Burning Slightly – Johanna Hatlem
September 27, 2023
She was, well, never known—no, no, not yet had she graced the soft threshold of that realm. Each day she asked herself if this was the moment, her turn; if at this moment they could see her. But here, now, she had no face, no face she could remember. She made herself up in the morning by the light of the image of the latest star, the glow of their beauty independently intermingling with the girl’s own soul. These stars had no use to the girl other than their faces, and if she tried to bring them up in her mind she discovered they did not exist.
And she was sitting up with a start and she was on the edge of a bed, and he was saying something but she couldn’t hear him. She was thinking of looking at the faces of the stars and applying them, and he was asking of her something she could not understand, he was saying,
But it had existed, the too-great void between them, and within it had existed nothing, nothing but noise. In the dark he was a ghost, and in turning her face from him she could solve the rattling mode of her heart.
The music was loud coming out of the speaker, the voice of someone tragic telling her the sad story of his life, he who had never been loved, but she didn’t care enough to listen, and the ghost on the other side of the bed didn’t care enough to make her do anything.
When she closed his front door she could easily forget and not retrace what he had ever said to her. And now she couldn’t remember the edge of the bed, the color of his eyes; all she could recall was the soft blue light coming in from his window. She wished she could live there, between everything, but that place didn’t exist anymore, so she went on.
At an office she stared at the clock on the wall. She thought, “It could be my birthday today.” She thought about telling the pair of black eyes at the counter that it was her birthday, but she knew that it wouldn’t change anything. So she sat and flipped through the magazine, these stars were old, she didn’t recognize their beauty as her own.
She thought about her absolute favorite birthday. She couldn’t ever remember if the memory was real or if it was imagined, but she is 3 years old, there is a grocery store cake, princesses, the memory is pale and soft. Someone beautiful is laughing loud and imagining her all grown up.
And now she is here telling the pair of black eyes it’s her birthday, but they show no sign of recognition. She was right, and it doesn’t even matter anymore.
Her demand, the demand for recognition, was a demand to be made real. She could feel her own virtuality as explicitly as she could feel the virtuality of all those stars. Their seduction, those dark pools of glamour and artifice, was undeniable. But just the same as her, if you asked any of them if they would like to be held, they would simply reply, “Yes.”
Her walk home is from the office and there is a tall display. For a moment she imagines she could live there, among the plaid sweaters and lights, but someone is looking at her and she must go on now.
When people stare at her she imagines that they would like to kill or maim her, or she imagines that they are telling themselves a story of their life together, that they believe they must strangle her or hold her passionately forever. Either need scares her enough that she never looks back at them, never meets their eyes.
In bed she watches the snow fall outside and wishes that someone could be at the door. The wind on the glass and the buzz of the refrigerator allow her a measure of peace.
This morning she is applying the face of a star, the one with the wide set eyes and the crooked teeth, the one with the twenty boyfriends and no soul but she is so beautiful it doesn’t matter. Her picture lifts the veil and looks through the girl, as it does to everyone who dares to exist.
Somewhere the star is asking one of her boyfriends to shut the door and he listens to her, of course, crossing into nowhere.
As she opens her door, a door she is opening for the first time, she sees him, painted yellow and silent. When he looks at her she remembers something, but when he turns, everything falls away.
She feels like hell now, sitting here and wondering if the world will ever make sense to her in the way it makes sense to her at this moment. Right now she is living a life with someone and she doesn’t even know his name. He sits just on the other side, a stranger, burning with the future. Asking her a million questions. Telling her how to love him, and love him, and love him.
The stranger keeps on burning beside, begging her to begin. She doesn’t turn to him, so when she leaves she can try not to remember he ever existed.
On her way home she gets a call from her ghost, she imagines he must be sitting in bed. She tells him words lose their meaning the more they are spoken. He says nothing in return. Maybe he could love her forever if he never got the chance.
Back in her room she counts her floorboards, has another glass of water, and brings her mind closer to a sort of death. When she turns out the light she waits. When she dreams she is on a train, the destination is unclear; when she asks, no one will tell her where it is going, and outside it is much too dark to see.
She wakes and it is not even eleven, she dresses and goes out into the night.
In a convenience store she considers the rows of goods, views each with equal detachment, wonders why she is even there. In the snow she searches for a reflection of something, tries to hear some knowledge in the mutterings of the man on the corner. If something could be understood…
She thinks of the ghost, of the bed, of the divine pain, pleasure in his nothingness. She loves his blank face. She wants to say things like, “I love you stranger, kiss me forever now!”
She has forgotten that he has meant nothing he has ever said. She has forgotten that he can’t love anybody. She has forgotten about the stranger just beside.
When she gets home she picks tomorrow’s star and blames all her views on the others.
Today she is traversing an eternal forest of ice, she is crying bitter tears, she can no longer hold her head high in the face of her own undoing. She touches her long side, and she is bleeding, and why is she bleeding, and why is she dying?
In the forest of ice she is touching every branch, the ice is burning, her side is bleeding, some distance away, the candle is burning, the flame of resistance which she carried for all those miles, for all those years. She feels no ownership towards it now. Resistance does not belong to her, it is all just ice, pure reflections, and it is all melting much too quick.
In the city she is taking a long walk. The walk is made up of future promises she can’t keep. She is bleeding much more now, and she feels weak, and the weakness feels good, because it feels like letting go. It feels like saying sorry and meaning it.
She passes the office, she passes the different stations of love, she passes the lots and the printed signs. She is walking towards the park where the ghost told her of the maudlin sorrows of all his unrealities. She should have responded, “I love you,” but instead she followed him a million more miles to nowhere. To the edge of the bed and the quiet silent breaths between sobs and the words “don’t worry baby” one too many times, when she should have been worrying, and walking out the door.
But there he is, not the ghost but the stranger, with the same prescience as the moon, sitting, well, very still on a bench.
The stranger is pure reality, the stranger is flesh and blood and beating heart. When he stares she does not, can not, look away.
The strength of some strange tide moving through her, she goes to him, sits down next to him, says nothing, hardly makes any sound at all.
“You’re really bleeding,” he tells her.
“No, I’m just really dying,” she says.
He doesn’t turn, doesn’t speak, but without hesitation takes her hand in his. She feels herself like snow against his skin.
The park is totally empty, in the dark and cold there is no one to say if there is meaning here. There is no one to look upon the scene and ascribe it a nature.
After some time the stranger turns to her to ask her if she has ever been saved, if anyone has ever saved her, and she can only respond honestly.
“Only in dreams.”
He wants to kiss her, hold her, but this is not the moment. Though he is kissing her, is holding her. They are sitting on the bench but they are also in a damp motel room, they are in a theater, they are at the dinner table, she is singing softly and putting away the dishes, they are exchanging secret vows in their heads, they are finally saying something true, they are walking the length that never changes, they are two strangers on a train, he is carrying her, dying through the forest of ice, and somewhere, they are getting married.
In the cold and the night they can only see their breath and anticipation.
She is bleeding much more now, the blood pooling at their feet, making a sweet little pond in the snow. But her hand is actually growing much warmer, and her mind is growing sharper.
“Why does dying take such a long time?” she asks.
She feels the end of herself beginning, only in her end can she find the truth. He is stroking her hair, and she is shivering under the weight, and she is dying, she is dying. But someone is holding her. And the truth is, she is worried. But he is unafraid to look into her eyes, and he really sees her, and she doesn’t know how but he is really seeing her, and he doesn’t even care about all the blood getting on his clothes. And he doesn’t even care that she is a loser, and he could love her, if she stayed alive, one day and that’s enough, that’s enough.
And she is closing her eyes now because the world is spinning too much.
She feels the cross beating of their hearts, she can smell his breath, smell his scalp, she can see him and she’s not even looking. He is more true to her than anything she has ever touched, all the faces applied like whispered prayers, all the window shops and bodies on trains.
She can remember her own face, sees herself for the first time, for the last time, for forever, he has gifted her forever. It doesn’t matter that she never sees him again; he has granted her this recognition.
He has given her a body and even though that body is dying, it is hers, and she remembers why this all matters, and it matters even more. She’s feeling tears on her face and they’re his, and maybe it’s the last thing she ever feels.