Prose by Wali
Photography by Hew Zi Heng
When I’m travelling alone, away from the people down below, it gives me time to think, The day they perfect in-flight cell signals is the day I’d probably buy a submarine. My ears popped as one of stewardesses smiled and asked if I wanted red or white wine. She didn’t even offer me orange juice. She knew how tired I looked.
There were two kids sitting in front of me, siblings I think, but one of them looked older than the other. All I could see were their heads — jet black hair. When I was a kid I used to think I’d fly in jet planes all the damn time.
You know, beer comes from the sap of the tree.
The older kid’s voice sounded like sweet tea, and it rang like a clear stream of water. It felt like I was in a permanent state of brain-freeze and this child’s voice, or more importantly what he said, had begun to thaw the inner workings of my mind.
And then it happened, the sour pain in my chest squeezed out the first tears in 23 years. I buried my face into my hands, feeling my own warmth.
I met Laura in the summer. I hadn’t uttered her name since we last met. Which was strange, because when she left, it was as if all traces of her had left too — and I should have said her name once, twice, to bring her back again. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I just replay my experiences with her, trying to recall or unearth details I had previously ignored. It was exhausting and often worked. It was my version of counting sheep.
So right then I was afflicted with a similar wave of insomnia so I decided to look back but only this time, I thought about the last night I ever spent with her.
It was the 14th of July when I saw Laura for the last time; the road was deserted, coloured orange by street lamps. A summer night.
The pomaded hair on my head fell over my eyebrows waiting for her. She was half an hour late. I sat on the curb rubbing my eyes, lips reaching near the end of my cigarette when she had arrived.
My dad. I’m sorry, Lazslo. And my lava lamp broke an—
Her excuse was likely to be bullshit but I was in love and had let her get away with little lies like these, even if they had been at the expense of my time.
It was apparent she had put in effort, her eyeliner was sharp and her cheekbones glowed a fireplace warmth. She even managed to put on the green necklace I had gotten her for Valentine’s. I took pride in noticing these things, a real detective I was.
Sometimes I thought that she had kept me waiting just to see if I would; there was never that trust.
I nodded and didn’t ask. She adored that about me.
We’re heading to the jazz club Miko told us about. Apparently you can smoke there.
What’s it called?
Wait, did you hear me? You can smoke in there.
Yes yes, I heard.
What’s it called? The place.
I forgot. But I know it’s down Ivy Lane. But that’s about it.
We walked down the street, saying little, until we reached a stretch of green fence. We could smell the grass from the stadium from where we had been standing. The place was a fine specimen of managerial neglect; neglect that had been not only a cause of anguish for the local high schools which had had their best steroid-acne riddled stallions populate on Fridays but for the entire town council who thirsted after international investors whom they had hoped could replace the tired businesses on Main Street with the universal appeal of High School Football; neglect, which had since been rectified by a council vote in March of that year.
I recalled the Friday nights in early April that saw groups of racially homogeneous men replacing burnt filaments with 1500 Watt arena/flood lights, worth more than anything anyone had thought the town council could afford. One of the men had died screwing in a bulb during a thunderstorm.
Whenever Laura and I walked past it — and it wouldn’t just be us, entire families and their children would do this too — we’d stop and a look at it; the field, glowing ember. Perhaps it was superstition, maybe it was nothing at all. That night was no different; we’d stood there for a few minutes smoking, sometimes tilting our faces towards the street for a change of scenery. We knew what to expect.
And then they came, as they did every night—one by one, an army of yellow in a furious automotive migration, crispy leaves on the street rose up slowly and then all at once. They engaged in a strange tango, going around, under, above each other. Some of them had stuck to the wipers of the taxicabs, tagging along for the ride; I suppose those were the winners.
It should be just down this street. It’s near a big tree. Miko said we couldn’t miss it.
Miko says a lot of things, Lazslo. She once told me beer came from the sap of a plant.
I was 13, asshole. She also said that in her grandmother’s village in Okinawa there was a monk that had the answer to everything and whenever she went back I would give her a list of questions to ask him. And she’d come back with answers!
Who knows? Maybe that monk really did have all the answers.
There probably never even was a monk, you jackass.
I love you.
We walked some more, and before long, we realised that the girl, Miko, was right.
The tree was massive, the roots so strong and persistent that they had gone through and around the broken cement plate that it had been planted on. The branches were immense, muscular arms of wood reaching outward towards the cobalt sky, towards the moon that was barely there that night, and even to the matte steel door right next to it; the door to the neon cellar which I can no longer find.
The room was filled with nothing but smoke and blue light. Everyone there looked older than Laura and I. We sat on the ground and Laura tilted her head back, tired.
Onstage were four or five black boys dressed in shirts whiter than snow. Their ties hung loose just as their voices did, speaking softly as one of them stepped forward, speaking with a slight but noticeable lisp.
Ladies and— no, just the ladies. This is the place where paint and pain never dries. Fonso?
He steps back, his polished shoes clicking against the tiled plywood stage. It lit up like one of the pieces of charred wood you’d see nestled in the fireplace. There was nothing underneath it, probably, held up by performers’ hopes and dreams.
The skinny black boy with the saxophone began, giving us a note, followed by another and another till he conjured up a tune he agreed with. He looks up at us, his eyes yellow with jaundice. He went faster, his hands trailed the sax’s body and he pressed down, releasing keys in rapid succession. He leaned into his instrument, and hunched his back into what must have been a painful angle. The instrument was a part of him. The sweat from his hair trailed down his forehead like rain on a windshield. But not too much; just a warm sprinkle. Like a summer rain. We could see through his shirt as it stuck to his chest, revealing a tattoo of a parrot with its wings spread in brilliant colours. The pulsating vein on his forehead began to show, like a snake or a rat’s tail, moving.
He played viciously, straining his tar filled lungs, his amber eyes tearing up, a cup overflowing. He reaches the finale of his song and he takes his purple lips off the mouthpiece, howling the last note.
He puts his saxophone down on a chair.
The black boy smiled, put a cigarette in his mouth, asked for a lighter and collapsed.
Shit! Fonso! Someone get his fucking meds! Someone! Tori go get it from his satchel.
The satchel! The satchel! The fucking bag!
Fonso! Fonso! Oh fuc—.
I’m… helping trouble, I’m having …trouble
He retched a few times and wiped his mouth before one of the Bartenders dropped two pills into his mouth.
Wash it down. That’s right. You’re alright, just fine, just tired. Fonso, you’re staying here tonight. Okay, Fonzie? Fonzie?
Laura held my hand like a bench vise.
Shows over, folks. I’m sorry. This might happen again, no promises. Goodnight, and good luck.
I put out my cigarette and left with Laura. Her hands were stiff and cold. I didn’t want to let go of her either, I remember that much.
Walking back to her place, she told me to stop and hugged me; her shoulders were wound tight. She drew back and looked at me, and those wet orbs of hers, I had dreams back then of falling into them as if they were pools of tar. I was going to spend the night with her.
Getting to her place was easy. It was pretty close to Morrow’s where I got my grilled cheese in the morning sometimes.
Okay you stay right here. I’ll go check his light.
She crouched down and scurried her way to the side of the house, then expertly planted her ass against the part of the wall that was always somehow damp. She motioned for me to (quietly) walk towards her.
Okay he’s asleep. You can go in through the back but the screen door is creaky again so just try your best, okay?
She walked to the porch and opened the door, turning back once more to look at me.
See you soon.
She blew me a kiss, but I’m not sure if I had caught it.
I walked to the back, my hand trailing the painted fence, through which I could see the pumpkins Mr. Bertrand had planted a few months ago. His pickup truck was in the driveway, untouched for many years. “Riverwood Plumbing & Sanitary Services” it read on the side of the cargo bed.
The screen door was creaky enough to cause me a moment of intense panic. And each time I had made progress with the door, I would pause and listen to Laura’s dad’s snoring before continuing.
That air conditioning whir of a snore he had. He was always tired, but also always troublesome, drinking occasionally but heavily. It had been that way since Laura’s Mother got sick. He didn’t hate me; I suspect he hardly knew I existed.
Going down the hallway, I had realised that everything must have looked so different in the day and maybe one day she’d let me stay in till light bled through the curtains. I thought about these things often.
And when I got to the room, she was already asleep or pretending to at least. I got into bed with her and closed my eyes. I went to sleep that night thinking I had been born happy.
Strangely, I don’t remember waking up the day after. My recollections begin as if I were in a video game tutorial, standing there in her room without context or essence of any kind– naked, in front of her vanity mirror looking into and back into an empty bed. The sheets looked undone like salted snow in the winter. It was as if I had been placed or positioned there by someone.
I never saw her again after I left her house. No calls, no mail, nothing. I learned days later from Michael Barlow, a classmate of hers that their homeroom teacher told the class Laura had moved away. I remember not feeling very sad but maybe puzzled.
After a month or two, I moved away too. This time to another country and I didn’t keep in touch with anybody in Saint Claire’s, where I met my wife.
And now years later, I wonder what the hell happened to Laura, if she made it somewhere in life, or had the kids we always wanted to have together.
Sometimes I’d get home late and my wife would be sleeping in bed and I think of how it would be like if my rusty body would be replaced with my old one, the squall of my child with the air condition whir from her father’s room and the nightstand where I would sometimes put a glass of cold water with which I would use to get me through the night with her green necklace draped over the lava lamp like vines on a stone pillar, burning through the summertime.
Zi Heng is no creator; his interest in photography is limited by vain attempts to maximise likes on Instagram, his appreciation of novels go as far as textbooks, and the only plays he watches are those casting his friends. Nonetheless, if there’s one thing he loves is trying out new things, because he believes life only starts outside of the comfort zone. He can be reached via @hewconomics on Instagram.
Wali is a student who aspires to be a journalist. He started writing at a young age. He has written short stories and is currently working on a book.