First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2008.
By Katherine Bailey
By Katherine Bailey
The winning story from Bookshop Santa Cruz's
6th annual Short Story Contest
There are months that are unfamiliar, months that pass quickly each year, like strangers on the street that leave no print upon your memory. No births or deaths or holidays, nothing to tie around your finger, nothing to keep it from slipping away. January used to be that way for me; I never remembered anything about it, except the New Year, the first few seconds of the year born in a cascade of fireworks and drunk promise, which promptly fizzled into 30 days of winter, a bare transparent wind.
I know January now, I have met it in the worst way. I have shook its frosty hand and gathered up its days, strung them onto a piece of thread and tied them around my neck. Every night I count off the beads, twisting them between my fingertips. I measure everything by its distance to January; it is the point towards which my life rises and falls.
When I was a little girl, I realized that everyone must have a death day as well as a birthday, buried somewhere in the year like a land mine, which they stepped blithely over once a year. For awhile I became obsessed with this idea, and every morning when I work I wondered, is this it? I ached for some sort of sign, a red X appearing miraculously on the calendar. It was not knowing that was maddening. How could anyone live this way?
His day was in January, all that time. I try to think about what we did on that day the year before, but there's nothing to remember. An empty white box.
Now it's nearing January again, and I've been thinking a lot about the future, and if it really exists. Growing up, people spoke of my future in grand gestures—the daughter of a concert pianist and a famous academic, how could those genes go wrong?—and all of this potential coalesced into a glittering foreign country for which I would one day obtain a passport. The problem was, I could never learn the language or how to count the currency. My life became a series of culture shocks. My parents looked at me as if I were a symbol for which they could find no meaning. I had lost my anchor, and there was nothing that was mine. My future wasn't a country after all; it was a black hole, sucking me towards its scalding center. Until he pulled me back.
From the day I met him he became my home; the first time he put his arms around me the world dove away from our feet, leaving us suspended in our own private atmosphere. There was no need to translate ourselves to each other; we were so matched that we exchanged words through our skin. There was nothing in the world we couldn't do, even if all we wanted was to lie in bed for days and write haiku on each other with ball point pens. He taught me to cook and how to grow a garden on a windowsill; I positioned his fingers on my guitar until he could play his favorite songs, and bought him books of poems that he copied onto our windows. He sketched me while I slept and hung these portraits on the wall, transforming me into a creature of divinity, someone worthy of an altar. It was a serenity I had never known, a secret place, off the map, where every day was as balmy and calm as twilight.
But what I didn't understand about twilight is the time that precedes it. Twilight taught me that nothing is certain, nothing lasts. His happiness, which had seemed as steady as pavement, became something scarce and insubstantial, a twist of steam. It happened as fast as the flash of a bomb, the trigger coded somewhere deep in his DNA; I was left with whiplash, shrapnel in my eyes, helpless in the face of his hell. He stared out windows, trying to scry his reflection, but the glass turned black. He drank. He burned his drawings and wept into his hands, smearing his face with charcoal. I touched him and his muscles jerked reflexively away; I played for him and he developed headaches. He went on long walks, and when he returned he looked at me as if I were a stranger who had slipped in through a broken window while he was gone. And then on January 31st, he swallowed a fifth of vodka and jumped.
I still wonder where he went. His future was January, a sixth story roof, two words scrawled on blank paper. A place I cannot go. The problem, as I now see it, is that there isn't one inevitable destination. There are millions, and we walk towards them blindly; our only destiny is the place where we drop, that single hidden day.
If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her that the future is a solar system full of planets. Some are small and some are large, some are swathed in soft, pearly gases or encircled ringed in light, and some are arid, littered with rock and broken bones. I would tell her to visit as many as possible, but never stay; to linger only long enough to collect a stamp on her passport and catch a sunset. I would tell her to never search for a home, but to make her ship her motherland, and to be careful who she let aboard. I would caution her not to try to count the stars, but just let them sparkle on her eyes. I would tell her to ignore the passing of days. And finally, I would write his name on a piece of paper, fold it into a square and slip it into her pocket, a talisman against pain, and make her promise to memorize it, to carry it with her everywhere.
I still think about my day, and where it falls in the long narrow year; it is the only thing in the world that I know is certain. I will not go looking for it, because I am a coward, and there are worlds I want to see. But late at night, when I'm counting off those days I used to ignore, I think about the world he dove into, and what it looks like, if there's water there, deep still pools where he might finally see himself reflected clearly. I wonder what mine looks like, and if I'll know it when I see it, and then sleep creeps up behind me like a warm flood and sinks me. In the morning I wake up and wonder.