When I first started reading it, I thought it was just a diary.
I was looking for the bathroom, but really, I think I was just looking for a moment alone with you.
There were so many people downstairs. They crowded around your body in the living room, as if trying to catch a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s Smile; as if forgetting that they were not staring at a painting behind a glass, but at a woman inside a coffin.
What they don’t know is that you aren’t really down there.
You would never let yourself be seen like that – so tired, so stagnant, so vulnerable. You would never let people know that they were at a funeral.
I closed my eyes, and I could feel the warmth of your smile. I could hear your voice, like honey, as it poured over my skin in cold waves. My bones felt the weight of longing for your body to hold, until each marrow branch collapsed in on itself.
When I first smelt the candle, I thought I was hallucinating. I thought I had missed you into existence.
When I went into your bedroom, the candle on your nightstand was smoking, as if it had just been blown out.
I felt the memory of you lying next to me in that same bed, years ago. I could taste your laugh as you inhaled the smoke, and said, “Mmm… it smells like birthday cake.”
I heard myself exhale, then, “Your funeral smells like birthday cake.”
I turned my neck – I couldn’t find where your laughter was coming from. I couldn’t tell if it was in my head, or in your room, or in that memory. But wherever it was, I needed to follow it.
I slipped my shoes and suit-stuck body under your sheets, as I dared to slide myself onto your side of the bed. I pushed my face into your pillow, and inhaled, before yanking away. I didn’t want you to smell like me.
When someone doesn’t exist anymore, how do you soak the rest of them up, without absorbing them, completely?
My chest cracked.
I had heard you laugh. I had smelt the candle burning.
But under your sheets, all I could hear was buzzing.
I placed my fingers against the wood of your bedside table. I felt the grain under the ridges of my fingertips. I slid them carefully, until they stopped at that sacred thing.
Your whole world, you’d said, slept in one little black book.
That little black book.
The candle had stopped breathing.
The buzzing had grown louder.
I couldn’t stop myself.
I’d told myself I was honoring you.
But really, it was that buzzing sound – the one that wasn’t your laugh. It was that candle. It was the smell of burning as it filled the room.
It was a mistake.
The first few pages of that small black journal read like an acid trip.
I felt a chill coil under my ribcage. The book felt hot and heavy in my hands. I felt flames rouse under my skin, like thick smoke between my fingers.
I knew I couldn’t read the rest of it there. Not with your body in the living room, not with your parents sobbing down the hall.
I don’t remember saying good-bye to anyone, as I slipped out the front door. I probably should have – it would have been the decent thing to do.
I couldn’t be decent after reading those first few pages, though.
I needed to get away.
I told myself it was a coincidence, when the contract came in the mail the next week.
After I’d gotten home, I couldn’t get the stench of burnt smoke off my skin. It followed me from room to room, like the images from your journal did, like the memory of your ghost.
I sat down with the naked pages in front of me. Half of your story was scrawled through the journal, the other half was buried with your body beneath the earth. The pages that were left glared at me.
They were supposed to be your pages. That was supposed to be your story.
The journal and I shared something in that moment – we were both incomplete without you.
I stroked the pages, the soft papyrus smooth against my fingertips. I let myself trace all the things I wanted to say to you. I breathed every curse, every cry into that page. I wished that I could tell your story. I wished that you still had a story to tell.
So when the contract came to write the $20,000 episode for Left, I signed it.
I ignored the scent of my skin burning. I tuned out your screams, the ones in my head, and the ones from my memory.
I could hear you crying, “I’m not your muse, I’m your girlfriend!”
Like a vinyl skipping again, and again.
Like the fight you won years ago, by breaking up with me.
I saw myself. There. On the screen.
It was me – the girl – the woman – the screen.
I feel it, feel
the sunshine on my face. I can feel the earth under my boots, the sunflower petals against my skin. My face feels hot, I am smiling. I am smiling so wide, it hurts. My cheeks feel like apples, about to fall off their tiny little branches. I feel like a tree, like bark, like oxygen. I am looking at the camera man, and he does not belong here, but he does belong here. He belongs here, because he is also a tree – he is also a tree, but he does not know it. And that is why he shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t know it yet, and so he keeps taking pictures of me, who is really himself, who is not a tree yet, not even a sapling. He is still finding his roots. That’s OK. He can do that. That’s OK. But it’s clear, he doesn’t think his roots are anywhere near here. It’s clear, he has forgotten even to look. And instead, he keeps taking pictures of me, not realizing he is paparazzo to the forest. He thinks he is photographing a girl – because even though I am an adult, he will not call me, “woman,” – he does not know he is photographing a force of nature. He does not know, because he cannot see what he is photographing.
He is photographing my roots, because he has none.
He is playing voyeur to what he feels he cannot have.
I reach out, try to take the camera away, try to make him see – no, stop that, the lens will not help you; no, put it down, away. No, put that away, too. It is not like that. I do not want your camera or your broken branch. I want you to stop and look – just look – you will not find what you need here. Please. Let me grow. Look for your roots somewhere else, somewhere you might find them.
You push your lens on to me, to break the bark, to pierce the skin. I crack it – I shatter it until you are screaming, “Bitch, look what you’ve done!”
You are screaming, and screaming, and screaming, all the while you pack me back into the Earth.
The day after the episode aired, the News was spinning with reports of missing women, and sunflower orchards littered with shattered glass.
I could hear the people in front of me as they waited for their coffee, shaking their heads, “A phenomenon. How could so many of the same crime be committed simultaneously, without a single witness?”
Her friend replied, “I’m sure forensics will pull something up. It’s impossible for there to be zero evidence.”
I left without bothering to wait for my coffee. I snatched a newspaper from the stand, as I shoved my way through the door.
When I got home, I ran to your book – our book – and devoured the pages. I threw our episode on, and listened to the sounds of glass breaking on repeat. I dove into the pages you’d once written – the ones that made me smell birthday cake and not burning flesh.
It was gone – every scratch of your handwriting, every loopy L had vanished. I could only remember bits of what you’d written – art sales that you hoped would come through, modeling gigs you wanted to land… I could remember you writing the things that had happened in your life, as if they were hopes and not memories; as if they hadn’t actually happened yet.
My fingers grabbed at each page, flipping until I was met with my own handwriting. The episode rushed across the page in front of me, matching the newspaper beside me.
The words on the page ran through me, as the episode echoed its words, “The evidence was never found, as if it had sunk into the earth like some bug that crawled home. The sunflower orchards bloomed the next year like never before, and within a day, people forgot why those same orchards made their hair stand up, every time they passed by.”
The fever dream in your bedroom, the falling I’d felt when I first read your journal… it had been like watching something filmed backwards then sped up forwards. It mimicked reality, but it was disconnected from it – and yet, it was the very fabrication of reality, itself.
The little black book began to smolder in my hand, the same way it had in your bedroom. I could feel it, as it grew hotter in my palm, the leather sweat against my skin. All I felt was burning; all I could inhale was heat. My core was a bonfire, I could feel it, I could smell it, I could see each star that wanted to break free from my body, and join yours.
And then there was nothing.
The heat left my body, until there was only ash. The night sky filled my apartment, and there was no smoke, only darkness. I couldn’t smell the birthday cake; I couldn’t hear your laugh.
The journal was gone.
Your hand had slipped out of mine.
There are weeks where I don’t think about the journal. There are years when I don’t think about the episode. It isn’t until I ask someone about the Sunflower Orchards’ tragedy from years ago, that I am reminded of that sliver of muddled reality.
I repeat myself, “You know, that thing where all those women died in the orchards? And no one was ever arrested?”
They always look back at me, with this itch behind their eyes, like there’s a string pulling at them, with a memory attached to the end of it. There is that tugging string, but the memory never makes its way to the surface.
Each time, I hold on to that string.