Encounters

Kaia Preus

The lights flash pink and yellow. He takes the stage, arms lifted. I watch him sing-speak, his words cartwheeling off the stage and falling over us. Sonic confetti. It sticks to our hair, sticks in our ears. He’s all we can hear for days.

Eric meets me after work for a drink. We pick a bar we’ve never been to before. The walls are bare, no art. Spanish guitar spills from crackling speakers. Eric is conventionally pretty: strong jaw, hair just the right amount of tousled, a birthmark near his left eye. Imperfect enough to be perfect. He works in engineering, does something I don’t understand. It doesn’t interest me. But Eric is nice. He pays for my drink. He holds the door open, tells me I’m pretty.

I met him once. Outside a 7-Eleven on 51st. His cap floated above his hair. Green light from the 7-Eleven sign washed over us, gas station halos. I called his name and he shook my hand, smile glowing green. It wasn’t like touching a god, like I thought it would be, but like touching another disciple. I forgot to say my name, but he remembered to ask. I told him, and somehow, I thought he’d remember it, at least for a little while, a few days, a few hours.

My apartment walls are bare but for the plaster’s cracks creeping out from the windows. The building is old, the walls thin. I live alone. An old turntable I found at Miss Gracie’s garage sale sits humble in the corner. It breathes out music day and night, and the walls fall down, change color, blink light. I watch them from my bed for a while, then close my eyes.

The subway jolts on its tracks. I bump shoulders with the person next to me, say sorry, touch my hair. I notice it hasn’t been washed in a while. I remember I’m heading to work. I’ve been lost again.

I see him again one day. At a Perkins. A Perkins. He’s eating a stack of pancakes, side of sausage links. A short glass of orange juice sweats onto the newspaper he’s reading. I feel myself move toward him. I hear myself say his name. He looks up, he smiles, he asks me to sit down.

I think the cracks in the wall are growing. I’m afraid my apartment will split in two and the top half will slide down the bottom’s jagged half and slip to the cement below. I would only hope that nobody dies. I wouldn’t mind an apartment with no roof. I wouldn’t mind squinting through skyscraper light toward the stars.

I tell him that I love him, love his music, I mean. That the coffee shop around the street from my apartment—my apartment is terrible, it has these cracks—the shop plays one of his songs over and over again, but it’s not the song that you’d think, it’s the other one, the one that nobody knows but me. And you, I guess. He laughs. He drinks his orange juice. He asks me if I want a sausage link. I say yes.

I tell him that I used to paint, but can’t anymore. I tell him that I work at a dry cleaner for extra money, that I come home every day smelling of starch and Downy. He says he loves Downy, he uses it, too. I tell him I want to go back to school and get my Ph.D. in something, find my lost uncle, adopt a dog. He nods and says, yes, yes, yes. I tell him that my mom’s name is Lily, my dad’s is Roy, that I’m an only child with imaginary siblings named Lucille and Lucinda, even though I hate the names Lucille and Lucinda. He tells me I speak like I’m writing down songs. I thank him. I ask him if he thinks I’m crazy. He laughs and says, No, that he has this effect on some people, that I would be surprised at the things he normally hears. Important things? I ask. Not any more important than yours, he says.

I decide to call the landlord, see about the cracks. I don’t remember where I put his number, but I find it after some rummaging between the Chinese takeout menus and old copies of my car insurance from back when I used to own a car. He picks up on the first ring. What is it, I’m watching Jeopardy, he says. There are these cracks in my wall, I say. I’ll check it next week, he says. He hangs up.

I’m looking over the Chinese menu, deciding between Kung Pao and General Tso when I get a text from Eric. I’m on your street. Can I come up? Eric is nice, I tell myself. Text yes, I tell myself. But instead I dial the number for General Tso.

I know it would be too much from the universe to see him again, but I ask anyway. When I talked to him, my fingernails buzzed. I know that I talked too much, but he didn’t seem to mind. I wonder if he did. I wonder if he just has good manners, if his mom taught him how to listen.

I stand outside the venue where he’s playing. It’s small, but not too small. The place can wedge a couple hundred people in at least. I don’t have tickets, so I stand outside and listen to slices of the music when people walk in and out. I ask a bouncer what he’s like, just to see, but he says he doesn’t know, he hasn’t met him, and I smile because I do, I have. I know him, at least a little bit.

That night I brew the last of the tea I bought in a teashop in China and think: I hate myself.

It’s been two weeks and the landlord still hasn’t come to check on the cracks. Or maybe he did when I was out and didn’t tell me. I don’t know which possibility bothers me more. Probably the second one, but maybe the first. Either way, I was forgotten.

He didn’t forget me. I see him again, waiting at a stoplight to cross one of the busier streets downtown. I call his name and that dinner plate smile cracks his face. He looks like a cartoon. I love the world that surrounds him. He asks me how I’ve been. He doesn’t remember my name and says he’s sorry, and he looks genuinely pained when he says that, and I forgive him without thinking, because it’s easy to forget names, and he didn’t forget the more important thing, which is me. Without thinking, I ask him if I could have his P.O. Box address to write him letters. Like the one his people gives to fans. I don’t want to scare him and ask for his home address, or his cell phone number. But he laughs and says, You write letters? You do? If only you could send them by carrier pigeon, too. His laugh sounds like bowling pins crashing in an alley. I’ll do you one better, he says, here’s my number and my address. Thank you, I say, I’m so glad I’m meeting you before you’re too big. Too big, he says, I hope I’m never too big for this.

When I get home, I can almost see the cracks spreading, spider-webbing while I stand there. I reach out and touch the walls, feel the rough edges of plaster break off and dust my fingers. I bring the dust to my lips. I wonder what it’s like to taste destruction and rise above it.

After I eat dinner—leftover General Tso—I light candles and open the box of stationary that Eric gave me last Christmas. The stationary has little butterflies and flowers on it and when I first opened it, I had wondered if Eric had purchased the stationary for an aunt or someone who had died before he had the chance to give it to her. It seemed as probable as him intending the gift for me. When I was younger and visited my uncle’s cabin in the north woods of Minnesota, I would strip birch trees of their bark and paint on the thick ribbons with berries I crushed. I’d write in secret languages. Even I didn’t know them. I was only the messenger, the channel, from one world to another. I danced between both, belonging in neither.

In my letter to him, I tell him about my uncle. About how he liked to read me the bible before bedtime, but that his bible was different from the one I had been given on a faraway Sunday. He had made his bible himself. It was full of recipes and articles, stories photocopied from library books, old leaves and flowers he’d pressed between pages. One section of the bible even had a square cut out, a small leather doll sleeping inside. My uncle would hold my hand when I was little and sad. The hair on his knuckles felt like twine, but his skin was like the buttercream frosting on the cakes my mom used to make—soft and light. In the letter, I write that I miss my uncle. That I don’t know where he went. He was sick for a long time, but then he got better, and then he left. He didn’t leave a number or address. He did leave everything else in his cabin, everything except his bible.

I’m on the subway and see Eric slip on with a crowd. He stands, his knuckles turning white as he grips the overhead bar. The subway lurches from side to side. I’ve always felt that the subway takes this section of tunnel too fast. I consider going over to him, but stay where I am. I nestle down into the neck of my sweater and watch him. His white shirt crinkles in time with the train’s movements. I can see the muscles of his back flex as he holds himself up. At one point, he glances behind him over his shoulder and I put my head down between my hands. My head feels so small. I hold it and rock, rock, rock.

Our city is small as far as cities go. I keep thinking I will see him again and he will tell me he got my letter, but I don’t see him. The streets feel more grey than normal. In one week I step on gum twice and a mushed up hotdog once, and one night when I’m doing a Sudoku and chewing on a pen, it blows up in my mouth. My tongue and teeth bleed blue for days.

I don’t see Eric. I get a text from him once, twice, but when I don’t respond, he disappears, too. The cracks keep growing. I watch them. I barely sleep.

The chemical smell of cleanliness at work gives me headaches. When I come home, I take a bath with no soap, try to scrub the clean off me with my hands that don’t look like my hands. After I’m un-cleaned, I stand in the middle of my room and stare at the cracks. I reach my arms wide and try to pull the wall back together, but it won’t answer to me. I won’t answer to me.

It comes. Pink light from outside falls on the envelope. I slide the flap open, careful not to rip the return address on the back.

                     I’m starting anew, a new song. I’d like you to have one of
                     the first pieces of it. I wrote this while I ate a mint
                     chocolate chip ice cream cone for breakfast yesterday
                     morning. It dripped down my fingers while I was thinking.
                     The green on my skin looked so beautiful.

                     I made my first song on acid
                     But now I’m riding God’s wings
                     Pluck the feathers and eat them
                     Feel your bleating heart sing

No salutation, no signature. One stanza, six heartbeats to read it through, I counted.

When I painted on the walls, the paint seeped through the cracks. It was like painting carbon about to burst into diamond. Plaster specks sparkled through the paint like stars. I used my brushes, then let them drop to the floor, and switched to my hands. Paint pooled beneath my nails, squished out between my fingers as I slid them up the walls, reaching for the ceiling. Swirls and stripes of green and blue and black ran down to my elbows and the backs of my arms. I could almost reach the ceiling. I pushed my body against the wall, felt my imprint in the wet paint. The walls went from cold to warm as I moved with the colors coating them. When I stepped back, I looked at what I’d done. It was beautiful. That night, I slept curled at the bottom of my painting, small hollow.

Author Portrait

Kaia Preus is a high school English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She holds her MFA from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, and her work has appeared in Pleiades, The Briar Cliff Review, and Barely South Review. She is currently at work on both a book-length essay and a novel.

View the website of Kaia Preus