I was leaving, and you knew it. You saw my bag, too heavy for the occasion, slumped on the chair next to me. You talked to them, to her, to everyone but me, each sentence landing with your eyes on my bag, the bulging shape of it. Your smile betrayed you, all teeth and desire, not really a smile at all but a predatory grin, like you knew then long before it happened that you would win. I think now I realize that you were afraid. Afraid of me leaving you alone there in that place. But nothing you felt could’ve justified what you did to me that day.
“Excuse me.” I pushed out of the patio chair, pushed out of the conversation that was inflicted upon me—or rather, monologue professed unto me by Merrick, the queen of monologues—the walls of the courtyard closing in on me more with every second, every word.
“Everything okay?” you asked. The first words you had spoken to me all day.
I slung my bag over my shoulder. “I’m just going to look for the bathroom.” Everything about my speech was stiff, awkward, a lie. And you could tell. I never excused myself for anything. And most people would say I need to go to the bathroom, not say I need to look for one like it was some kind of scavenger hunt. I strode inside the towering building where I had long been held captive, where you had long been held captive, where you, willingly, stayed captive, and I carved the kernel of my soul out of my flesh to escape.
I climbed the thickly carpeted stairs, an atrocious velvet maroon, to the floors I had never been allowed to explore—floors no one dared explore. And for good reason. The higher I went, the lower it seemed, like I was climbing into a basement, the dank nothingness of this dingy place consuming me, stairs that led to nowhere, save a window that looked like freedom. Too high to jump, a fall that would kill. But another balcony just within reach. I paused before it, hearing your breath. You had broken your own code to follow me.
I slid open the window and slipped out into life, gentle rain droplets streaking my forehead, a kiss from the sky, my escape ordained by the Heavens’ blessing.
The Baptism did not go as planned. I almost drowned, they told me. I must’ve bumped my head and fallen unconscious, they reasoned when I described my strange dreams. But such a force held me down under the water that Clarence’s grandmother, my soon-to-be-grandmother-in-law, swore it was the devil’s work, that a curse had been placed upon me, that Clarence should not be with a woman of my persuasion. I suffered through church as I had suffered through life, my head pounding with a migraine, a memory of the girl I just was, the girl who escaped. And you, lurking in the fringes of my mind, never there but always there, scoffing at my religion.
You joined me at a summer table— you know, the kind with the French swirls, open slats, black— and it was still raining, just as before. I had disguised my face with glasses too big for anyone as I poured over the documents before me. I had to make plans. This place was not safe, this city crawling with your kind, with people who would happily feast on my soul to satisfy their gluttony. I was not surprised that you had found me. Only surprised that you had left the tower, the courtyard, your prison of choice. I did not think you were capable of such rebellion. I did not think you were capable of many things. Your shoe was untied. It was wrong not to tell you. But I welcomed your fall.
First, though, you sat across from me, not bothering to squint at my documents, preferring to steal the secrets buried in my eyes, beneath those glasses.
“I knew you were leaving us,” you said, leaning back in your chair.
“I’m sorry. I’ve just—” The wind snatched my paper. I grabbed it and pinned it firmly to the table, fixing my eyes there, on the words blurring before me. I couldn’t bear to look at you. “I need to move on.”
“Where will you go?” You almost looked sad. Were you sad, Leroy?
I pressed my lips together, as if my mouth were a dam to keep the words from flooding out. Most of the time it was pretty ineffective.
You nodded your head slowly. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“It doesn’t matter.” You stuffed one of my papers in your pocket. I didn’t bother to take it back. I couldn’t take it back. It was deep in your pocket, and you were going to a place I couldn’t be.
“I’ll keep finding you like this,” you said.
“I know you will.”
The sparkling diamond crucifix hung on my neck like hypocrisy, a gift from Clarence’s grandmother for my commitment to their church. By the weight of the rocks, it must’ve been worth something but was spiritually devoid of meaning. What does branding yourself with a symbol have to do with faith? Is it the weight of the thing hanging from my damn neck? Is that supposed to remind me of suffering, of the way Jesus suffered? I didn’t know. But I gladly took it off when his grandmother was not around, citing my desire to keep it pristine whenever Clarence inquired about its absence from my neck. And you stood in the corner of our bedroom
The next time we met was on a beach—not a beach with grains of yellow sand like sunflower dust, not a beach lined with umbrellas and towels. This beach was blue-hued at nightfall, the sand glowed green—no, jade, like moon-rocks. The water was perfume, washing the delicate skin of the shore with its rainforest scent. You weren’t there at first. I was alone on that beach, walking among the moon-rocks along that endless shoreline, tempting an infinity I would never know.
I felt weightless, my spirit pouring out into the wind through my fingertips, through my pores, and being weightless, I was much easier for you to carry in your heart. I was filled with a contentment that language cannot explain—nothing like happiness, happiness a paled fleeting emotion, this weightlessness not only the way I felt but the way I was.
We became moonrocks. Me, first, so you could tuck me in your pocket. You kept me there for a while until one day I heard you cry. I could not understand the feeling, felt nothing for your tears, though you pleaded me to. I was rock, after all. I did not feel. So, you skipped me out across the water on a wish you knew was impossible. I knew your wish, you breathed it to me, but I could not speak it, sworn to secrecy. Sometime later, after a grand journey across the seas, I washed up on the very same beach. By then, you, too, had become weightless, and we laid like that for centuries, moon-rocks on a desolate shore, glowing jade more brilliantly each night, always jade, we rocks, but never jaded, so filled with contentment we never grew hungry, never felt tired. We just were.
Rocks on a beach.
It was unpleasant, waking up, filled with the sensation of being human. My left nostril was blocked, as it often was, and my head throbbed due to the light Clarence switched on too early.
“Jules.” Clarence rubbed my shoulder. “You should probably get up now. We’ll be late for our rehearsal dinner.”
“Dinner?” I repeated, rubbing my eyes as they consulted the blurry shape of numbers on the clock that soon came into focus: 5:30. PM. “I can’t believe I slept that late.”
“Me neither. I figured you weren’t feeling good. Or needed to destress.”
I threw the covers off me and sprung out of bed. “If I ever sleep that late again, assume I’m dead and call an ambulance.”
“But you’re fine.” He gestured to me.
He was right. Aside from the dull ache of being human, I was fine. Just under tremendous pressure to whip myself into elegance in a matter of thirty minutes. “God,” I cursed, flicking through the hangers in my closet, looking for the dress I had planned to wear. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I tried.” He bent over to lace his shoe. “But you were sleeping like a rock.”
You chuckled. I don’t know how you got there or where you were standing, but you laughed out loud. And Clarence didn’t seem to notice it wasn’t me. I wasn’t marrying him for his observation skills anyway.
The last time before the tragedy was like this: On a couch. I was there. You were there. But you did not sit down next to me, nor I you. We both sat separately on separate couches that were later joined by the literature projected on the wall before us. We watched for a while without acknowledging each other. It seemed like the right thing to do. My fiancé was in the next life over. He could’ve intruded, if he only knew how. But he didn’t, and you put your hand on my leg—or maybe you brushed against my thigh reaching for something—the intention was unclear, but the feeling the same. You turned off the picture.
“Garzot would understand,” you said.
Garzot, a man of abstractions and complexities, might’ve been the only one to understand. Maybe he knew how we’d gotten here, on these separate but joined couches. I tossed the question into the void, “What is this place?”
“I don’t know. But I know a few things: I am fully nowhere. And this is as real as everything else I’ve experienced. Right now, I am still locked in that cell, or maybe sitting in the courtyard. You are still on those streets running. I am also watching you in your bedroom get ready for sleep after an awkward rehearsal dinner. And here, in this place, we’ve been doomed or gifted to meet, this place that exists in spite of time and space, but—” You looked down at the lines in the fabric, and I looked where you looked, as though your thoughts might’ve formed themselves somewhere between the lines.
“But—?” I prompted.
“It’s not enough, Jules.” You put your hand on my leg this time I’m sure of it, intentional, resting there. “I can’t stand to see you marry him and wait in my cell hoping I’ll slip back into this world and you’ll be there. I want to be a moonrock with you. I want to be on this couch. Or anywhere, just with you.”
“That is my real life. That life with Clarence. I don’t even know who you are.” Leroy, a beat in my ears. Leroy, a thump in my heart. Leroy, the heat in my skin.
“Don’t you?” You leaned back and dissolved into the couch, fading into the fabric as though no one had ever been there, the imprint of your figure and the cold of your absence the only things you left behind.
I never did get to see Clarence again. You told the prison guards I had escaped. And sure enough, they found me, wandering a rural road, a dying pig bundled in my arms. They pried the pig from me, and you did not like this. You did not like what they did to the pig. Or how they sunk their nails into my skin, bruising my flesh to drag me back to a world— your world— where I didn’t belong. No, you did not like how they did it. But I could hear in your heart that you were happy they did. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have told them, would you, Leroy? You wanted me to decay in the room next to you. Perhaps you would’ve preferred in the room with you, but this was as close as you would get, and it would still be forever away. Why couldn’t you see a world or a wall, it made no difference? You were not where I was. I was not where you were. And here, we suffered more alone than before. Except for our lunches in the courtyard. Merrick still monologued at me, and you threw me glances, longing and intrigued, speaking to everyone. Everyone but me.
You can understand then, what I had to do. I had to escape. Again and again. And you would bring me back again and again. And so we went for a lifetime or ten. I could see there was no way I could live in your world. Nor could you tolerate mine. I understood that. And each time I escaped, I got closer to reaching the third world, trying to slip back into that state with you, somewhere else, someone else, but always ending up back in that cell next to you. You were very little help, Leroy.
I knew you knew how to crawl between lives. You kept me permanently fixed in yours, so I knew you knew what you were doing. You may not have been able to reach the third world, either, but you could’ve released me back to mine. But you were greedy. I could feel how your thoughts ate you, or rather the thoughts you stole from me, thoughts of Clarence that devoured your sanity. If you ever had any to begin with.
You would comfort yourself by saying life with you was exciting, more interesting than life with Clarence. And I would hear this thought, and I would stab you with the sentiment that our escape and chase routine was just as boring as a dull marriage. You couldn’t stand this, Leroy. That I found you boring. Not enough. So, I tricked you into looking for that third world. You became obsessed with it, withdrawing from conversations in the courtyard and eventually not going outside altogether. You stayed in your cell, locked in the prison of your head, searching for a way to defy space and time, a way back to the place you had erased for me.
And I think you realized then that the only way back was to let me go home, to my life. Our timelines like frayed threads drifting in the breeze that could be braided to create another life. But me, stuck in yours and drifting further from my thread, I had no way to create anything with you.
You realized this. But you couldn’t let me go back to Clarence. And so we talked.
“If you go back, you can’t see Him,” you said. As though your words had any power over me.
“If you weren’t so jealous, we could’ve lived a thousand lives together. Instead of this horrible one, where we have to sneak conversations.”
You nodded. “I know.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Because you have to do it. You can go back if you want to.”
“Then you just haven’t found the right way.”
The right way was wrong, Leroy. You knew it. I had to kill you. Kill a part of me. And both of us, dying, might meet in the third world. But there was no way back to my life. I could see that now. Your life felt foreign to me, unreal. And that night, I became a moon-rock when I slipped into your room and smothered you with your pillow.
I stretched awake as memories of the murder trickled back in. Now that I actually had a reason to be detained in a tower like the one where you lived, I was free. I had missed Clarence so much. I traced along his spine, and he rolled over, wearing your face.
“Great day to be alive, isn’t it?” You pressed a kiss into my forehead.
I groped for the diamond studded crucifix on my dresser.
“Looking for this?” you asked, the necklace dangling from your scorched fingers.
I grabbed the necklace from you and opened my palm to find it burned and empty. I blinked hard.
“You know”— you leaned back in our bed— “I hope tomorrow we wake up frogs.”
I thought something mean, and you heard it.
“I’m not already a frog, thank you very much.”
“That would be an insult to frogs. Now where is Clarence?” I got up, my nightgown swelling full of air behind me as I searched down the corridor.
“Funny thing,” you said. “You never showed up to your wedding, and he left when he found you in bed with another man.” You shrugged your shoulders with a chuckle. “Imagine that.”
“I’ll kill you again.”
“And I’ll be here.”
I knew you would, and each time you died, the crucifix on the nightstand deteriorated a little more, first losing its luster, then losing a diamond or five, then a chunk of metal crumbled into nothingness, and soon, too, my memory of Clarence faded, and I couldn’t remember why I hated you.
Death became an erotic act, and when we were freed of the crucifix, of Clarence, I stopped smothering you. And we met in other worlds— as feathers dropped from birds, as pinecones dropped from trees, as the notes played from a saxophone, as goosebumps on someone else’s skin. I think I eventually loved you, Leroy. Because you were me.