INDICES OF REFRACTION
by Deborah Mead
Some days I see you everywhere. Beside the steel flagpole in front of school, or in the next line at CVS, or walking through the video store, just the back of your copper hair disappearing down the aisle. Other times you’re nowhere to be seen, as of course you shouldn’t be. There is a name for this, probably, for believing that you’re seeing someone when it’s really someone else. You would know what this is called, and if you were here, you would tell me and crack that half-smile you always wore when you knew something I didn’t.
Thursdays I park by your house. Sometimes I see your mom. She used to tell me to let go, we’re too young, Cal Tech too far. She would remind me you’re seeing someone new and tell me about all the fish in the sea. But now we do not speak. She comes and goes, shutting the heavy front door while I watch from my car. When I get home, my mom asks why it takes me so long to run so few errands.
Issue #56 soundtrack: Twin Oaks "Not An Exit"
Today I see you across the street from the bus stop, in that coffee shop we used to like. You sit right in the window, head bent over the paper, paper cup steaming by your hand. I want you to look up, to see me, too, dressed in your favorite halter top, the low-cut indigo one you said matched my eyes. I want you to look up and watch me board the bus and leave you behind. And then you do look up, and it isn’t you or even anyone who resembles you, really, but you look at me and our eyes meet and I shiver as if it really was you. I climb the steps, clink my quarters into the coin box and take a seat by the window. I look again. You are already gone.
Your brother looks like you. Your dad looks like you. When your mom walks to her car, she takes long hard strides like you. But these people are not you. I do not want them to look at me. They look at me and shake their heads. They do not tell you I come by.
J.P. said it’s a thirty-minute ride, thirty-five tops. The bus will stop right across the street, I can’t miss it. I settle in. Across the aisle, a man who is not you stares at me. It is November and I am not wearing a coat. Goosebumps erupt on my arms. The man asks if I am cold. I do not answer him. The high school, its wide lawn empty and brown, passes by the window. The bagel shop, Top-Line Nails, Mike’s Bird World. Someone requests a stop. The man who is not you does not get off.
Your old friend Brandon asked me to come to a party. He said it was time to move on and he talked about the fish in the sea. I watched his mouth move, tiny teeth biting off each word. The words washed over me like little waves until suddenly they stopped. He was looking at me, waiting, so I said yes. He smiled with the tiny teeth and told me to bring my lip gloss.
The bus passes the movie theater where you and I used to go. I liked to sit with you in the dark, the lights of the movie washing over us like waves. I listened to the words but could never forget you were sitting beside me. I would turn and watch you watch the movie, smiling or laughing or nodding or serious but not thinking about me, and I would feel myself disappear. Then I would blow on your cheek or rustle the popcorn and you would stir and there I would be again.
Brandon said it was called a rainbow party. He said you used to come to them on Saturday nights when you were too tired to go with me to the movies. Eleven boys sat around the living room, their pants down, their penises quivering in their hands like eels. A few girls kneeled in the center of the circle, lips a shimmering rainbow. Brandon said, it’s time to move on. I put on my lip gloss.
In my lap lie the photos. Doris took them with my mom’s digital, the junky one she got in that raffle. There are head shots and body shots. Me in the hammock. Me on the boardwalk. Me in profile. Me smiling. Me with no facial expression. J.P. said “u r a natural beauty, u just dont see it yet.” Every day I study the pictures. I do not see it yet.
J.P. says “no prblm, no prblm. Even Gisele looks horrible w/o makeup, lights, fans. Have u seen Pam Anderson? Scary! LOL! I’ll take gr8 pix when we meet IRL.”
In algebra, Mr. Boller likes to solve for x. The whiteboard swims with blue marker, Mr. Boller’s tenor rippling in the background. Factors, coefficients, polynomials—beautiful empty shells. I am failing algebra again. You used to laugh and tell me it didn’t matter, that I had a poet’s soul. I liked that idea, and for a while I dressed in black and carried a notebook around. I wrote six poems, all about you.
The bell rings for a stop and the man who is not you moves into the aisle beside me. His shoes crunch the gritty floor. I have a daughter your age, he says. He looks down at me, coughs, looks away. You should wear a coat. He shuffles off the bus. We pull away and I cross the aisle and take his seat. It is still warm.
Last week I drove to Koehler Beach. It was cold and dark and I sat in the car while the wind whipped the ghostly foam up over the sand. I thought about the time we were here last spring, when you drank so much Crush you peed orange into the ocean. I laughed until I peed in my jeans, and then you rinsed them in the waves. We sat on the scratchy plaid blanket and ate your mom’s cream cheese sandwiches and wordlessly watched the churning water. You ran your hand down my back, fingertips bouncing over each vertebra. I silently counted each bony nub you strummed, and when you turned to me and smiled, I knew you were counting them too.
Billboards line Route 156, ads for car insurance, technical training, missing children. They tick by the window, a steady dull rhythm, until the one for Borden’s Jewelers. The blonde woman gazes into the bus, glossy lips parted in pleasured anticipation. Her face is ten feet tall. Someday this will be me, high above a California highway. You will see me a mile off. You will look and look, but it will not matter. You will not exist for me.
On the boardwalk, a whiteboard awash in green numbers. High tide, low tide. Air temperature, water temperature, wind speed. Sunset. In the background, the face of the sea curls and darkens, breaks and heals in familiar rhythm. There is no knowing what may be lurking beneath.
The gray county courthouse fills the window and I get off the bus. The hotel is across the street, where J.P. said it would be. Men scurry along the sidewalk, laugh into cell phones, dig through briefcases. Steam wafts from a yellow pretzel cart. I stop in the middle of the street when I see you enter Jake’s Bar and Grill, your brown jacket black, your copper hair darker. Then you turn to hold the door for an old woman, and it’s not you after all.
Mead, p. 6
Every time I call, you answer with the same cheerful voice. Every day, the same rising and falling timbre. Every day, the same background laughter. Who is laughing? There is no knowing. You tell me to leave a message at the beep and every day I flounder in silence.
Heavy drapes darken the lobby. The air is odorless, denser than outside. I spot the yellow striped chair by the front windows, right where it’s supposed to be. I sit down. Beside me the glass door opens to the outside, admits a rush of noise, shuts the world out again. Luggage trolleys glide silently over the deep green tile. In the center of the room an aquarium quietly bubbles. Six unblinking guppies nibble and spit the pink-pebbled floor.
Last night I dreamed we were at Koehler Beach. We were eating sandwiches on the plaid blanket, seagulls eying us from the empty lifeguard chair. You spotted the remains of a whale washed up far down the beach, its white ribs poking through dark flesh. You ran down the beach, laughing come on, come on, but the harder I ran, the farther away you got, while the bleached bones sank deeper and deeper into the sand.
An unshaven man crosses the lobby toward me, hard heels biting into the carpet. He is not you. I do not want him to be J.P. Hello, he says. I’m J.P. He quickly scans the room, studies me, my halter top. He carries a plastic room key in his hand. There’s been some confusion, a double-booked conference room, he has to audition the girls in a suite upstairs instead. He shakes his head. Unavoidable, but hey, at least there’s a mini-bar. He bares yellow teeth, his darting tongue poking saliva bubbles through the wet crevices.
Mr. Boller says in algebra there is only one right answer. It is simple logic. Move the constants to the right, the variables to the left, you’re left with x, now solved, now known. Inevitable. Inexorable. Mr. Boller beams like his whiteboard. Beautiful.
The man who calls himself J.P. tucks the envelope of photos under his arm. I am even more beautiful than he hoped, the camera will love me. He extends his hand to help me to my feet. Shall we go, then? Beside us the glass door opens: laughter, hot salted pretzels, gust of cold air. I gulp a deep breath before the door closes once more. I take his hand. Yes. Yes, let’s go.
Deborah Mead is a published writer, with essays and articles appearing in the Boston Globe and Disney's Family Fun magazine. Her poetry chapbook, Topless, was published by Main Street Rag last year.
Jeanpaul Ferro a novelist, poet, short fiction author, and photographer from Providence, Rhode Island. An 8-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Ferro's work has been featured on NPR, Columbia Review, Connecticut Review, Contemporary American Voices, Arts and Understanding Magazine, Emerson Review, and others. His photography has been featured in Houston Literary Review, Bartleby Snopes Literary Review, Barely South Review, Decades Review, Cleveland Review, and others. View his art portfolio online.
Twin Oaks is a two-piece dream pop/folk band out of Los Angeles, consisting of singer-songwriter Lauren Brown and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Christopher. Their new EP "Not An Exit" is due for a late November release. For more, visit the band online at twinoaksmusic.com.