07 Jun Justin Ridgeway
FALLING ASLEEP TO THE WAKING WORLD
Emily stands under the edge of the eavestrough, rain falling in shower curtain sheets on the other outside. She breathes in the warm, plastic air and thinks of drives up the 400 Highway with her parents, sees darker clouds looming ahead, honing in on the exact location where the landscape blurs. She watches the world unfold, wondering how it will reassemble itself after the rains stop. She sucks in honey, lilac, moldy grass-clippings, and by Grenadier Pond, the stirred mud of its bottom, the water murky as the skies overhead. The honey stays with her as she exits the small playground on the park’s border and walks up the hill, into streets lined with BMWs and Audis in drive-ways, maples, elms and oaks, other species she cannot name.
He had asked if he could walk her home.
“Kevin,” she said. “I know the way.”
. . .
Amy said they could use her place. Emily thought there was something a little weird about this, as if somehow Amy was involving herself in the act.
“Your parents never go away,” she said to Emily one afternoon.
“This is true,” Emily said, thinking of Kevin walking around her parent’s backyard in circles within the sprinklers’ radius, taking his Raptors basketball jersey off, stripping down to his boxer-shorts, in afternoons before her parents returned from work.
Kevin could be sweaty. His body reacted to the heat, his skin always slightly damp, a surface you couldn’t actually touch, only glide over. But he smelled good like the way soap looks on television commercials set in the outdoors, somewhere by a lake. His skin tasted of fresh water and pine needles.
“I don’t know, though,” Emily said.
Amy passed her the joint. She sucked back and it felt like asphalt in her lungs. She had forgotten how the first week of June feels in the city, the sudden heat, everything melting.
“Don’t try to plan for perfection. My first time was in a bathroom.”
Emily had heard the story several times before, it was basically a cautionary tale. A week before her seventeenth birthday. A house party. Some boy from another school she had just met. It didn’t seem to count the same that way, Amy explained.
“It’s not perfection I am looking for,” Emily said. “I guess I just want to know what’s the point.”
The cicadas and electric buzz of hydro wires fell into harmony as a single held note. Emily bit into the apple she realized she had been holding, then passed it to Amy. The apple cracked decisively in Amy’s teeth.
. . .
They had agreed to meet on the white arching bridge that crosses the Humber. Amy and Emily were leaning on a railing, tapping ashes onto the water below that seemed to be flowing in-land on the river, rather than out to the lake. When the others appeared, Kevin was walking out in front, wild-eyed.
“Who’s that girl?” Emily asked.
A lanky girl in a vintage dress with a tall nest of dirty blonde hair galloped just off Kevin’s elbow in between him and another boy, Brendan, following slackly behind. Emily thought of her own pixie blonde hair, how it made her different from this other girl. That and her more petite figure accentuated by bright white sneakers.
Amy just said, “I’ve seen her around.”
Kevin pulled up, eyes fixed on Emily. He had been growing facial hair apparently, in the two weeks since she had seen him last. The bristling stubble burned the side of her face. He kissed her forehead and dug his fingers deep into her scalp and it was like something was being performed on her, something like an exorcism or a healing miracle. She would jump from the bridge and walk on water.
“It’s been a while, Kevin,” she said.
“How long is a while?” he said. “How do we measure time? No – a better question – why do we measure time?”
“You’re an asshole, Kevin,” Amy said. “A little mystical, maybe, but still an asshole.”
They were in the park, Kevin and Emily walking side by side, ahead of the others.
“Her name’s Lisa,” he said.
“She wants to be in a band. She sings.”
“Oh?” she said. It seemed sufficient.
When Kevin fell back in step with Lisa, his arm over her shoulders, Emily thought the two looked like desert hitch-hikers. She wanted to know what they had in common. She never asked the same question of herself and Kevin. Maybe because there wasn’t all that much.
An hour later, she saw Lisa with her back to the wall beside a drinking fountain, Kevin leaning over her, arms on either side. It wasn’t the proximity so much as that familiar gazing tilt of his head, those calmly interrogating eyes.
. . .
“What do you think? Guest bedroom or mine?”
Amy brought Emily down the hallway of her mother’s condo, opening doors on either side. Each door looked the same as the next but seemed to hold exclusive consequences, as if she were being asked to choose her fate.
Emily had spent previous nights in Amy’s room, swallowed up in its breezy blue walls, its unadorned minimalism. An unmade bed was the only indication someone actually ever slept there. On the dresser, below the mirror, a simple jewelry box contained Ziplocs of weed and mushrooms blanketed in CK Eternity-perfumed Kleenex.
“That one night…” Amy said.
“We watched lightning hit the CN Tower over and over again. But we didn’t know if it was real or if it was some kind of celestial Morse-code meant only for us to decipher.” Emily remembered Amy had been going through a particularly low-point having just slept with yet another boy who only saw her as a piece, but not the whole puzzle.
“We’ll see what happens,” Emily said.
“I’ll tidy up just in case,” Amy said, leaving Emily to wander back to the kitchen to make another gin and cranberry and watch America’s Next Top Model while picking out unbroken Pringles from a bowl on the counter where her MacBook sat. Her Facebook page stared back at her and she was tempted to see what Kevin had on his mind.
. . .
With the thundershowers the trail turned to mud. Weeks without rain, the exposed soil had become powdery and heavy. The mud splashed and sucked at their feet as they ran. Under the roof the five of them examined each other.
“Your legs,” Kevin said.
Emily stared down the sharp line of her shins to her sneakers. White Converse canvas unrecognizable, her calves up to her knees covered in thick gloops, black against pale skin. She looked at Kevin’s flip-flopped feet, the legs and back pockets of his jeans. He looked like something that had come out of a swamp.
“Look at yourself,” Emily said. She sounded harsh. Like as though she still cared.
Kevin pulled his cut-off sleeve shirt over his head, wrung it out in his fists. His belly gleamed sea-gull white, the sparse tuft of hair on his chest also muddied. He ran his hands through his hair, shook his head like a dog.
“Hey! That’s getting all over me,” said Lisa, standing behind Kevin. Emily thought they had lost her when they started running.
“It’s just water,” Kevin said to Lisa, looking at Emily.
“And mud,” Lisa said. “It’s all up your back, too.”
“An afternoon in the wilderness,” Kevin said, opening his arms wide like the messiah, or some kind of sage, the one he imagined himself to be. He sat down on a picnic table taking out a twisted pack of cigarettes.
“Anyone have a lighter?” he asked, holding up a mangled flap of matches.
Brendan had one. The two sat together smoking conspiratorially. Amy looked on.
“Emily?” Lisa said.
“If we stand out in the rain we can wash the mud away.”
“What would be the point in that? We just have to go back out again.”
“Only after it’s stopped.”
Emily thought, what if the rains don’t stop, what if the storm settles in, covers the whole city for months? We think of blue skies as the natural state of the weather, not the inverse. It wouldn’t be Lisa’s fault if instead of the steady sunny days of summer we received endless torrents, electrical storms and clouds that erased the sun, turning the entire landscape sickly pale and grey.
“OK,” Emily said, stepping forward, unlacing her shoes and kick-tossing them ahead of her onto the grass.
When they were running, she didn’t feel the clinging of her dress, but standing under the fullness of the downpour it wrapped her distortedly, a foreign skin. She raised one leg, tilted it outward at a forty-five degree angle, hesitant as she tried to establish her balance. Rivers of mud funneled off the end of her toes.
“I like your nails,” Lisa said.
Emily’s toes were painted a severe midnight blue, presently extensively chipped and faded.
Lisa stretched out her arms on both sides, wobbled, then dropped her hand on Emily’s shoulder. Emily let the hand stay there.
“I like your ankle tattoo,” Emily said.
. . .
Kevin arrived with two tallboy six-packs and Brendan.
“What, no flowers?” Amy said, holding the condo door open.
“You can put those in the fridge,” Emily said, leading Kevin into the kitchen.
“We’re watching Girls,” Amy said to Brendan. They sat on a sectional the shape and approximate size of Niagara Falls. He silently rolled a several-paper joint on a copy of The Economist in his lap.
“I don’t want any,” Emily said to Kevin.
“It relaxes things,” he said. She wasn’t sure what he meant by that. What things?
“My mom works for a think tank,” Amy said, standing out on the balcony, passing the joint along. Everyone nodded approvingly. “Do you even know what a think tank is?” The boys nodded yes, unconvincingly.
Thirty stories below, the lake went on forever in the dark. The few lights along the boardwalk lit up benches, late-night joggers and only a slim trace of shore. From there it slipped into a blackness extending beyond Buffalo, and then all the way to outer space.
When the joint came around to her, Emily took it. This is going to alter my perception of reality, she thought. A minute later she was waiting for the vertigo to pass, feeling the air rush up at her as she leaned over the balcony railing. Kevin pulled her back.
“Living dangerously?” he said.
“Feeling alive,” she said.
Amy and Brendan had disappeared down the elevator. From the guest bedroom window Emily watched for the two of them to re-appear on the bridge below.
Kevin stood to the side of the bed, pulling Emily towards him by her ankles. As she slid across, her dress rode up her thighs. That morning she had a feeling white may not be a safe choice. The room became cold, her skin goose-bumped. Time held its breath in her chest.
“I can’t go through with it,” she said. “Not like this.”
“It’ll be fine. It will still feel good.”
“No. It won’t. Not at all.”
She didn’t reach for her clothes but turned back the bed sheets and pulled herself in, wrapping tightly up in the duvet. She looked up at Kevin, his inquisitive eyes turning into a less benign expression. She wanted to ask if he would read to her. But she could tell that he wouldn’t have spent the night, not even, and maybe especially, if things had gone as planned. She listened to the air-conditioner click and whir and thought of sleeping alone in the room after he left and how lonely and cold it would be.
. . .
In her room she looks out the window onto the neat grid of backyards, chlorine and polystyrene in the air. She wanted her parents to install an in-ground pool in their backyard so she could spend July and August afternoons sun-tanning, drinking clear liquor with Amy and Kevin, if she could ever convince her parents to let her stay behind on weekends. She looked forward to creating iTunes playlists to carry them into the late evening. But her parents said there was the cottage, Emily could swim there. So instead she eavesdrops on the underwater vacuum sound of self-propelled pool cleaners in neighbours’ backyards and listens for the sharper blips of insects and birds in the fence-straddling trees.
Sitting on the floor, back to her bed, she scans the voice mail messages and texts Kevin has already sent since the afternoon in the park, since she left him behind after the rains had stopped.
At one point in the afternoon the rain and darkness brought on confusion and they all seemed to get separated from each other. At one point Emily saw Lisa and she appeared to be alone, back to a tree, and maybe even shaking. Lisa seemed the type of girl to get lost easily. But then Kevin revealed himself from behind the tree, his arms binding Lisa’s thin body to its trunk like rope. His hands moved up under her dress and Emily could see the tautness of her thighs; the blue underwear made her white legs so long and slender. His hands moved in deeper and Emily knew precisely what Lisa was feeling. Lisa lifted onto tip-toes as Kevin pushed the blue fabric off her hips and it slid to the ground, laying there around her ankles like birthday-gift wrapping paper. Kevin pulled back his belt and opened the front of his jeans. Lisa brought a leg up, clutched it around Kevin’s back. Emily could not determine whether Kevin was taking her, or if Lisa was giving to him.
The phone rings and Emily answers it.
“Oh, it’s you?”
“Of course it’s me. Who did you think it would be?”
“At this hour, I have no idea.”
Emily puts the phone on speaker, drops it onto the carpet and rests her head on a pillow she pulls down from the bed.
“I don’t have anything to say.”
She begins drifting off, listening to Kevin’s distant voice. It is like something on the radio late at night, a podcast, some other form of lullaby. Her parents used to read to her every night before bed. Promised it would bring her pleasant dreams and happy thoughts in the morning when she woke up.
She re-enters the forest. Just before the rains hit. In this version, thunder ricochets through the sky, shaking branches. She sees Lisa up against the tree, skin naked and white-green under the leaves. Emily whispers into the girls’ ear. I wanted it to be like this for me. To be made in the trees, to have my skin wet as leaves, to feel as if I am being born.
Lisa turns a smile, whispers something lost in rain leaf patter. The world does not unfold or fall out of assemblage, Emily understands. It simply pauses, then either wakes up or falls back to sleep.
Justin Ridgeway is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. He has received a Pushcart nomination (2012) and an Ontario Arts Council Writer’s Reserve Grant (2014). He is former associate fiction editor for Canadian independent literary arts magazine, Broken Pencil and regular contributor to Documentary, the International Documentary Association’s publication. In 2014, he established curio (www.curioartco.com), a public art management consulting practice to curate and project manage large-scale art installations, which has worked with Douglas Coupland, James Turrell and United Visual Artists. His first feature film is going into production in summer 2016.