Stories

Granular – Kornelia Drianovski

Not any larger than a black peppercorn, the fly lands on the rim of your paper coffee cup, over a bubble of condensation. You run the tip of your right index finger over your hot lip. Is your lip hot or is your finger cold? If you put your lip over that spot on the rim, where the fly plots with its rubbing hands, it would be like you kissed. The millions of places this one fly has linked—mossy napes, lipstick tainted straws, cold glass panes, decomposing orange rinds—now all on your lip, dancing. Is it the artificial sweetener that has drawn it here? Is it the bloodied tissue that you folded neatly into a square beneath the cup, bloodied by your constant picking at the scabs on your hands?

You are the person who came before you. Your very sitting here now does not belong to you: worn blue cushion, laminate table hinged to the wall by a metal rod, the word “SKUL” scratched into the inner glass pane, the waves of sweaty ham-and-cheese sandwiches, the muffled voices—coughs, scolds, giggles, whispers—morphing into a lulling blankness, tickling your spine. All of this precedes and follows you. For a moment, you are all the bodies that have ever been: old and new, stout and lean, dim and bright, bursting and subdued, womanly and ghastly, on the brink and off the brink, all the sleepwalkers bearing life atop this seat. And have they carried on? Have they carried on their lives, carried away their backpacks and purses and briefcases and containers and stuffings, carried themselves off the platform, onwards and away? Are they absent-minded or mindlessly absent in their infinite constancy? And now you, you are simply the same.

The deafening screeeeeech of wheels scraping tracks is an ice pick to the optic nerves. You’re interrupted now, pulled out your mind’s boggy foam. The train’s stopping to pick up the last passengers; the fly’s gone onto kissing all the remaining things in the world. There are a few slanted vertical lines on the platform holding question marks above their faceless heads; they hate the rain so much that the rain drops around them, bouncing off the tips of their shoes.

Like that, the engine exhales and the carriage fills with the sounds of stirring, of sleeping spells disturbed by sliced time. We come back into the beating heart of it and welcome more bodies into us. Maybe someone will sit in front of you or beside you this time around. Maybe you’ll meet, or rather almost meet, the love of your life, fail to look up into their peculiarly conventional face, fail because you’re you, fail because this viscous dread spreads to all of your extremities.
        A lady in a kasha coat hovers in the aisle. Gritty beige balls sticking all over, she is engulfed by a coarse and mealy oatmeal coat for the trenches. A moving bug in your stomach twitches and makes you queasy. The train walls, curved, slouch inwards as the woman squeezes into the seat across from you. Her polyester pant-legs swoosh faintly and a waft of saccharine gas station perfume hits you—licorice flesh. You barely look up to meet her face, which you instinctively know is a pale yellow ochre with black-blue eyes, a copy of your mother.

Your mother exists in many women. Frail and still, she will be a terracotta clay mould waiting for you in an idling car in the station parking lot. The kasha coat lady lets out a sigh—or was it a moan?—as she takes off the cream coat and uncomfortably positions her limbs in the seat. You look at each other for the first time. Indeed, her eyes are just like your mother’s: orbs floating behind milky film. When is it too late for salvation? And that’s how she will look at you when you come out of the station, rolling your suitcase over the gravel, every step sinking into grain, so much grain, the streetlamps glowing, the dimmed idling car growing as you get closer and closer. She’ll look up from her book—lit by the dome light—and give you a closed-mouth smile with that sunken expression, a porcelain doll buried under the weight of one million tiny pebbles.

Cramped. This seat is too cramped. Your tight-shoed feet bump the kasha coat lady somewhere around the shins as you shift in the seat—Sorry! You close your eyes. Something sweet. Powdery perfume nauseates you as the train hurtles forward, your heartbeat like a rising tide in your mouth, swoosh and swoosh and swoosh, pre-puke terror. Your tongue is a stiff mossy muscle coated in coffee. You bend your tongue back on itself, wiry lingual veins strained, and you taste your own acidic thrush. Your eyelids pulsate—too hot, too hot! You open your eyes, your black rain coat comes off, it’s damp from the inside, kasha coat lady doesn’t look at you although you are almost convinced she is watching you writhe. No, she’s scrolling through emails on a tablet that makes her face flu blue. The heat rises, the walls smother, your feet are stumps, no, they’re boulders. You need something, anything, a thing. You shouldn’t have had that coffee and if you keep thinking about it, your chest caves in, your breaths narrow, your lungs drip with numbing gel. You watch yourself pull the pinky finger’s cuticle, and ceremoniously, blood. Blood yanks you back outside of yourself, its red trickle submerging you in a wave of guilty relief. You remember the folded napkin beneath the cup and wrap it tightly around the finger. Word play? Embalmed pinky, mummified baby limb. You’ve picked your skin since you learned to speak, maybe even before that.

Sometimes your father told you to stop the picking. No boys will want to kiss those lips. He sat at the round dining table, balancing his chequebook, a pen in his hand, a swirl of thin gray hair on his balding head—You’ll get an infection. He was right, he was right, he was right. Those lips: infected. You took antibiotics for two weeks. You also grew up to be intolerably reserved, intolerably lonely, intolerably bad at being around people; it’s all intolerable. You never wanted this for yourself. You wanted to grow out of it, you expected a metamorphosis or a blossoming, but here you are now, picking yourself apart to particles, imagining that kasha coat lady despises you, that she finds you positively repulsive, that you’re a festering, ejaculating sore in her visual plane—you kicked her, remember? You kicked her under the table and now she’ll never forgive you for that. Sorry! Sorry pathetic creature, you are.

You look out of the window: yet another bleary brown field. The soil is soaked. Soaked and soggy enough to trap a plough’s disc blades, or human feet, then ankles, then knees, swallow them whole, sinking and sinking, mud abound, bounded by mud. It must be hard to be a farmer. You wish you were a farmer because you never want to think again. You want to wake up as the dawn slices through your blinds, spring up from bed to feed the chickens in the coop, and cut wheat with a scythe under a scorching sun. Unfortunately, no one in the world churns their own butter anymore. Right?

You pass by a house, dented by years of neglect and strong winds. You automatically think about the life that has inhabited the structure. The man of the house has grown old and ill and weak. No, he’s died of a heart attack after years of heavy drinking and smoking. Or maybe he’s gone… He disappeared one brilliant afternoon taking the car for a spin. He vanished in plain daylight! No, that isn’t right because he never left. It was his wife who ran away after he threw their beloved lapdog against the wall, it was an accident, then everything went to shambles. No, that’s wrong. She had wanted to run, but she couldn’t, there was no running, there just hadn’t been enough time. No, that isn’t accurate. She had set their house ablaze with a gallon of gas and a flick of the lighter wheel. She lit it all: flames spread over frames and rugs and wooden floorboards while he slept locked in their bedroom that night, locked and charred. Yet the house still stands! Outside, the mist grows thicker. There’s a shape of something in the distance obscured by a charcoal haze. She is in the middle of the field alone, howling. The train’s wheels squeal on the wet railroad tracks. It’s just a lone cow, a black mark in the fog, with her head down.

You have to pee.

Your bladder is knotted and you compress your pelvic floor muscles. Kasha coat lady is clutching her handbag on her lap, eyes closed, but clearly awake; she thinks you’ll steal her stuff. There are rings on her fingers, gold and silver, but none on the left ring finger, you notice. You stand up, suck in, and shuffle over to the aisle, your crotch grazing the plastic table. Kasha coat lady still pretends to sleep; she’s a performer. Down the aisle, red and blue dots twinkle all over the moving floor like static. It’s the blood rushing to your limbs all at once. You spot the one-person line for the toilet: elongated man, crooked back, compulsive closing and opening of the palms. Is he waiting for a piss or a shit? Well, the air in fact smells like shit. You’re breathing in someone else’s colon. You steady yourself by holding the top of an empty seat. The door opens abruptly and reveals a mother hissing at a sobbing child. Shhhhh, don’t be a baby. The child, a girl of only about five, becomes convinced of her sorrow then, pulling her hand away from her mother’s and releasing a head-turning, stomach-churning shriek. Wincing, you feel her desperate loneliness seep into you, you yearn to bury yourself alive, you want this all to be over. There’s so much to weep about. You long for this child’s tantrum; you want to achieve this level of externalized despair, but you’re a cavity. They recede down the aisle, the child dragged. You would never drag a child like that. But then again, you’d never have children to begin with. Elongated man locks the toilet door.

Once inside the cubicle, you pee while balancing yourself. The box shakes; the railroad tracks reverberate rhythmically through the soles of your feet, climbing up your entire body. Furrrrushhhhh, suction flush. You wash your hands while looking at yourself in the tiny mirror. Splotches, scratches. And here you are again: your eye bags, your sunken skin, your face contracts, your nose scrunches up. Your face is a constant reminder of your biological inheritance. Even as an infant, you made that face. It’s captured on a photograph in a thick spined album: you and your father making the same scrunched up face. The uncontrollable genetic variable, the phenotype, the cavernous past carried in the shapes of your face.

What is it like to be unborn?

At the anatomy lab, your father lets you play with your naked Barbie on the ivory resin tiles as he searches for important papers, the door to his office closed, you on the outside.

What is it like to be unborn?

You look up at the jarred formaldehyde fetuses lining the shelves, lit by rows of strip lights, their bloated bulb faces forever deprived of what-could-have-been, who-could-have-said, where-could-have-gone, and your little fingers twist the Barbie’s neck, unscrewing and rescrewing.

What is it like to be unborn?

At the beach, your father’s eyes linger just a bit too long on your friend’s breasts as she comes out of the water. You’re thirteen.

What is it like to be unborn?

At dinner, his eyes droop, his mouth slurs, he tells you about neuroplasticity over and over again—Are you listening? Are you listening? Are you fucking listening? Over the years, he starts disappearing for weeks on end and your mother scrubs your lives clean, re-arranges the furniture, repaints the walls, steams the carpets, bleaches the kitchen counters and cabinets, throws out clothes in black garbage bags that sit on the curb, burns letters and notes in the fireplace while laughing—We’re finally free, we’re so much better off without him—but she never changes the locks. You feel some relief settling in, but not for long, never for long. There’s always a mouse in the pit of your gut, gnawing at the cords of your body, twisting your heart, making you sick to the stomach each time you walk back home from school, opening the front door, smelling the cologne floating in the room, seeing the wallet on the coffee table. The house is still for one second before everything dissolves. He’s there, bashfully smiling, arms outstretched, pleading for your affection, a wax figure. He’s brought gifts again: encyclopedias, a hand-carved wooden sculpture of an owl, a gold bracelet, a new TV. Your mother emerges behind him, a conspiring ghost in the corner of the room, and she refuses to look at you. She conceals a giddy smile behind the surrendered orbs. It’s Waiting for Godot, except the actors never go home because home is the stage; they repeat the same gestures and words and—Knock on the door! You’re flushed, staring back at yourself in the mirror. Just a sec! Frothy, bubbling esophagus. Head: fluffy brown spot behind gossamer.

Back in your seat, kasha coat lady is wide awake. She asks you where you’re headed tonight. You hear a voice, your own, distant and mousy. I’m visiting my parents. She flashes a radiant smile, with near-perfect teeth; you’re surprised by this. Cherish them while you can. You instinctively nod and look out of the windows—dead black. The moon is a crescent you cannot see. In the black dead of night, the train hurtles forward as you start shrinking into yourself, into the fibres of the seat, absorbed into the indifferent softness that holds you, shrinking into a doll-sized world, a boxed breath in limbo. Soon, you’ll be standing by your mother, your heels sinking into the sodden earth, piercing worm heads and tails, watching the cherry-red casket lower into the ground for eternity, a breathless box in limbo. You’ll never see him reading on the front porch again, a cigarette hanging off his lips. You’ll never see Dad appear on your phone screen again, vibrating, vibrating, vibrating—off. You’ll never ask him why. There could have been more. Why wasn’t there more?

A child lets out a faraway wail—a laugh? Kasha coat lady stares at you with wildly wide eyes and you notice that her coat is, in fact, not kasha, but swampy and silk green. The fly buzzes by, hitting the window pane. Pained buzzard. Tomorrow, there will be morning.