Nine Weeks of Strange, Week 5: We Die at Night

 

From “We Die at Night”, in Women in Strange Places: Stories

(c) 2009 Celeste Ramos

The night I killed Mary passing sirens woke me at eight. The gurgle of traffic continued right after the sirens faded. They reminded me that in the event of an emergency, the world continued to turn.

            Melatonin again. The bottle that kept them fresh looked like the bottle of aspirin I kept by my bed.

I was always prone to accidents. It wasn’t uncommon for me to pop three melatonin instead of three aspirin. This mistake would crush me into a void of half-awake nightmares. By the time I woke up, like when I woke up that evening, I had to walk around my apartment and stumble over dirty clothing and stacks of books on the floor for several minutes at a time. To remind myself I was awake.

I held on to my walls like a blind person as I walked to the bathroom. I ground the chips of paint into my palm.

I was brushing my teeth when someone knocked at the door. I rinsed and spit as fast as I could, because I didn’t want the person to keep knocking and think I wasn’t home. I had just moved to the city not a month before and I didn’t have any friends.

            The floorboards moaned under my feet as I went to the door. Looking through the foggy peephole into the hallway, I saw my next-door neighbor, Matilda. Her already fat face had widened in the peephole. She looked like the Cheshire Cat with uneven hair and a cigarette. All she did was stop by about every other week to deliver mail to me that was crossed to her box. She also gave me gossip for two minutes about people in the building I’d never met.

I actually didn’t want to open the door. But it was either my voice or hers in my ears.

            “Hi Therese, mail for ya again,” she said.

            The ghosts of over-cooked dinners and trash lingered in the hall. A baby cried behind one of the steel maroon doors.

            Matilda cocked her head to the side. “You look sick.”

            “No,” I rubbed my eyes. “I overslept again. Sometimes I take these pills – ”

            “Do you know Gary Sullivan, that gorgeous waste of a man?” She lowered her voice suddenly. “He’s gay you know.” She raised her thick voice again. “Anyway, he’s apparently got that new BMW that’s outside, can you believe it? In a neighborhood like this. I wonder just how he got it.” She raised an eyebrow at me and ashed onto my welcome mat.

Before I could complain she said, “Oh where’s my head. Here.”

            She shoved two bill-pregnant envelopes into my hands. I strained to remember what time it was. Matilda kept talking, shooting names at me with that slingshot of a mouth of hers. The names had rumors and four letter words attached to all of them.

            “Matilda – ”

            “And then there’s that adorable new couple that just moved in, the ones who fuck way too loud – ”

            “Matilda, please. Do me a favor. Remind me what time it is.”

            Her eyes didn’t leave mine as her wrist drew up to her chest. She glanced down and said, “Eight-twenty. You got plans?”

            “No I just got up, you see, and sometimes I forget – ”

            “Oh jesus. It’s eight-fuckin’-twenty already. I need to get movin’. Crystal’s supposed to tell me about what happened at Selma’s birthday party last weekend. Her shady mafia boyfriend took her to Vegas. I’ll see you. I’ll see you later! And get some help for your drug addiction, you’re too young!” Matilda turned around and scuffed off down the hall in her slippers. She left a trail of sound behind her, long after she had turned the corner, until I heard her door echo shut.

            I stared at the raised detail on the walls. The wood trim that came up to knee height and then stretched up and over into the ceiling, and the positions for the chandeliers to hang. Most of them were broken. Or stained by neglect. Such an old building. So pretty.

            I left the door open after I drifted back into the apartment. The bills went on the kitchen counter.

            I had to do something. Anything. I couldn’t sit at home anymore like that. Waiting. Listening. Looking out the window, past the fire-escape rail.

I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know what normal people did on a Friday night alone.

            The building’s super was usually an invisible man that left notices about pipes and year-old work requests under the doors. He walked by and then stood in the doorway and looked in. His jowls shook when he spoke.

            “Hey! Lady you can’t leave this door open like that! Anyone could come in here. You wanna get robbed or somethin’?”

            I got up and rushed to the door. I hoped he would ask me how I was.  He didn’t.

            “Oh. I’m sorry,” I said. “Force of habit.”

            He pulled the doorknob and shut the door himself.

            That made me feel awful, like he’d locked me out of the world.

I had to do something. I had to experiment and go out.

            I hadn’t gone out on my own yet. I was too afraid. I moved to the city from a small town for a job I was offered but didn’t get. I had to scramble for whatever job I could find, and I managed to get one as a temp secretary. As a temp I wasn’t supposed to work long hours but I asked for them anyway. What else was I going to do? I’d worked at more offices than I could count and I got good at accepting people’s pleasantries in the workplace as half-hearted attempts toward friendship. But I learned quickly that people only like small talk because it reassures them that they’re “nice” people.

            My commutes were strange to say the least. The subways were a maze of signs, blurred faces and metal grinding against metal. I’d learned not to look people in the eye unless I had to. The world in the city became a world full of necks, shoulders and varying bodies.

            In dreams, people I associated with were decapitated.

Going out at night wasn’t a big priority. My street looked like an incision in the neighborhood map. The street was two blocks long and connected two major avenues. I knew what went down on streets like mine. I didn’t want to deal with it. But I had to get out – I couldn’t stand hearing echoes of doors and voices in the hall all night. Watching movies that didn’t make sense because I’d pass out then wake again. I needed to live my life in some kind of color.

            When I got out of the shower I stood naked and dumb in front of my miniscule closet. I didn’t know what to wear. All I owned were nightgowns and office clothes, slippers and pumps. I’d outgrown a pair of jeans that were out of fashion anyway, and a tight red sheath of a dress that made me look like a spoiled tube of lipstick. I didn’t know what normal people wore to go out.

Figuring that it was the city and no one really examined you the way they did back home, I decided to mix and match. I’d wear my puffy clouds pajama tank top, with a short black skirt that belonged to one of my favorite office suits, and a pair of black pumps.

            My reflection laughed at me. I didn’t think I’d make it past the corner of my block. But in truth I looked alright enough. I just wanted to go to a loud bar and get drunk enough to start up a conversation with someone.

            I didn’t know what kind of makeup to wear or how to do my eyeliner. I organized my face as best I could; I’m sure I looked like a clown or an accidental goth girl. It had been so long since I’d done my face up for a night out. And even then, I didn’t know how to do it the normal way.

            When I was on the street I knew guys wanted me to look a certain way. The guys I had the potential to meet at the bar would be different than the guys I met on the streets back home. The guys back home wouldn’t talk except to call me honey. And of course, they’d ask me where I wanted them to tuck the bills before we got started.

            I leaned against the mirror on my wall. I gave myself an assignment: I would talk to people for at least ten minutes. I imagined myself at a crowded bar talking to people, shot glasses on the bar, phone numbers on my forearm. It was going to be nice to ask people what they did with interest. Where they were from, too. God, I was worried I’d sound like a broken record after a while, I didn’t know what to do after certain bits of conversation. Seemed that after the “what’s your name?”, “what do you do?”, “where you from?” formula the only result was to ask was if they wanted to go “have a party” with me.

            I planned to take the train downtown and walk around like a stranger lost in her own backyard. I had enough money in my purse to have a few drinks and take a cab home.

Before I left I smiled at myself in the mirror. An adventure. That’s what I kept calling it. I’d do what I wanted to do without having to worry about something happening to me. I had learned how to take care of myself by virtue of moving so far away, and now, this night would be the first test.

            The voice in my head that never believed in me was right. I wouldn’t make it past the corner of my block.

            My street was extra popular for prostitutes during the hour before I walked out of the building. Tucked away between the legs of those two avenues, it was dim enough for business, quick drop offs and picks ups. That kind of thing. I saw two get into a car through the window at the front of the building. Just a flash of them. Glitter from one’s dress, lip-gloss from the other’s red lips. The dark car rolled away a few seconds after. Everyone else, for now, was done with my street.

Mary had just crossed in front of the door as I opened it, like a black cat crossing my path, or a ghost ducking from view. She passed by me so fast that all I caught was the smell of her perfume and the sound of her heavy breathing. She smelled like those dandelions that grow through the cement around junkyards.

            She was in a hurry. Her purple heels snapped like the gum in her mouth against the pavement. A brown car was at the corner and it slipped into my peripheral vision on my right. A man shouted, “Don’t you walk away from me!”

            Mary walked faster, and as she did she dropped some make-up out of her open purse.

I picked up the gloss and eye shadow and ran up to her. I grabbed her arm. I still don’t know why I did it – I felt consumed to make sure she had these things. Maybe I was that desperate to look someone in the face and do them a favor.

********

If you like what you’ve seen and read, buy Women in Strange Places: Stories by Celeste Ramos!

Life After Death

At the core of  “Swim” lies an obsession with death in its various forms. It is an inevitable bane, a healing doorway, a rite of passage, a complete and total end, a mystery, a surity … To the characters in the story, death is a method of realization, regardless of the method or the revelation itself.

It is, above all, a necessity. And like any necessity, it can also be bent to one’s will.

George’s exploration of death is frikin fascinating, even to me, and I made him up! He possesses a fearlessness I wish I had, and that I think we all should like to have. To him death is silence and reunification with the things he lost in his life and the questions he has. To Elliot, death was an impatient itch. He had to know what it is like, and it was something that, I think, mirrors the human instinct behind fearing death. Fear of the unknown is easy to file it under, but it is more than that. As creatures who lust for knowledge, humans love to go where we “shouldn’t” go. It was incredibly frustrating to Elliot, knowing that there was something the human spirit could experience, yet not report back from … he HAD to know what was on the other side. To Lynn, death was the ultimate slap in the face. It was a punishment for her shortcomings and the ultimate way in which she lost her battles that drove her to being an alcoholic.  In a sense, one could say Lynn is already dead, since she’s just kind of floating around and not really present in her life or in her body, until the death of her own brother, and George really forces her to explore a very new and very scary and different — yet seemingly necessary — possibility: experience the other side of death.

I believe in reincarnation. I feel that the soul, the life force, essence, energy, whatever you want to call it, can take many forms — from a tree to a rabbit to a person to a fruitfly, whatever. The easiest way I can describe what I think existence is, is as many rooms in an eternal house. When our time in one area is done, to learn certain lessons and feel and experience certain things, then we move on to the next one. I also feel that this “door” between rooms is our cessation of consciousness and our wiping of memory from our last lives, and that door closes for a reason. I don’t know that reason, but I do know why sometimes that door remains ajar to some of us, and we remember our past lives. Knowing we’ve been here already creates many frustrations and comforts for me, but I think on the whole, I like that I can remember some of my past existences because it shows this mass expanse of consciousness and ability in the spirit, and that there’s this constant need to simply be and learn and do.

I wrote “Swim” for two reasons: my belief that we do learn what we call the “mysteries” of death when we’re earthbound once we die and we take that knowledge to the next phase of our existence. But when it’s not our time to learn it, it will all go heinously wrong. This is George’s shortcoming in this issue; he has mastered the ability to get to this inbetween place but he’s not using his knowledge very wisely. I also wanted to get myself to think about my own death, and what my biggest fear is in regard to dying, for sometimes I think that I, and many other people, fear dying because of the WAY we’re going to go, not so much that we’re going to go. I HATE deep water. This story was such a challenge to create and consider. But I did learn some interesting things about myself by the end. 

The second reason is, simply, that Massive Attack gave me the idea, through the cellos at the end of “Butterfly Caught”. I’ve posted the vid below. 

What do you think death is?

These people definitely don’t believe it’s the end at all: 

Near-Death Experiences

Life After Death

Fear of Dying: Easy Death

Massive Attack: Butterfly Caught – the video about a man who turns into … something else entirely. Listen closely, especially at 3:43 through to the end. 

Revisit the reading and excerpt here: Swim

Buy the book! Women in Strange Places: Stories.

Remember, you’re not just paying an author for her work, you’re contributing to the start a very important business very soon, where I will promote literacy, empowerment through the arts, awareness for women and children, and push for the understanding of ourselves, and the wonderful things we are each capable of — regardless of our perceived mortality, regardless of the invisibility of money, regardless of the illusion of time. 

Just be.

The Great Big Doorway in the Sky

My family is a very, very superstitious family, as much as the next Hispanic family, and while I didn’t grow up “religious” it was still a presence in my household and the households of those around me. For many years, my mom told me I would have special talents because I was born with a caul, which, while a considered to be a generally good sign, a caul is a REALLY good thing to people who are superstitious. This means that you are guaranteed “second sight”, and are protected against death from drowning. 

Ironically enough, I have a mortal fear of water when it’s above my hips. Anyway… 

My mom’s side of the family grew up in a very haunted house in Puerto Rico, and there are few people you’d find in our family or friends of, that haven’t seen a ghost or encountered something fucked up. I have seen many and felt many ghostly things, though I’ve never communicated with them. Death has never been the big black period at the end of a sentence for me … I’ve just always kinda known something else was out there, but I didn’t believe it, until I was 11.

Now, this is not a near death experience, but an encounter with my guardian angel, and to me, the existence of a guardian angel guarantees certain things: we’re spirits in transit, there is an afterlife, there is a higher power (I won’t venture to try and assert that it’s an old man in the sky though), and that the world is full of possibilities, even if we don’t think they’re true. 

Long story short, I was alone in a playground behind my apartment building. There was a high platform that I could only get to via a ladder to access the slide. I lost my balance and fell back-first off the top of this ladder, and nothing waited for me below but that good ol’ rubber-and-cement Brooklyn playground base below. I would have been fucked. All of a sudden I felt two warm, strong hands at my back push me toward the ladder and set me up right, so I caught a rung mid-fall and the only thing that happened was that I banged up my knee. I got so freaked out I ran back inside.

Tonight’s link: evidence of the afterlife?

Send me your story for my big “I Had a Near-Death Experience” post later this week. Email me at womeninstrangeplaces@gmail.com. I will not use your name or contact info. I’m thinking of just posting excerpts from what people send.

Death.

Welcome to Nine Weeks of Strange’s 3rd story, “Swim”, a story about a recovering alcoholic and the dark secrets she learns about her brother upon his death. This is the most popular story in the book so far, per reader reactions and so on, and it is my favorite of the collection as well.

This week’s posts will explore death, dying, near-death experiences, addiction, immortality and much more. 

The following is an “in-person” vid introduction and excerpt of the story. A text excerpt can be found under the vid. 

If you love it already, buy the book! http://www.lulu.com/strangeplaces. Tell your friends. Pass it along. 

 

Excerpt from “Swim”, (c) Celeste Ramos, 2009 – Women in Strange Places: Stories

            Ice water fell from the sky at around four o’clock. I told George to meet me at the bar that was next to my hotel. It was an after-work bar where people came to wish they’d never been employed. I took a booth in the back and watched it rain for an hour.

            When four met five I had a glass of heady ale in front of me. As I chugged it I looked up and saw George walk in through the neon and sticker door.

            “Good to see you again,” George said. He kissed me on the cheek and sat down. His car keys sounded like broken wind chimes when they hit the table.

            “Hi George.”

            “How are you?”

            I hated when people asked me that. I shrugged it off and looked around me, to say, what’s it look like?

            “Are you having anything?”

            “No, I don’t drink.”

            It was so hard for me to make conversation with a stranger. I used to be so good at it when I was still working in sales.

But once that last beer kicked in, I knew where to start.

            “Who are you and how do you know my brother?”

            He smiled. “George Taylor. I’m thirty-three. I’m from upstate New York. My parents were missionaries. That a good start?”

            “Sure.”

            “Swimming is my life. I love it. I met Elliot when I was out one day at the lake. He was the only person there, he was sketching. It was at the end of winter, just barely spring, and the water had a nice bite to it.”

            I listened as his voice painted a wonderful picture for me: my darling Elliot sketching the rusted metal trees of winter, calm as could be.

            “Well, I wasn’t familiar with the lake and just jumped into any old spot. There were a ton of rocks there and I banged my head, knocked myself right out. Elliot saved me and we were friends ever since.” He sighed. “After a while, he went on some trip to an Indian reservation in New York, not far from where I grew up actually. When he came back he said he had to buy that house.”

            “He would never, in a million years, want a house,” I said.

            “Well he wanted that one. I came to live with him after me and my wife divorced. He offered me the bottom floor. That’s the way it was for about a year and a half, until he got sick.”

            A year and a half. Why hadn’t Elliot told me?  I tried to imagine him dealing with housework and decorating. He must have done a wonderful job.

            “And he got sick last summer right?” I asked. How could I have forgotten?

            “Yeah, that’s right.” George rubbed his sleepy face. “He hated doctors.”

            “I know.”

            “He kept complaining about his chest hurting until finally I asked my ex-sister in law to check him out. From there on out he just got worse and worse.”

            I downed the rest of the beer as I ran from the image of Elliot in pain.

            George leaned in and asked, “Are you alright?” He asked me in such a way that I felt in the loving company of a priest. I hadn’t felt that way since the last time I had a heart to heart with Elliot.

            “Fine,” I said.

            “Lynn, I know we’ve just met, but the way Elliot spoke about you all the time … I feel like I’m already close to you. Does that make sense?”

            “Sure.”

            “No, listen.” He leaned in closer this time and took my right hand. “I’ve traveled a lot in my life. I’ve seen and done many things for my age, met many people. There are few things that don’t change, and to me, it’s when someone’s hiding something.”

            I took my hand back from him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “You drink pretty fast, don’t you?” He didn’t ask in a judgmental tone.

I felt as one does in a dream where they’ve shown up to work completely naked. “It’s none of your business, George. I’m fine.”

             “I know I can’t force you to talk to me. That’s fine.” His dark eyes dropped for a moment and then came back to mine. “I’m sorry. I just want us to be friends. If you need someone to listen – ”

            “Thanks, George, but you know what?” Don’t shove him away, don’t do it, I pleaded to myself. “My brother just died. And at every corner I turn there’s all this stuff I learn about him. I’m upset. I’m going to drink.”

            Poor George. I came to find out later that this was a soft spot for him. His ex-wife had been a terrible alcoholic.

            He leaned back against the seat. Silent minutes moved past us. I was fidgety as George was still. He stared at me off and on.

            “Do you want to come see the house?” He asked finally. “It’s nice. Nothing fancy, but it’s nice. Really quiet. Maybe it would be good for you to spend a week or two there, with me. Maybe it would be good for both of us.”

            “And the boxes?” I asked sharply. This caught him off guard, though I realized in my rising stupor that he hadn’t mentioned them.

            “Well … they’ll be there for you too.”

            “What’s in them?”

            He shook his head. “Nothing I’m going to try and explain to you if you’re not sober. Really, if you’re going to drink the whole time you’re in town it might be best to just mail them to you – ”

            “Wait a minute, who the hell do you think you are? Elliot was my brother and he left those things for me. I think I have the right to see them when I damn please!”

            “There’s a lot you don’t know, Lynn. I don’t want to sound so mysterious but it’s just a matter of fact. Please, for the sake of his memory, you need to be there for this. He left you some very special things. Very important things.” George rose and gave me a tender smile. His eyes were a little angry at me. “I have to go. Just tell me when you want to come by. Okay?”

            I wasn’t sure what awaited me. But as near to the bottom as I was, I had to get something right. It was my duty as his sister to go be at the house, and George was right – I had to be present.

            “I’m staying next door,” I said.

            “I know.”

            “Come get me tomorrow afternoon?”

            “I’ll call you when I’m on the way over. And, just out of curiosity, do you happen to know what happened to a fish Elliot had in his room?”

            “Yeah. I have it in my room. Why?”

            He looked relieved when he said, “Oh good. I was worried the hospital had tossed the poor thing. I gave it to Elliot.”

            I nodded without concern. It was just a fish.

            “I’ll see you,” George said, and walked away.

            Soon after he was gone I was alone at the bar. I felt like an old party streamer tangled in a tree limb.

            If I could get anything right in my imagination about Elliot owning a house, it would be situated in the middle of nowhere. This meant I couldn’t go to the store, or for too long a walk, and I definitely couldn’t run out for something to eat.

I carried a picture of him in my purse, and I told it that my trip to the store down the street would be the last time.

            I wandered the aisles for a half hour as I stared at the mad array of liquors, beers, wines, vodkas. In the long hall of fridges that housed the beer, I stared at the shiny twelve and twenty-four packs, the frosted, rotund aluminum jumbo cans, and the variations of brown, green and red bottles. It felt like these mosaics of poison were pressed against the glass, like fans of me, all wanting to get inside and ingest me.

            I ended up back at the hotel room drowned in wine. At one point during my silent debauchery I thought I saw Elliot cross from the bathroom door to the closet, just around the corner. I could even smell his old cologne.

“It wasn’t your fault, get off that bottle,” I heard him say.

            No, it wasn’t mine, that’s what Elliot always said. I started drinking a few years after our sister Shirley drowned in a river. I was thirteen and she was eleven. I couldn’t swim fast enough to save her. She was right at my grasp, but it was as if every time her frantic hand was within an inch of mine, the current would yank her away from me hard. I had to fight to catch up to her and not let myself get ripped away, but it was useless. I was exhausted. I could only watch as the river rolled her around in its torrents that sounded like a million windows breaking at once, and then her thrashing frame was gone.

            I was depressed for several years until I discovered drinking. I drank to drown out Shirley’s screams. Then I drank to get through classes and break-ups, movies, and drives home. I drank to get to and out of work.

Now I drank because I couldn’t protect Elliot, my remaining sibling. I drank because everything was my fault.

            I didn’t want George to know this. The humiliation was so deep whenever someone found me out in some parking lot or hanging off a stool at a bar. I was afraid that George wanted to be my friend. I knew that if he met the real me, he’d want to forget I was Elliot’s sister. Elliot, who had done nothing wrong to anyone, and had lived his twenty-eight years in peace.

            On the way to the house, Langford’s drab streets gave way to the land surrounding it. The nothing of trees warped the horizon as the main road wandered through them. I had a dry mouth and a head a mile wide. George had bags under his eyes. After some time I made the decision to talk, even if it was just to hear the sound of my voice.

            I shoved mint gum into my mouth before I spoke. I even gave a little smile.

            “Where are we going?”

“The house is in a bit of a limbo. It’s not quite part of Langford, not quite part of Alter Grove. That’s the next town to the west. Usually I tell people I live in the woods.”

I nodded. “How are you today?”

            “Tired. I didn’t get to swim this morning. I haven’t slept.”

            “How come?”

            He looked over at me periodically, saying, “Too many things on my mind. Elliot, and then comes the problem of what to do with the house. I’m not going to stay there… not for much longer. I don’t know what to do with myself anymore, you know that feeling? Sometimes I worry I’ve done it all. There’s so much in my head. I get so agitated when I don’t swim. I can’t focus.”

            “Really?”

            “Mmhm. It’s a necessity for me. I swim four times a day.” He leaned forward onto the steering wheel. It looked like he was trying to stretch his lower back.

            “Where do you swim?”

            “In the lake outside the house.”

            “The house is on a lake?” I looked out the window, trying to imagine it. A house on a lake reminded me of summer and lush trees, barbecues and insect bites. Not ice.

            “Oh yes.”

            “Where’d he get the money?”

            “I fronted it to him. He had his savings too.”

            George made a left turn onto a dirt and gravel road. The house became visible immediately, along with the shore of the lake. It was an enormous stretch of glassy water. The house was modestly sized and colored, buttoned into the hilly land.

            I stared at the lake, thick with cold, as it was jostled by the breeze.