by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Issue Two: May 23, 2019
“And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” — Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
She’s standing there, waving, and saying, “Good-bye,” and all the while, she’s thinking, Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, and she can feel the tears streaming down her face, despite the fact there are none. Her name is Cindi. Her mother always wrote it with hearts dotting the i’s, and she liked this until she was twelve and someone laughed. Now, he has gone, his name is Daniel, and he has not kissed her, though she felt he wanted to a little, so that is something. She hears the soft, metronomic sky-slice of helicopter blades and knows she should go inside, but instead she sits on the stoop of the restaurant, and imagines a bomb dropping, and then the spray of bullets, and her body, ugly and then unfathomably uglier, torn, the bloom of blood coursing faster and faster. Her head is on the sidewalk, and the rest of her body splayed upward, her legs all crazy, and then she laughs wondering whether Daniel would regret having not kissed her if she died. Or whether he would just squint and breathe out a quick, “Hunh,” and carry on. One, then two, Apache helicopters rove into view and then out. The noise is unbearable but Cindi stays sitting, bringing their awful percussion into her fantasy.
There are people moving about in the streets. Who are these stupid people? It’s a dull thought, because she couldn’t really care less; after all she is out, too. We are stupid, all of us, she thinks, or else we’ve become inured to this sort of thing, or maybe just too tired to bother self-protecting. She can’t get Daniel’s lips, the soft hair on his cheeks and neck, too, but more the lips, out of her mind. It presents as a kind of target she has missed. Ha! she thinks, It shouldn’t be so hard to give or get a kiss, it’s not like an enunciation, for fuck’s sake. For instance, she kisses her husband almost every day, sometimes even lustfully, and it means nothing in the long run. It means, at the most, I’m horny, in a biological sense. But this is not that, it would be a lie to say it was.
She knows Harry is waiting for her at the house, checking his email, watching whatever news he can access for free on his laptop, and biding time until she arrives back home and he announces to her he is tired and going to bed. He will wait to announce this, she knows, because he likes a proper exit. She gets up to go home, and instead decides to go for a walk. She bends to pick up her black purse, slings it over her shoulder as she rises. A short man in the distance scuttles around a corner. She heads toward him, curious without really questioning why.
Afterward—much later—there will be a transcription of the banter between the soldiers in the two helicopters. The boys in the choppers are beautiful, one still awaiting his beard. They are a little older than Cindi’s children.
00:14 I got a black vehicle under target. It’s arriving right to the north of the mosque.
00:17 Yeah, I would like that. Over.
00:21 Moving south by the mosque dome. Down that road.
00:27 Okay we got a target fifteen coming at you. It’s a guy with a weapon.
00:39 There’s a.
00:42 There’s about, ah, four or five…
00:44 Bushmaster Six copy that White Six?
00:48 …this location and there’s more that keep walking by and one of them has a weapon.
00:52 Roger received target fifteen.
00:53 Hotel Two Six
00:57 See all those people standing down there.
00:59 Stand by
01:06 Stay firm. In an open the courtyard. 1
Cindi follows the short man, and as she does, she wishes it was Daniel, but it can’t be. He has left more than ten minutes before, he is on the subway, halfway across town to his own house, thinking about the things he thinks about. Art. Politics. Materials. Truth. Time. Geography. Humanity. What would it have cost him to kiss her? People conflate the price of things. The short man is milling around in a small crowd outside the old mosque on Dundas Street. She knows it is Toronto’s first mosque, that Malcolm X visited there in the very year she was born, precisely a month before he was assassinated, but that now it’s being renovated into a wine bar, into basically the opposite of a mosque. Because it leaked, they’ve patched the dome with copper. They’ve done a nice job on the reno, and she and Harry are looking forward to checking it out when it opens. A black van inches past her on Dundas street and she scrutinizes it. She doesn’t know makes and brands of things, certainly not cars, but she notices the dents, and the rust, and the scruffy man driving it. He looks tired—and kind.
The other man, the one she imagined was Daniel is beckoning her from the crowd that has formed inside the small yard beside the mosque. Two of the women in the group are wearing burqas and she envies them their anonymity. She wonders if they feel free to cry in public. She thinks that if she had the privilege of wearing a burqa, she would cry all the time, she would be an open wound inside that dark place. One of the helicopters is suspended in the sky way up above the group and—they shouldn’t be gathering, she thinks, it’s risky.
“Cindi, hey!” the man calls. “What are you doing out?”
She realizes suddenly who the man is, even as she scrambles for his name. He is the hipster who works the cash at the organic grocer a block away, and maybe she doesn’t know his name, maybe she’s told him hers and never asked his. He is “the clerk” to her. She goes over to him and they hug, because hugs are free and times are strange. He kisses both her cheeks, well, he kisses the air just in front of them.
“It’s weird,” she says.
“It sure is.”
They stand a little off from the others.
“I’m going to move to New York City,” she says. She has just thought this, and saying it feels right. She will go there as soon as the boys are finished high school in less than three years. She will finish up her PhD there, and the Civil War novel.
The clerk glances up at the noisesome sky and nods. “Tell me all about it.”
Even though it is obvious from the way he says it that he doesn’t really mean for her to tell him all about it, she does. She describes the white-painted apartment in Noho that she can’t afford, and the white bed sheets, and the desk, and how she will write, and how she will walk through the people there like it is a factory—some of the people heading in to be made, and the others heading out fully formed.
“I never thought about it like that,” the clerk says. And then he gently touches her arm and brings her closer to the group in order to introduce her. There is a girl skipping beside one of the women in burqa. The clerk introduces her to the woman and then to the girl, whose name is Antoinette.
“Tony,” says the girl, without missing a skip. “I prefer to be called Tony.” She puts on a fierce face and skips harder, beginning a wild series of elaborate skipping tricks so that her arms cross over her heart and the rope twists and untwists. She’s probably twelve, probably a little too old for skipping games.
Cindi claps. “Brava!”
“Shut up,” Tony whispers through her exertion, “You’ll break my concentration.” And then the girl does trip on the rope and it hangs there from her hands, sad and dead looking. The woman grabs the girl and pulls her close, so that the girl is half wrapped in the lapis blue burqa.
“Oh,” Cindi says, “Sorry.”
Tony’s skin is glowing from the exercise, beautiful, numinous against the rich pigment of the cloth framing her face. The rope is dirty and limp—squirreling out like a long drip on the pavement. An entrail. “I could have skipped all day,” Tony says, accusingly. “Now I’ll have to start again.” She looks up.
01:09 Yeah roger. I just estimate there’s probably about twenty of them.
01:13 There’s one, yeah.
01:15 Oh yeah.
01:18 I don’t know if that’s a…
01:19 Hey Bushmaster element, copy that White Six?
01:21 That’s a weapon.
Cindi looks up, too. The sky is overcast, and has been for days. The weather is accumulating some awful thing. She misses Daniel, and this missing is a hard place in her chest, a nugget of ruin. She and Daniel had sat over a pizza, and she told him things she had promised herself she wouldn’t, then watched his surprise, watched him laugh in shock and something like flattered joy, and then sober up and let her talk and talk. He was acting or he was real, and she couldn’t be sure. She really didn’t know him all that well and wanted so badly to believe him.
“I dreamed you wore clown pants,” she said.
“Really?” he said, for what could a person say to that?
“We were talking and I scanned your face and then down, like a camera.” She showed him with a horizontal palm how her eyes slid down his torso. She said, “And you were just you, and then the clown pants.”
“I suppose it’s a taboo from the waist down,” he said. He’s serious.
But no. That’s not it.
“My fantasy never went there,” Cindi said, and smiled because of the admission, but also because she’d confused him, and it was pretty to watch that confusion play out. She bit her lip watching him, her heart shuttering, open, shut, open.
“What was it then?”
The answer to that lay thick and deep, some fermenting virus running through her for weeks and weeks, taking all its forms but never completing. It tangled in her gut now, and down her legs. She watched him, watched his dark eyes, and dipped her gaze hesitantly to his lips, and popped back up, because that was way too intense. She was touching her face too much, but couldn’t stop, her fingers drawing and redrawing the outline of her mouth. “You’ll laugh,” she said.
“I swear I won’t.”
“It was a kissing fantasy.”
She said it, and her eyes closed for just a flicker and, in her mind, they were kissing. But when she looked, he was laughing. His eyes and whole face were laughing and he was trying to stop himself from that.
“Sorry,” he said. “Really, I’m sorry. I did swear I wouldn’t laugh and here I am.”
“It’s okay.” She didn’t mind his laughter because he seemed so delighted to be part of this story. At least in that moment. The way the delight played out in the room, it was nice.
“Kissing?” he said, then. “Really?”
“Yes.” Her tongue, teeth, the taste of him, tempo, pressure, her fingers on his face. It was unbearable.
And then they just sat there for some seconds and looked at each other and tried not to laugh, it made her want to kiss him even more.
Finally, she said, “It’s a schoolgirl crush. I feel like a schoolgirl.” She could feel her face beaming and she looked down, shy.
The bottom of the Apache is a menacing green, the guns like gloomy, industrial, hanging gonads. She thinks, Dumb metaphor. It’s not unusual these days to see Apaches sweeping along the tops of buildings, but never good when they are this close. Cindi begins to feel self conscious so near to a growing crowd. The clerk has become irritated with the helicopter intrusion, has pulled his cell phone out, and is lining up to take a video of it. Cindi is shaking her head at him, so he stops and says, “Well, who the hell do they think they are?”
“Still,” she says, “it’s provocative.” Last week an entire family was gunned down.
The clerk leans in to her, whispers something that upsets her enough she makes a face. He says, “All right, then,” and tucks his cell phone into his jean pocket. Then he pulls it back out, taps at the screen repeatedly with his thumb. “Look,” he says, nestling close to her to show her the phone, and the image on it, of her and Daniel in the restaurant, caught slyly laughing. She takes the device and peers at the instagram image, thumbs it bigger, lets it into her heart.
“Oh,” she says. “Why?”
He shrugs. “There was something there.”
“Yeah. Do you see it? What I wanted to capture?”
Cindi stares at the picture. “I see a Peeping Tom,” she says, and clicks the screen black. She shoves the phone into the clerk’s hands and walks away, her nostrils flaring in indignation. “Don’t bother following,” she snarls, when she feels him on her heels, but he persists so she turns around. She sees the girl, then—Tony—skipping again, a travelling move, she is following, too. The thrumming of the Apache helicopters becomes a kind of ugly music to this.
Cindi waits for the girl, wanting her company. And above? They do not know what is transpiring above. People in the little group begin to disperse, to get on with their days, food shopping, meal making, the business of their interior lives stabbing at them in all the different ways possible. Cindi imagines again the initial contact of her lips on his, how she wants to touch his collarbone, feel the heat of his skin, and hold his bottom lip gently between her teeth. It feels like all her organs are trying to live on the outside, trying to pump and wheeze without her. Time and space are pressing in, she can’t distinguish all that is collapsing. She thinks of Whitman, of universes, of all things happening at the same time and place, her tongue gently sliding along his gums.
“What really is love, anyway?” says the clerk.
At the mention of the word love, she feels a jolt through every cell, she swears she feels the particularity of each and every one of them wake up and listen.
“There is a Florida lady,” says Tony, beating out the words to the rhythm of her skipping, “who married a Ferris wheel named Bruce.”
“Well, what do you make of that?” says the clerk.
“Fuck off,” says Tony. She has a swooning look on her face. Cindi thinks she is imagining free rides, and the dance of crazed lights spinning in the night blackness.
02:03 I’m gonna… I can’t get ’em now because they’re behind that building.
02:09 Um, hey Bushmaster element, copy that White Six?
02:10 He’s got an RPG!
02:11 All right, we got a guy with an RPG.
02:13 I’m gonna fire.
Cindi pictures Harry back home, feels a twinge of guilt for not being there, then feels a vibration up her leg which she mistakes for somatization until she realizes it is her cell phone communicating something to the flesh of her thigh. Tired, it reads, when she pulls it out. Going to bed, it reads. She cradles it, gaining some unfathomable pleasure from the blue light and its warmth and the legibility of the message. Harry has proclaimed his exit from this day, and this proclamation gives her some brief respite. She will walk on. She turns and sees the others will follow, that they are yearning toward some unknown narrative, too, that they are waiting for her to begin this.
It is at the very second between thinking of walking and canting into it that the soldiers in the Apache open fire, the boom of material contact against the mosque wall and the concrete curb atomizing into billowing plumage and the splintering of people. It could happen anywhere, Cindi thinks, but it is happening here. The clerk has the girl by the arm, and with his other hand, he grabs Cindi and they run, stumbling away, anywhere.
“My name is Bruce,” he says as he pulls them into an alcove.
“Right,” says Tony, and snorts at him.
Cindi squints at the clerk, wondering if he’s for real, but he is nodding. He says, “Yup, just like the Ferris Wheel.” He looks at Cindi queerly, then he looks away, and adds, “I did overhear much of what you were saying.”
“My pain is my pain.” It would be better if it were just her and the girl.
“It was only a kiss,” Bruce says. “My wife always tries to make mountains out of molehills, too.”
This comment puts Cindi in mind of the opossum she has seen squashed on Glenlake Avenue that very day, all that inside of it outside. At the time, she had thought, Don’t let this be a sign, because she still thought things might go in a different direction. She presses her palm against Bruce’s chest so that she can see past him to the carnage. There is a man lying very still on the paving stones, and a crazy torn burqa-d figure crawling through some dreadful wound. It looks like a news clip, and it could be argued into one, if only the air didn’t stink of spent fuel and ammonia. Bruce has lost his grasp on Tony, and she has gone shrieking toward the scene.
“A shipment of avocadoes came in yesterday,” she hears Bruce say.
“No,” he says. “Tangerines. Come by tomorrow and I will give you some. I want you to have them.”
“It’s nice of you.”
Bruce has clearly lost it.
The Apache tilts away and flies in a circle to get a better vantage point on what havoc it has wreaked. She watches as its guns thump out more and more destruction. She watches Tony, and would scream if she could find her voice, but what would be the point? The girl is enveloped briefly in the plume of cement dust and human bits that burst up into the air. When she comes into view again, she is almost unrecognizable. Her hair is thick with what looks like soot but is shattered sidewalk, and her skin is shredded, bleeding from what appears to be hundreds of lacerations. Tony smiles and looks up at the Apache and waves. The kid is sassy. Hello, she seems to say, and then her arms drop and then rise again, then drop and rise again, as if she is building momentum. It’s a curious thing to watch.
“Basil, too,” says Bruce. “Very fresh.”
And suddenly, Tony is cartwheeling down the road. She cartwheels over and over. Cindi wishes Daniel could see it, it’s that enchanting. She pulls out her phone and opens the camera to film it. She captures ten seconds of Tony’s perfect cartwheels as the dust dissipates, and then Tony is so far away she almost turns her camera off. But the girl is returning. She is getting bigger and bigger. It’s the most beautiful thing, so beautiful—her pink leggings, the florid tattered shirt, and the red drips of blood coming out of her everywhere. When she gets closer, Cindi plans to grab her and take her to Emergency. The girl requires saving. She’s gone temporarily mad, for sure she has. The burqa has stopped moving.
“Why is she doing that, do you think?” says Bruce.
“Cartwheels,” says Cindi, shaking her head.
Tony is maybe twenty feet away, her cartwheeling has become more and more elegant. Sometimes she throws in a backflip, and sometimes a limber over, but still it is the perfect circle of her body in a wheel coming closer and closer. It is as if reality has been shattered, and even the soldiers are in awe; they lift the Apaches and wait, or maybe they are finished here. Cindi thinks this and then:
02:43 You’re clear.
02:44 All right, firing.
02:47 Let me know when you engage them.
02:49 We’re shootin’.
02:50 Light ’em all up.
02:52 Come on, fire!
02:57 Keep shootin’, keep shootin’.
02:59 Keep shootin’.
03:02 Keep shootin’.
Another volley of bombs concusses the street and pocks craters into the buildings down it, but it is as if Tony is magically protected. She just keeps cartwheeling until she is close enough and Cindi can rush out and grab her.
“This is madness,” she says. “You are coo-coo in the head.”
“I’m practicing my moves, bitch,” says the girl, and wriggles to get away.
Cindi holds the girl by the arm and then there is a thumping that seems to rise up under her feet. She knows she was moving toward the alcove and toward Bruce but she can’t make her body continue in this path. Her body has other plans for her, and she is careening toward the pavement; she has been flying, she thinks. They lie now at Bruce’s feet, both of them breathing hard, Cindi from adrenaline and the girl from the exercise. Cindi stares up at her phone and realizes she is still videotaping, so she presses the stop button. Then she finds Daniel in her contacts and sends him the video; what will he make of it, the girl rotating through this mayhem? Under it, in a separate text box, she writes: This just happened. She turns the sound bar up in case he responds. How could he not respond?
“You’re very talented,” she says to Tony.
Her phone dings. The text reads: You okay?
She writes, sends: Under fire, feels her heart surge. It is blood actually. She is bleeding. And the girl is not moving much at all. She is tangled up beside Cindi. Cindi jostles her. “You okay?” She looks down at the lozenge-shaped wound between her own breasts, and there is nothing else but this one compact gash. Quite a lot of blood is trickling from it, a kind of mesmerizing river.
Bruce tucks his arms under Tony and lifts her. “Go home,” he says to Cindi. “Can you make it?”
“Sure,” she says. She watches him crouch with the girl along the side of the building, then run toward St Joe’s Hospital, disappearing with the girl. She lies there listening to the receding whirr of the Apaches, their work is done, and she tries to gauge her injury. She can move her arms, her legs, but she feels pinned, like in a nightmare, like when a body part falls asleep. The girl was such a strange girl, she thinks, and then her phone dings.
It’ll be okay, his text reads.
She thinks how there are those worse off, and writes: I’m dying. Then, deletes it letter by letter and writes: It won’t. She deletes this, too, and sends him a link to that video of a cat barking.
She lies there watching the rivulet of blood slow, the laceration is maybe three inches long, but bone deep, it has cut into her sternum. She closes her eyes and there is Daniel smiling. She wants so badly to have kissed him. She wants this as a shimmering promise to draw from, she wants it bone deep, not for Daniel, not against Harry, not for anyone except herself. She would have tucked it away forever, a perfect gem, a thing, an object to take out once in awhile and marvel at. But he has said no.
“I won’t be that guy,” he said.
“Which guy is that?” she answered.
Her phone rings. It is Daniel.
“Hi,” he says. “Are you okay?”
“I’m lying in the street bleeding,” she says. She tries not to sound frantic.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“It’s not your fault.”
“Still,” he says.
She can’t help picturing him, his eyes, his smile, this strange new secret he now knows: that she loves him, and that she can’t help it, and that it is impossible. She is sitting with him on a park bench and there are trees and green around them, and his skin is pale. He is not beautiful but he is also beautiful in the way average-looking people can be when one covets them, and she runs her finger along his cheekbone and over his mouth. Kiss me, she thinks, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, and then they are kissing, the hard softness of it. It feels like crying and laughing at once, like the world getting sucked into just this one thing, how painful and raw and unfinished and real that would be.
Instead, she will go home, and everything will be just the same as it was. She hears herself say, “It would have been okay.” She wishes she could say it with more effervescence, with less tearful saturation. Everything catches in her throat, though. “If you ever change your mind,” she adds, and then laughs, as if she means this as a joke.
“Cindi,” he says. “Surely, you understand.”
“Yes,” she says. “I understand.” But she doesn’t. Not really.
37:16 Uh, you ready?
37:30 There’s a lot of dust.
Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner, as well as, the short story collection Way Up. Her work has won the Sidney Prize, a Danuta Gleed Award and been nominated for CBC Canada Reads, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, The Toronto Book Award, and the ReLit Prize. Kuitenbrouwer’s recent work has been published in Granta, The Walrus, 7X7 LA, Joyland, Maclean’s, and Storyville. She holds a Ph.D from The University of Toronto and is visiting faculty at Colorado College.