you’ll be fine,” Cameron had told her, the night before when she had tried to back out, naming all kinds of excuses before she realized Cameron saw right through her, Cameron who had no problem with her sight.
After they made introductions, poured drinks, filled plates, everyone gathered in the odd assortment of chairs in the friend’s backyard, plastic lawn chairs, camp chairs, rocking chairs. It looked trashy to Samantha, not the kind of romance that she had imagined a gay backyard would hold. Potted plants squatted tightly together in the muddy yard. The guests wore t-shirts that proclaimed, “Black Lives Matter” and “Eat the Rich.” Samantha sipped her drink, a sweet sangria with uneven hunks of fruit suspended above the ice. She didn’t think she would have much to contribute to the conversation, to any conversation that happened in this backyard. She looked at Cameron, so cool, so relaxed, sitting next to her but not close enough to touch.
“Oh my god, did y’all see this?” A brown-skinned woman with a nose ring and close-cropped hair turned her cell phone outward. “Another Black man shot by police – this literally just happened in Baton Rouge.”
A few other people pulled out their phones, googling and scrolling through their social media feeds. Samantha didn’t. She looked around. She sipped. She didn’t want to get muddy.
“I guess we have to call another protest,” someone said. Cameron had introduced the person as ze, and Samantha didn’t catch his name, or her name, and she was already so anxious and overwhelmed that she had never followed up with Cameron to ask.
“Samantha,” someone else said, “You haven’t been to one of our protests yet in New Orleans, have you? How long have you been in town?”
Samantha desperately swallowed the last of her drink, tried to find a place to set it down, worried that leaving it on the ground made it vulnerable to spilling over her open toes, clutched it between both hands and tucked it near her waist instead. “About a year,” she answered. “A year and half, maybe.”
“Well, you were telling me the other day you really wanted to get involved locally, didn’t you?” Cameron nudged her, encouraging.
“Oh, awesome,” the girl with the nose ring said. “What’s like, the biggest issue you’re interested in? Environmental racism? Reproductive justice?”
“I mean, all of those things, really,” Samantha replied. “I just think we need the right people in public office who can actually make change happen, you know? There’s only so much we can do with the congress we’ve got these days.”
“But it’s all about people power, right? – direct action – we don’t need those idiots in the house or senate to tell us what they think, to tell us we have to wait and take our time, make reforms, don’t freak people out or be ‘revolutionaries.’ I’m sick of waiting for them to get their shit together. Even the democrats haven’t made statements on Black Lives Matter – and if they have, they’ve been lukewarm, at best. They’re not really on our side.”
Samantha ran her finger along the outside of her glass, the condensation dripping down between her fingers. She wiped her hands on her shorts, left a dull wet spot on the denim. Did she tell Cameron what she did for a living? She couldn’t remember. And she couldn’t help but feel that everyone here was laughing at her, that Cameron was laughing at her.
“At some point though, like, that anger gets a little unproductive. How much is a hashtag really worth without power behind it? How much can you threaten people to change policy if those people don’t really care about you to begin with? I mean, I just think y’all would have an easier time out there if we had more friendly faces representing us, more diverse faces too.”
“Cameron, get your girl,” someone said, and Samantha’s face flushed. Was she Cameron’s girl? Why did she need to be gotten?
Samantha knew she had unpopular opinions. Usually, she didn’t need to tell anyone; usually, she was more involved in conversations about turnout and ad buys than rallies and activism. Plus, she saw how the All Lives Matter crowd had been ridiculed on social media; she couldn’t afford that kind of bad publicity for herself or her campaign. Samantha sucked her teeth, shook her head slightly, unconsciously. She only saw anger, she only saw purposefully inflammatory conversations, meant to catch people in usable sound bytes to keep fueling anger instead of action. The sangria had unsettled her stomach, her insides churning.
“I just think those things have been happening on the ground but no one is listening because they’re not going to listen no matter what. Banners and posters and linked arms and shut-down highways – like, who are you trying to convince? Have you even talked to the elected officials responsible for those racist policies? Have you ever gone to a lobby day?” She still believed in this world; she still believed in this country; she still believed in democracy. She wasn’t ready to try anything else. She won’t ever be.
The incredulous faces surrounding her told her that she had said something wrong. Cameron was looking down at the dirt between her sandaled feet. Samantha looked past the crowd, let her eyes focus on a magnolia tree at the edge of the yard.
Date Number Three: They made up, in Cameron’s bed, curled beneath a cheap set of sheets, smelling of women and wine and night cream. They didn’t have sex.
“It’s okay, Cameron said. “You’re entitled to your opinion, and me and my friends are too. It’s just a matter of finding the common ground, okay?”
The next time Samantha ran, a half-marathon this time, she hoped to see Cameron at the end of the line, a Gatorade in her hand, her honey eyes warm and melting. She didn’t. Instead, a red-faced teenager with a huge, scabbing cyst below his right eye handed her a cup of water, which she tilted over her head, letting the water drip down her sternum between her breasts.
The call came after dinner, when Samantha was still running call-time, planning an evening meeting, deciding whether or not she’d sleep in the office under her desk again.
“Hi, Samantha? It’s Carol, your mom’s friend? I know you’ve got a busy schedule, hon, but give me a call back as soon as you can. It’s about your mom and it’s really important.”
Samantha called her back at lunch the next day, from the Burger King drive-thru, where she was picking up lunch for the candidate and the rest of the staff. Carol told her that her mom was going to have surgery, emergency surgery, in two days, to remove some kind of tumor from her lymph node. Samantha knew her calendar by heart: in two days the final debate between her candidate and his opponent would be broadcast around the state, and in three days the voter registration deadline would hit, both key dates for rallying supporters and volunteers.
“Is it serious?” She asked.
“Of course,” Carol said.
She didn’t really want to believe that her mom was sick enough to warrant a day off. The candidate supported a woman’s right to choose, although he occasionally voted for age restrictions; he said all of the right things, and whether or not he would be able to follow through with them was up to the voters’ opinions and the make-up of the rest of Congress this term. Winning would be Samantha’s in for a senatorial or even a national campaign, opportunities she had been waiting for her whole professional life.
What can I do if I’m there? she thought. I’m not a doctor, I faint at the sight of blood. She wouldn’t rest if I came – she’d try to take care of me. I’d be more trouble than anything.
“I don’t think I can make it, Carol.” Samantha could hear her take in a deep breath and let it out slowly, like she were blowing through a straw. “Can you put my mom on?”
So, she didn’t go. And her mother died on the operating table.
Sometime around the second grade, Samantha made friends with a girl in her class named Roxie. Her mother, upon meeting the new friend, said, “Roxie! What a fun name!” and asked the girls if they would like a special after-school snack of Frosted Flakes with strawberries and extra sugar. Roxie’s family was Lutheran, which to Samantha meant nothing beyond their attendance at church on Sunday.
Any family that spent their Sundays at worship fascinated Samantha. Her own mother always seemed to plan for it, talk about it, a little wistful, a little resentful, but then when Sunday rolled around they stayed in bed watching television and reading magazines until just before services at the Catholic church down the street began, and then it would be too late to get ready and they might as well just stay in bed all day anyway, right?
One Sunday, Samantha had spent the night the Saturday before, and so was present for the weekly sojourn. In anticipation, she hadn’t slept much, instead sprawling on her borrowed pillow, staring at the ceiling and whispering into the darkness, “I believe in God.” She knew this was what you were supposed to say, anyway. She had this picture of God that was somewhere in between Mr. Rogers and Tim Allen as Santa Claus. She wondered where the wind came from, why people prayed if they knew God already had a plan, where babies came from and why – but knew – but had faith – that when she walked into that church and the man-in-charge started explaining, it would all make sense.
To her surprise and disappointment, the children who attended church were ushered away from the big room and into a smaller room, a classroom really, nothing special or churchy about that, with a woman-in-charge, a smile too saccharine to be completely trustworthy. If eight-year-old Samantha knew the word skeptical, that’s how she would have described her feeling in that little room.
Roxie was with her, and a group of children with similarly Southern names – Cal, Jimmy, Rayna, Holly. They all introduced themselves, and Samantha introduced herself; the woman-in-charge called her Sammy. She read from a thick book with thin pages, words that felt grown-up and important that Samantha couldn’t follow. It felt like music, like poetry; the teacher read in a voice full of drama, then said a man’s name and listed a series of numbers afterwards. Samantha wondered if that was the year it was written, or how much it cost, or even someone’s birthday. Her birthday was coming up and she hoped she would be able to invite all of these new friends – she would call them her “church” friends.
The teacher started asking questions about feelings, particularly anger. Something about whas she had read had been about anger, Samantha supposed, although the word was never said. Maybe one of those grown-up words was another way of saying anger, or maybe grown-ups just felt a different emotion from children when anger was concerned.
“And what do we do when we’re feeling angry?” The teacher asked. Samantha knew she had a great answer and her hand popped straight out from her shoulder almost immediately. The teacher smiled, beamed even. Samantha knew this was her in; she was about to be accepted completely by God and by Jesus and feel that feeling that people felt when they prayed.
“When I’m angry, I talk to my stuffed animals, or I punch my pillow. It helps me feel better.” The teacher’s smile remained in place, but stiffened, tightened, like dry skin pulling taught at the creases of her lips, like she was posing for a photograph that was taking irritatingly long to snap.
“That is a fine answer,” she said. “But what does God want us to do?”
Samantha felt panic. God wants us to do things?
Cal – or was it Jimmy? – raised his hand. “God wants us to pray to Him to take our angry feelings away.”
“That’s right!” the teacher’s smile relaxed, spread, back into that beaming grin she had had before Samantha let her down with her un-Godlike answer.
She had wanted to believe, to have this faith rooted in her that could sprout forward any time the sun turned its way. That kind of believing kept you safe, kept you from detaching your legs and arms and neck, kept you whole.
She didn’t go to Sunday School again, that failed experiment. Instead, she sunk deep into the pillows on her mother’s bed, come Sunday, a different kind of grounding, a kind of getting stuck, a different kind of mud.
It’s not even as if she is consumed by guilt or fear or even pain, as some people describe their grief. Grief as this all-consuming feeling, grief pushing out everything that used to make you who you are until there’s nothing left of that person. Grief that squeezes and twists at you like a dishrag, taking every last drop, then leaving you dirty and damp to dry at the edge of the sink. Grief that shakes you so hard and so fast that you forget what it’s like to be still.
Samantha didn’t feel any of that. It wasn’t as though her grief had made it impossible to feel, but as though anything else she could have felt just vanished – the slate was wiped clean – the lawn was mowed – the house was demolished.
It was not an emptiness, but a space. And in that space, there is no lack of activity, no loss of things to do. Life doesn’t really continue, in the space. It just moves, flows, the normal bodily functions taking over and your body becoming a vessel for them, your body surging through the days.
Some days she sits on the couch, drinking nothing but coffee, watching nothing but re-runs of dating reality tv shows, until she feels jittery in her heart and her mind and her hands, until she can’t sit still but sort of forces herself to hold all of her muscles together until they become rigid, until they are moving so fast they are suspended in that movement like hummingbird wings, like hummingbird hearts.
Some days she cries, riding the waves of tears like she is heaving over a toilet at the end of a too-long and too-much night, tears like poison her body needs to expel, so many tears she can’t hold on to them anymore, can’t keep anything down.
Some days she drinks too much, and the tears are actual vomit, sour and salty and sticking to the back of her throat, her knees peeling up the pattern of the cheap bathroom tile, skin grinding on the lines of grout, wetting herself from the effort.
And she has no one, no Cameron, no high school boyfriend, no mother, no God. Only the blue blue blue drumbeat of her heart, only her hope for the future shining ahead, only the mantra of leave this world better than you found it and the daydreaming of what it would be like to leave of her own accord, to choose for herself when she walks away.
She doesn’t do this. She doesn’t leave. She wallows until the grief mellows, fades, becomes beige and taupe and neutral. Not very pretty. Easier to look at.
The treadmill slows, beeping. Samantha starts to walk. She reaches to wipe sweat from her face, but doesn’t touch any wetness with her fingers. She doesn’t touch anything at all. She doesn’t touch because she has no face, she has no fingers. She turns to look in the mirror, but nothing turns. She looks down at her feet, but no chin tilts, no feet in slim sneakers peep up from beneath her.
She moves her not-body to the other side of the gym. A tune runs through her thoughts, but silence hangs about her, a kind of heavy silence that should be pushing on Samantha from all sides, but she feels nothing. She looks at her not-reflection in the mirror. She tilts her not-head from side to side, stretching her not-neck. She reaches for the five pound weights from their resting spot on the metal rack, but her arms are vacant and weak. She looks down, expecting to see her feet in their purple sneakers – no feet, no sneakers. Only the streaky grey rubber of the gym floor.
The air-conditioning kicks on, and shivers the ads for personal trainers and used gym equipment that paper the walls. No goosebumps prickle on Samantha’s arms, no whirring motor whistles between her ears, no manufactured air twitches her nose. No arms, no ears, no nose. She wonders if this was how her mother had felt when she died, suddenly not there but extremely aware of it. She could have cried, thinking about it, if she had eyes with which to create tears.
Samantha is sure this will wear off. It always has. The fanaticism, the obsession, the tunnel vision, the post-campaign mania. She just needs to get out of here, away from the streaked mirrors, the worn rubber grips, the squeaky machines, the threadbare floors.
She makes it beyond the door; I don’t know how. Past the door, into the hallway. The vent above her head shoots cold air to its left, and she follows its command, tells herself she feels the breeze, not admitting that it feels like a wave, the current of a river, pushing her along while her feet can’t touch the ground. Of course my feet are touching the ground; of course I have feet that can touch the ground.
The door to the outside opens and closes. Samantha is not the one who opens and closes it.
The rain is stopping, a faucet slowly clinching to a close. The wind has died down. Samantha worries about her running shoes squelching, socks soaking. She wants to close her eyes, bask, lick raindrops from her lips. There is nothing, everywhere, nothing, emptiness, like Samantha on the inside, like everyone on the inside. Everyone is the same on the inside.
She holds her mother and Cameron in her mind, like different sounds in a coffee shop, like different muscles driving feet forward on a treadmill, one sometimes louder, stronger than the other, sometimes working against each other, sometimes working together.
Last winter, Samantha’s mother bought a juicer. The two of them spent hours in the kitchen, cutting themselves on gears and mechanical choppers and grates, reading directions upside-down and backwards until, sweaty and red-faced, they threw up their hands and opened a bottle of wine instead. They both knew how to operate a corkscrew without fail – that perfect, satisfying pop every time.
All of the fruits and vegetables left behind, piled in wooden salad bowls and metal mixing bowls and plastic bowls for chips and popcorn and pretzels and trail mix, glowed against the background of the white kitchen. They even smelled colorful, smelled juicy and sweet and pungent.
They rotted, then, turning to mush, fruit flies diving in for the party, celebrating their luck at finding such a cacophony of options available to their puncturing mouths.
Samantha threw the fruit away, double-bagged it, the plastic ironically, hilariously, filling with the juice they had once hoped to extract. Her mother never finished assembling the juicer; it sat on the counter for months, gathering dust, the tape to the box attracting grease and particles of food and the remaining fruit flies. It was the hardest thing for Samantha to part with, when she came home the last time, to clean, to dissect, to disassemble, to pack, to sell. She left the juicer on the curb with a pair of armchairs: Free to a good home.
She can see New Orleans, all the lights on, all the music playing. All the gutter punks cowering from the storm, passing damp joints.
After all she had done, New Orleans welcomed her less and less, turned her more and more invisible. Now, everyone could see straight through her whiteness, to her veins and her heart, through to the other side, the dirty streets, the neon lights.
She did her best, she reminds herself.
The sky is the kind of blue that fades from white to grey to blue in front of your eyes, as if you had no eyes, no clean lines, no clear cuts. She wants to be a part of it, to melt into it, to lift her body up to the alchemy of rain and air and flesh, wanted to fade like grief, become watered down, just another part of the scenery. She wondered if this is what God feels like: like nothing and something at the same time. God can’t be nothing and be all powerful; god can’t be nothing and take anger away; god can’t take anything away.
The rain comes down steadily now, but soft. It’s humid, the air fragrant, in hibernation, anticipation. Puddles gather at the ancient curbs, collecting plastic lids, broken strands of beads, lost flip-flops. The rain beckons the green from the trees. Steam twirls from the asphalt, almost into a fog. A butterfly lands on a dripping bush, wings rhythmic. A stuttering sedan rolls by, splashing, and the noise sends a flurry of pigeons from their perches on the rod-iron balconies lining the street with Boston ferns and fairy lights.
Several groups pass by. The first, at least twelve white women carrying pink sparkling umbrellas and wearing matching t-shirts: She said YES – we said NOLA! Then, a cluster of men in taupe boots, hard hats, neon vests – black and brown men, dripping from the rain, carrying lunch boxes and plastic bottles of water, scowling, jostling, coughing. Then, three men in business attire, suits and clacking shoes, black umbrellas, their skin ghostly white without the sun. Then, a black woman with dreadlocks tiered around her head zooms past on an orange bicycle.
The city continues. The butterfly takes off into the air, into an alley, out of sight.