by Nada Alic
Sleep had forgotten me. Each night, I laid on my back waiting for it to come, but it would not come. I would say things like “I’m so tired!” to will it into existence, but it was an ancient thing and not so easily fooled. This was because I’d been in love-- but only for a few weeks so my body was still adjusting. It wanted so badly to attach itself to that other body, the one shaped long and lean, with the right amount of softs and hards. But that body wasn’t around; it was down the hall and tired from its own day. And I was committed to letting it breathe, not consuming it as I usually do. Just taking polite little bites here and there and stopping when I was full.
Issue #131 soundtrack: Avid Dancer “Stop Playing With My Heart”
His name was Francis. He had a ponytail and wore a vintage jacket with the words Sports Suck hand-embroidered on the back. He was the only person in my apartment complex who didn’t recycle. If you asked him about it, he would tell you about his sources on the inside that know the truth. One day I just started taking his recyclables out of the trash and placing them in the recycling bin when he wasn’t looking. He would then take them out of the recycling bin and put them back in the trash. This sort of became our thing. After a while, it was like a call and response. Some might call it romance. And as romance goes, it was mysterious and exciting. Each time I went to the communal garbage area, I felt like I was being watched, and it gave me a full body rush. We never discussed it because we didn’t need to. What we had didn’t require labels because it existed on higher planes of consciousness. Describing these planes to you would be pointless. Dangerous, even.
Francis had only ever addressed me twice. Once to tell me it was a “free country” and another time to ask me if he’d said anything stupid to me in the hallway that one time because he was drunk, and he didn’t mean it. I told him it was a free country! We laughed, but he didn’t know why.
Once I showed him my easy-going side, he was hooked-- because soon after, he asked me to keep an eye out for a package for him while he was away on vacation. He gave me his number and told me to text him when it arrived. He told me not to open it or tell anyone that I had it, that it would just be our little secret. This was his funny way of asking me to be his girlfriend. I nodded with not just my neck, but with my whole being. When his package arrived, I wrapped it in a towel and hid it underneath my bed until he came to pick it up. And when he did, he stood in my doorway and asked me if I smoked and I said “n-yes.” We sat on my fire escape, and he told me about his trip to Miami with a woman named Carla, but I couldn’t hear him over the sound of his lips kissing his cigarette and sucking in, which sounded like music to me.
As the days went on, my want for him felt like a burden, dragging me along with it into very elaborate fantasy scenarios. I was a maid, he: a middle-aged hotel guest. I: a seahorse, he: another seahorse. I: a scrunchie, he: an endless ponytail. But my greatest fantasy of all was the feeling that I was being watched. I thought that if I just believed he was always watching me, I’d be forced to act like the kind of woman he could marry, until I really was that woman. So I made sure to create an aura of sexiness all over my apartment. There are only two ways to create sexiness: perfume and dancing, and I am allergic to perfume.
No one knows this about me, but I am basically a professional in-front-of-the-mirror dancer. This is the kind of dance that no one sees. The secret kind. You’ve done this dance. Maybe it even took you a moment to remember that you’ve done it, but you have. You played a song, faced the mirror, and started moving your body. Maybe you mouthed all of the words to a song and impressed yourself with this. Maybe you turned yourself on by rounding your hips over and over again until you thought to yourself: what if I’m sexier than I even know? You are. Don’t be ashamed. How do you think that those people in nightclubs know how to dance so well? Do you think it just happened one day? No, they spent years in front of the mirror quietly thinking: does this make me look like I am having sex with my clothes on?
I have found reasons to press all of the numbers that make up his number in succession and hit “call.” This is often followed by “end call” but not always. I space out all of these calls as if I were eating popcorn one kernel at a time, pausing to breathe between each bite. Have you ever tried this? It is hard. There is something within all of us that wants more popcorn than our mouths allow, but it is a spiritual practice to chew and swallow each one at a time. One kernel at a time I say:
“Did you hear that?”
“That sound; it sounded like an animal.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“Must have been the wind.”
One at a time. I hold one of his empty beer cans and, swallow. I hear his voice and, swallow. I see a baby that looks like it could be ours and, swallow.
I have to go to the post office today, which is the kind of thing I’d tell Francis about since our thing really got going because of a package-- or date, was it technically a date? He’d probably take care of it for me if I asked, but I haven’t seen him in a few weeks and this really can’t wait. I am returning a pair of pants because I accidentally hit “small” when I meant to hit “medium,” and I only realized this after checkout, so I had to wait for an entire system to run its course so that I could hit “medium” again. As I tracked my package on UPS, I saw it being dispatched from a warehouse in New Mexico, placed onto a truck headed to Tucson, then to another warehouse in Anaheim, and finally to my doorstep in Los Feliz. When the package arrived, I held it in my hands and felt the hands of every person that touched it, and I felt ashamed. I wanted to call them all and explain what happened. They held up their end of this, and I just watched my mistake move through the country in real time.
On my drive to the post office, I started noticing signs everywhere. This is common. Signs most often appear when you are looking for them. Try it for yourself next time; almost anything can be a sign. Now that I’m in love, all of my signs are love-shaped. The license plate in front of me at a stop sign spelled out FEELNIT, a plastic bag that read Thank You, Thank You, Thank You blew from a branch like a flag, and two goth teens made out aggressively at a bus stop. I kissed my fingers, gently pressed them up against the windshield, and whispered, “Bless you.” Most people don’t know that blessings are free and you can give them away as often as you want, even if you are not religious.
When I walked into the post office, I noticed a long line of people in a kind of snake formation edging towards the exit. None of us chose each other, but there we were. We had all left our special somebody-ness in the car, or at home; none of it would be required of us here. All that was required was to move the line along, and some of us were failing. There were gaps between us. Deep valleys of open space. Some bodies too close, others too far. This is because most people don’t care. Most people don’t do the work; they don’t even show up. They turn up right at the end, all out of breath, and ask, “Did I miss it?” And we say: “Yes, we handled it. It’s over, go home.”
I looked around at the mess we had created and felt anxious. I let out an audible sigh which is like saying, “Unbelievable!” with your breath. Then, I looked up at the fluorescent lights above me and remembered: I am in love. I nearly burst out in laughter that I had almost forgot about this very important thing. Most people in the world right now, at this moment, are not in love. They are out of love or over love or under-loved. They are nowhere near the in part. They are typing online profiles that say “Looking for Love” and refreshing the page. I suddenly became self-conscious that maybe I was feeling so much love that it was making people feel uncomfortable. But I looked around, and no one seemed to notice-- that’s how rare love has become.
In front of me was a large, elderly man. He was both tall and wide, a real bottleneck for our slow moving conga line. His shape demanded all of the space that this great earth would give him, and as I entered his orbit, I feared being swallowed whole by whatever magnetic force sucks you into large, dark masses.
“We’re going to be here for a while,” he said. “Yes,” I laughed.
I thought about pretending I didn’t understand English but remembered I didn’t know any other languages.
“What do you have there?”
“Oh, it’s – I made a mistake, I’m returning something.”
Something about the soft look on his face said he was somebody’s father and he could tell that I was somebody’s daughter, and because of this, he chose me as his temporary surrogate. Like a reclining chair, I relaxed into it.
“Me, too. I never heard the mailman ring the bell.” He held up a note that said, Sorry We Missed You!
“I hate when that happens.”
“I don’t mind it. It’s fun not to know.”
“Yeah, but then you get stuck here on a Saturday.”
“It’s not so bad if you know you’ll get a present in the end.”
“What kind of present?”
“I’m picking up a package from my girlfriend.”
The way he said the word “girlfriend” suggested this was a new arrangement. He hadn’t worn out the word yet, so it felt like a surprise every time the word exited his mouth, and every time, he was pleased by it.
“Oh, that’s nice! What do you think it could be?”
“I’m not sure. It’s for our anniversary.”
Then it came pouring out of him like a faucet. “It’s a crazy story, you know? I met her in an online chat room for sufferers of IBS. Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
I nodded slowly, as if I had just learned something new.
“It’s a very common ailment, and no one really knows what it is, if you can believe it. But millions of people have it. I’d been to the doctor all my life, and all he told me was to stop eating spicy foods. That didn’t work. So, sometime last year I decided to do some research, and I came across this online forum and started reading all of these stories. That’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. I started chatting with this lady who called herself Barb_63. She told me I should try hypnosis, and you know, I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but she said it worked for her.”
In this time, the line had moved several feet, but he did not. I had become a part of the problem, but it didn’t bother me as much. Love is patient!
“And it worked! The mind is so powerful, you know. Anyway, we kept on chatting. She gave me her e-mail address and that’s when it really started-- I’m talking every day. She lives in Rochester, New York, which is why we can’t be together, but one day I would very much like to see her in person. I just don’t have the money right now.”
A small part of me worried that Barb_63 was another lonely old man or a hacker from some unpronounceable Slavic region. I wondered if she ever asked for his social security number or if he gave it to her before she even thought to ask. I wondered if any of this even mattered to him, or if it was all enough to get him through his day.
“That is a real modern-day love story,” I said.
As we neared the front of the line, I learned several things about Barb_63, as if with each new piece of information, her face came into focus. She used to be a hairdresser. She’s allergic to cashews, but almonds are fine. She’s fluent in Spanish. She loves to dance. I could see why he liked her. I began to like her, too.
I imagined Barb_63 at her kitchen table, slowly curating herself for him via email. I imagined her as shy to start, then over time, unlocking a thousand- year-old desire within her. Something she thought had died long ago. She’d describe what she was doing, what she’d like to do, and what she hasn’t tried but would be open to. This would surprise her, how natural it felt. This is because there is always want for romance, even when it is distant and electronic: it is ancient. The need to consume and be consumed lives outside of time itself.
I imagined their love as two magnets held together through satellites and wires, ones and zeros. I imagined her unbuttoning her blouse and uncrossing her legs. I imagined his want growing for her, typing and erasing the words “I love you” before hitting send. I imagined them both forgiving each other for their soft and unlovable bodies and loving them anyway.
Her long life held so many pieces of herself, and she chose which to reveal and which to bury. A small part of me envied this ability as I was getting tired of constantly being watched. There was so much that I didn’t want Francis to see, but I knew that on some higher plane saw everything, like an all-seeing god. I straightened my posture at the thought of this.
It was his turn. He walked to the front and handed the woman at the counter a yellow slip of paper. She walked to the back and returned with a large blue box. It is from Barb_63. And Barb_63 is real. As he turned to leave he said:
“Here it is.”
“It looks big!” I said.
He proceeded to walk past me and towards his future where there was probably an e-mail waiting for him from Barb_63, asking if he got the package and if he did, what did he think? I turned around and he was gone.
When I reached the counter, I looked at the woman behind it and told her everything. I don’t know why I did this, but I did. I explained my mistake and how I’d pressed “small” even though I was a “medium” and I kept going; I told her about the signs and the swallowing and my profound want for sleep. That it had been so long since I’d slept that kind of dead sleep.
I did not stop. I even told her about Barb_63 and the large dark mass that loved her. I told her how their love was distant and absurd, but how love does not bend in the direction of our desires. It does not look the way it’s supposed to but neither do we, and because of that we are always let down.
“Next!” she shouted.
I looked down at my hands and they were empty. The package was gone and it was over. I heard a sneeze and whispered “bless you” to no one in particular.
Nada Alic is a fiction writer originally from Toronto who now lives in Los Angeles. She is the editorial director for the art platform Society6, a print-on-demand marketplace for 200k artists. For more of her work, visit nadaalic.com.
Andrea Nakhla is an Los Angeles-based painter and designer. Her debut show entitled “Little Joy” at New Image Art was featured in Live FAST Magazine. Andrea and Nada have been collaborating on art books since 2014, when the pair produced the first installment of Future You (2014). Since then, they've also realized I Saw It In You (2016) and Future You 2 (2016). For more, visit andreanakhla.com and follow the artist on Instagram.
Avid Dancer is the moniker of Los Angeles-based musician and artist Jacob Dillan Summers. Summers began as a drummer, winning top honors for rudimental snare at United Corps International’s prestigious annual bugle-and-drum corps competition. He created the album artwork for his latest release, 1st Bath, by writing the album’s title in his own blood over a collage of photos from his early childhood. For more, visit aviddancerband.com/ or follow Summers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.