We both tread along the periphery of circles. Maybe we thought if we walked long enough, stared hard enough, knocked often enough, miraculously we would find ourselves inside. We looked into that glass sphere, it was transparent and visible, but the sphere was unbreakable the glass was cold and glossy and kept us separated, ousted us.
And then we looked up as we walked in circles and found each other. Found us.
That’s how we discovered a world outside the sphere.
For lack of social acumen we never wiggled our way into the glass bubbles, we just kept running into it, bruising and breaking ourselves. But we held hands and picked up the remains of our broken pieces whenever we could, tried to weave them together so that they were something intact, something new, and even if they had patches and stitches we would try to decide it was okay.
It didn’t last very long. We were in the city we hated for its beauty and grandeur and for thrusting us out the boundaries of its beauty and grandeur. We hated the long shots of the city inserted into just about every mediocre movie starring Tom Cruise and all the popular legal TV series. They took high-angle shots of Chrysler and Rockefeller and Seagram and put filters that made it all look slick and fine, and though you can’t get more cliché than that you also couldn’t get more fake. We never would have recognized them from where we lived. The city was full of glitter and glamor in the places we didn’t belong, we lived only in its ugliness. We were its rats living in the shadows of its subterranean chambers combing corners for crumbs and getting trapped and beaten in the process. We still clung vehemently to its thresholds like we knew of no other world outside.
Our place was a one-bedroom apartment close to the Upper West, and by one-bedroom they meant the kitchen and bedroom and living room all belonged in one 16 square feet room. There wasn’t enough ventilation and even less privacy but we learned to live with both. We would lean against the drab grey walls of the filthy apartment and smoke until the smell settled into our skin and hair and everything that surrounded us, and we liked it that way. We liked how we smelled alike. We would lean in to take a whiff of each other and sometimes cough and sometimes laugh. We didn’t need a clock because we didn’t have use for time the way other people do. To us, time was elastic. We ate when we couldn’t go on without food, slept when we wanted to, woke up only when we were already awake.
And occasionally, when we were both awake and not too hungry and in the mood for something other than the grey of smoke and cement, we would step out and venture into the world outside. The blue of the sky and the crisp air and the flare of dazzling light flooded us, overwhelmed us, so we would have to pause for a moment before firmly locking our hands in our pocket and treading forward. Sometimes we would pause for a second too long and that was when we turned around and went right back into our safe haven. But when we did step out, when we did move forward, we liked it. We wanted to think we liked it.
We held our hands a little tighter, even when they were already hot and moist in the pocket, whenever we saw something beautiful. One time we just stood staring down a street covered in autumn leaves and we were reminded of that long red carpet you see on TV every end of the year, except this one wasn’t fake. The colors were enough to bring tingling warmth all the way to our toes though the weather was cold and we thought the walk had been worth it, we’d seen fire and flames and things that fall beautifully and remain beautiful when they’ve fallen.
We played a game where we tried to catch a leaf while it fell, before it touched the ground. It shouldn’t have been hard, whenever there was a gust of wind they fell in droves, but we only caught several.
It was probably because we kept two of our hands clasped in our pocket, the way we clutched the few leaves we had managed to rescue all the way back home.
We talked about flesh and blood. We talked of how we were maybe one that way, how we were intertwined and how the same things heated our blood and lit up our lives. Talking about us, that was what kept us together. It allowed us to exist. We both knew how we could be insubstantial. How we could have a beating heart and a sound brain and still not really exist, let alone live, because when you’ve lived in the shadows for long enough you become one too. The we gave the each of us gravity to keep us grounded in reality. It gave us a channel to something outside our own skin, a tiny brittle glass sphere to belong that we could call ours.
We didn’t talk about the kindred soul part, though. We didn’t think we were soulmates, or something similarly grand. No. We just both, desperately, needed the other. We were needy.
Here’s the thing.
We weren’t a work of beauty. We were a mangled mess transfigured from fragments of two ruined unholy unsafe bodies, and we knew all too well that broken shards don’t ever mend.
But we were both acutely sensitive to beauty, so much that sometimes we couldn’t stand it. We were a wreckage with too many cracks, and we couldn’t contain much more than the struggle of being what we were.
We would have been fine, holding onto each other and that way holding onto the world. But then we remembered how we wanted to be some intact beautiful thing on its own that can be cosseted and admired and desired. We began wondering if we too could be beautiful after having fallen. After being broken.
That was how we fell apart.
And it was cold, it was winter, the world was grey without the smoke and the peeling paint of that filthy apartment and the city was greyer and grimmer than the backdrop of a black-and-white Hitchcock film. And this time nothing offered up warmth, we didn’t have anyone to hold on to, no extra hand in our pockets. We were once again isolated. We were used to that, the both of us. But we had almost—almost—grown used to not being lonely.
Were we in love? I still don’t know if we loved. Because we never talked about love.
Neither of us knew lust to come with love, so we didn’t associate sex with love.
We were just trying our hardest to erase the link it had with violence. When we touched we were desperate to be tender. All things physical, for us, had some relation to violence. Neither of us wanted to be hurt.
I think about the violence of the word breakup. The physical brutality of the word. Because it cracks up something whole, destroys something that had been created, something that we created. It breaks us up, individually. Shatters us into a million pieces and takes away part of that million and we are left with fragments that do not really fit, that we do not know what to do with.
Things only break when they are solid to begin with. Have you heard of soft things that break?
I wish we had kissed more, kissed just for the sake of kissing. Maybe not every day, not too often. You and I were both too hesitant, uncomfortable in our own skin, and kisses felt like something too confidently affectionate for people so jagged and grim.
But kisses feel like something that wouldn’t have to be violent. It feels like something that would have been appropriate for lovers, real lovers.
I do not know any other word to call you by. I do not know any other word I would rather call you by. If love doesn’t have to be beautiful, then, perhaps ex-lover:
I hope you will walk out, with or without a hand to hold, when the weather thaws. I hope you will see something beautiful, enough to make you pause and brace yourself. And I hope you will see something that is beautiful in its brokenness.
You were the first thing I saw that was both.
To be entirely honest, I still had insomnia after you moved in.
You asked what meds I took. I stopped taking them, though you said you didn’t care.
Truth is, they just never work after a couple days. I started with melatonin, too.
You said you were worried, the way I couldn’t sleep.
My headache was still there. I was worn out, my eyes painfully dry. But you were better than any waking dream, and you were my reality.
My head was still buzzing with all these thoughts, but they were mostly about you. I could study your face, consider the small curve of your nose both odd and brilliant. Wonder why you had freckles, when you never saw the sun. Follow the curve of the thick, long lashes that outlined your eyes. To make a grave confession, I sometimes—when I really, simply could not resist—stole a few kisses from the corners of your mouth.
I never had the courage to kiss the fullness of your lips. That felt like a sin, somehow. A desecration.
I listened to the way you breathed, irregular but soft, instead of a raging palpitation of my heart. Sometimes your breath stank. Mostly of cigarettes. I guess it was foul. It never stopped me from staring infinitely at your face, searching for answers to questions I didn’t know.
Every night I discovered details that didn’t matter. The way you slumped against a wall, and shiver on colder days. The way you scratched your elbow in your sleep. How you sighed, a little tragically, when I pressed in too heavily.
You were always a little sick. It made me afraid, whenever you groaned or coughed or sighed too audibly. Once I came back late from an audition to find you with a fever, your skin red and burning from some internal heat. You cried a little, just enough to wet your lashes, like you didn’t even have the strength to cry in earnest and my limbs grew cold, I’d never feared so much for someone else. I asked if I shouldn’t call an ambulance, and you’d lost your voice but you said you couldn’t pay for a visit to the ER. I wished I could tell you I could.
So instead I made you eat some disgusting soup, and you thanked me for cooking for you when you’d seen that all I did was take down a canned tomato soup and pour out the contents on a bowl and put it through the microwave. Your voice sounded hoarse and watery when you said thanks. I felt guilty, frustrated. I hated the season for turning so cold so suddenly. I needed something to blame.
You didn’t really eat that soup. You never ate much, and when you did you threw them up. But you still took some advil on what I would’ve considered an empty stomach, and somehow managed to get better in a couple days.
All I did was hover anxiously those few days, while you grew even thinner than you already were. I still think about my utter uselessness. Your skeletal image still haunts me.
I wondered how someone could be so delicate and brittle, looking at you. You would be covered in swathes of blankets, and I could still make out the shape of your defined bones beneath. You crouched in a corner, knees curled up against your chest, fighting to declare your existence in silence. A scrawny, pathetic, lovely creature that I worshipped.
You moved your limbs as though you wielded a tool. You spoke haltingly, as though each word strained your heart. You were awkward, cautious. You looked ethereal in your fragile form and I would feel an urge to validate your presence. Grip your arms, hold your entire body, kiss every square inch of your face.
But too often I was scared to touch you, lest you broke. It made me flinch to imagine I might bruise your skin, and your skin bruised easily. I would be torn between the desire to touch you, and the fear that I might hurt you.
I don’t live with that fear any more.
I remember that day we braved the New York subway, when we finally ran out of food, even the canned soups. We went to a downtown Asian market because it was one of those places you could get actual food for cheaper than water. You clutched my arm as we walked down a few blocks, groceries in hand, and you looked unsteady, a child lost in a strange crowd. I was about to ask if you wanted to make the walk to Little Italy for dinner, when you asked if we couldn’t go back home. You looked pale and nauseous when we stepped out of the train, and my guts tightened in fear, I didn’t know what to do.
Later that night you told me you used to go to Tisch, and I remembered the array of purple banners bearing the NYU emblem.
I dropped out, you said. I wasn’t poor enough to get more financial aid.
I paused, and nodded. Let’s go to a different place for groceries next time.
You ignored that remark, and murmured, more to yourself, I couldn’t have paid for the equipment anyways.
It’s maybe better that you didn’t respond, made no promises. Because there was no next time. We didn’t last longer than the groceries.
We both knew when we were drawing to an end. There were no big fights. No arguments or drama. Each day extended itself and dragged us along, unwilling, as we suffocated ourselves, suffocated each other.
On one of our last nights you sat close to me. You sat on your knees so that we were eye-level, and pored over my face without shying away, without blushing or blinking. I cleared my throat, and looked down. Your finger traced the dark circles beneath my eyes, and I held very still. Saliva gathered in my mouth but I didn’t swallow, I didn’t want anything to disturb that moment.
I guess—I think—I loved you. I must have loved you, because how could it hurt so much to lose something you never loved?
I’d known we wouldn’t last, but the end was still abrupt. Your absence was piercing, it was raw, it was my flesh being ripped apart, away.
After you left I went and picked up a refill of my medication, knowing the effects would wear out in days. It was ceremonial. It meant I was back here, back to a life that doesn’t have you. They asked if I hadn’t run out earlier, and I thought, I haven’t needed them, not in a while.
Last night it snowed for the first time this year, so I lay awake thinking about you and snow. Thought about how beautiful and fleeting you both were. How you’re meant to be appreciated from afar, how you disappear at my touch.
I live in fragments you left behind. You are fall, you are this city, you are night and day and every movie we watched, every street we walked, you are the air that I struggle to breathe.
There is no you to distract away the ghosts. Your memory has become one of them, the ones that visit in sleep and waking dreams. I let them sit perched on my shoulders, and I carry their full weight with me.
You are not here, so I have learned to live with them.
Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Jane Kim began writing with the Vancouver-based Creative Writing for Children’s Society in 2005. In 2014 she published a 400-page novel, Fallen, on Amazon Kindle, and currently explores experimental short stories and creative non-fiction. After returning from a year of studying English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she is completing her last year studying literary arts and history of art and architecture at Brown University.
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