CHERRIES FOR ROXANNA
BY CHRISTINA QIU
Harvard University, ’19
2015 Adroit Prize for Prose: Honorable Mention
[THE DEVIL’S PIE]
Mary spits her cherry pit on the dirt next to my foot. Mine missed the trash by an inch. Wind cold as a hard tit only when our legs show their faces. They got minds of their own. Hers are bare as a virgin’s. Don’t need a face, they make boys come. I got my eyelashes only the shy ones like. Rest of me’s undone. We went to the StopNShop and bought the cherries she’d been craving for. Yellow’s sick as day, but black-red’s tasty as night. Sunk our teeth in so the skin popped open and the sweet flesh split our tongues. Spit pits the entire way back. Missed the trash cans every time. Watched them bounce off like a fizz. Mary couldn’t take her head off the jazz. Talked about it the whole way back from the StopNShop. Tripped on a stone and landed on my shoulder.
“Gotta stop wearing those shoes everywhere,” I say. “Three inches won’t do nothing to you but trouble.”
“Nah. I’ll die for them.”
“You’ll die for the wrong things.”
“God little fucker why do you have to be so serious?” she says. She puts her hand in mine, humming something sweet under her breath.
“What’s the song?”
“Something I made up.” She digs her nails into my hand, like she’s feeling for something resting in my knuckles.
“What’s it go like?”
“Come on closer, I’ll say the lyrics to you,” she says. I lean down so her breath hits my ear like rain. Gotta get a touch of Midas / Caught up chilling with the righteous / Roxanna told me my fate / I told her too late. Bites my ear afterwards and bounces back giggling.
“God, girl, you’re trouble.”
“Me?” she asks. “Me? What am I doing to you?”
“Nothing. Don’t fuck with the ghosts,” I say. She laughs. Wind isn’t touching us right today, makes us move back and forth and side to side like the green leaves on the trees. I clip my hand back into hers while the wind knocks us against each other. She offers a cherry with the other and I take it tooth first like a child. Her finger’s tangled on my shoulder while I’m chewing. Lets me spit the pit right in her palm and holds it, in the soft light of the streetlamp, like it’s something precious.
[IN THIS SPINNING SPHERE]
When the day’s thick as skin, I go out, knock on Mary’s door, hitch on some shoes that hold my feet right, and walk around. You’d never think of Madison like this, and more often than not, it bustles like a ghost town, no barber-shop curtains drawn like a smile, no voices from the Mediterranean restaurant down the street, no kids catching their breaths. Today, the air’s humid with something heavy. You could hold it under your tongue. It must be something in the trees. The morning tickles them like a whistle. You wouldn’t believe how quiet this routine can be or how a little bit of buzz can mess with your sight.
Mary works at the jazz club that pumps trumpets at night but makes up itself like all the other cafes in the day. It sits on the corner block like a lover and sounds like one too. The menu: toast thinner than your foot, white cream on belly-black coffee. A smile from the waiter, a wave from the manager. A red tablecloth, a tickling sun in Madison. Slant-eyed boys that match the dinner menu, couples too old to impress each other. Mary leaves shifts some nights bolting out the doors like life until the jazz club’s out of sight and even the moaning saxophones are covered with Drew’s trees. Her explanation: sometimes jazz smells so sweet you gotta leave, wash all the sugar down with some quick smog.
This was early spring and now it’s the dead of it, when the warm is enough and you wake up aching for a shiver, just to remind yourself it exists. Mary and I slip onto a bench, careful not to touch each other even halfway because she trembles in her heels like she’d tumble down if you tried to blow a kiss in her direction. I once walked with her to the movie theater at midnight and she fell right on her knee and the skin peeled off in a perfect circle next to it. We watched it on the road, sick next the lamps. A car honked by and rolled over it. Mary chased the car all the way down to the Walgreens, laughing so hard she started weeping. Dude ran off with my skin and he honked! Saw that Janet? He fucking honked! Didn’t know fuckers like that existed! We laughed skinny down the street, screaming whatever we could think of, safe because the streets were bare as a melody. By the time we came back to the dorm, the front of her left shin was crying a river that I tried to stop with paper towels while her throat was still a laugh bleeding to tears. Get a bandaid Janet you hear? I swear, you’re trying to give me an infection. Never saw a circle so perfect when it ended, like God took a bite out of her knee, red, raw and right.
We slip onto the bench and I bite the pink around my nails until it’s clear while Mary stares up at the clouds, pretending she doesn’t have something on her mind. “Hey Janet, got any plans for today?”
“Nothing. You got work?”
“Not till five.” She rubs her eyes. “What about you come up with something for us to do while I count to ten.”
She doesn’t count and I don’t think, until she slams the edge of her heel against the meat of my foot. “Spit. Time’s up.”
“Goddamn it. Tell me before you do that again.” She laughs and points her nose to the clouds.
“It wouldn’t be fun that way.”
“Pure psycho or socio.”
“So what are we doing today Janet?”
“Stealing all the sex magazines in the Walgreens.”
“Shut up, you think we could pull that off?”
“You know Madison police. Probably will think we got high on math problems, or wandered to the wrong side of the store because we can’t read cosmetic from intimate. What harm have two yellow girls ever done?”
“Your racism bullshit is offensive at worst and optimistic at best. I don’t want to be caught with all those women in thongs like a bunch of virgins.”
Later, I’m walking behind Mary and watching her heel slap the pavement fish-like, her hair glittering scale-blue in the sun, shifting close enough to kiss. We walk with full intention, but when we come out, she’s slapped out a twenty dollar bill and gives it to Stan who won’t look at us, tells him to keep the change, and giddies out the store, her legs brushing against the air breathless. You see, time doesn’t exist once or away from us, which may be another man’s epiphany. But me, I make a fist and watch it shiver, wishing I were more innocuous, but to me, nothing’s ever come naturally, not even love.
[THIS BED I MADE]
It’s too hot to stay outside, I’m too in debt for even a scoop of ice cream, and the strangers on the street are avoiding me like a middle finger. Someone is crying a river in the jazz club, and I fix myself tip-toed outside its white sidings. Once I asked Mary if it was a business strategy to hire a girl bartender, and she said I could pin any tail onto any ass and convince myself it fits. I walk in, slide my fingers across the frames of the restaurant’s titles and number ones so they shake like a whisper when I pass through. Mary claims she likes her job, but makes it out more bitter than sweet. What do you get when you bring together terribly fried Chinese food, overpriced jazz, and servile yellow waiters? she asks some nights, slamming her tips onto my desk. Bad tips, grumpy white men, and their sugarbaby girlfriends. The night’s just starting, some people getting their pick of tables, the singer tapping the microphone with his lips, the pianist adjusting the lid.
“How many?” the host asks me.
“Just me. I’ll stay by the bar.” He passes me a wine menu, and I sit down, leaving it unopened. A bartender walks over to me. “Just some tap, please.”
“You know you gotta pay $45 for entertainment even if you’re just here to listen. ” he says.
“Nah, don’t worry. I’m just waiting for someone. I should be out soon. ” He shines a glass cup with a rag and fills it with tap from the sink enveloped by the bottles. “Mary here?” I ask.
“She went out for some air.”
I take a sip. “The demographic breakdown here is sick.” He laughs while I take the whole glass down in one movement.
“No kidding. I work here. It’s like a Republican convention dream.”
“Thanks,” I say, nudging the glass back towards him. “Did Mary go out front or back?”
“Front,” he says. When I get out of the restaurant, under the yellow lights and sing-song sign, I see a flicker of Mary’s hair entering the alleyway like a tease, and then, nothing, except the click of her heels that dissipate against the rest within seconds. I lean my back against the bricks and balance on my toes, watch the biggest crowd of kids I’ve ever seen make their way out of McCool’s, a runt holding open the door while the rest march out one by one like falling baby teeth. Four scoops of orange sherbet with mint ice cream? Kid, it looks like a moldy fuckin volcano while the boy piles it on his spoon, gulps it big in his mouth, and smiles green and orange. The rain falls short, without a tap on the shoulder for warning. Then it pounds. I watch them melt, throw their cups in the garbage, and race on into the shadows. Some say the cardboard tree cutouts ward off the cemetery when the rain makes the dirt flexible. When I pass by Mead Hall, I can’t tell whether I’m crying or the rain’s soaked the bone out of my eyes, but there’s a window in Mead with a flickering light so brilliant it chills like a long-forgotten lullaby, a tongue at the neck. I almost see a woman. It makes me trip.
[WHY ASK WHY]
“It’s funny, right?” Mary says to me on the phone while I’m standing across the vending machine, the Doritos I clicked for struck halfway in its fall. I hit the plastic glass with my hip, which does nothing but flips the black back of the machine against the wall. “How the story changes. A year ago, during my visit, they said she killed herself because a boy stood her up. Doc swears it’s Roxanna, but I just saw some tour guide walk past, and after those protests at Columbia, all of a sudden, girl got raped by a navy officer and couldn’t live.”
“It’s not real,” I say, muffled. “Just a marketing ploy because Drew looks like the woods and people like to be scared shitless sometimes, or at least, live in the possibility.”
“But still, can’t they stick to one story?”
“You know, in the tours, it shifts buildings. Sometimes Seminary, sometimes Mead, sometimes, I don’t even know, Riker? A dorm? It’s not real. No one can keep it straight. All people know is that Rutgers don’t have ghosts, and you know, one’s bound to be at Drew.” I kick the side with my knee.
“What if I told you I saw one?”
I laugh. “Oh really.”
“You wouldn’t believe it.”
“You see, that’s the type of person you are. You won’t believe anything, feel anything, love anything, until you see it.”
“Hey, come on. I use a credit card.”
“You’re not listening,” she says. I kick the machine again, now for the effect. “One day you gotta take a risk. Sacrifice yourself for something you don’t know anything about except for this feeling in your gut that it’s true. In your gut, not even in your heart. That’s how you survive. You think that if one australopithecine didn’t follow his gut feeling that there was a saber-tooth tiger stalking him you’d be alive today?”
“Just because I don’t believe in ghosts?”
“No, but you don’t believe in love either. Or anything you can’t place a finger on. You don’t believe in me, even when I’m telling the truth, because you don’t believe in truth without logic. Logic is a construct, but truth is basic.”
“Mary. I’m telling you I don’t believe in ghosts. And let me tell you: a lot of people don’t believe in ghosts.”
“But I’m telling you I saw one, and do you believe me?”
“Sure.” She hangs up. I slam my back against the machine, and slide down, my elbows on my knees. A boy with a laundry basket peeks his head in the poolroom. You’ve been banging on that for hours, he says. I nod. Let me give you a hint. He slides his hand against the back and motions for me to hold the front. Make it tilt a little. That’s all. The bag falls down gracefully, along with a few extras from the top. Bet you didn’t see that coming, he says, smirking. I nod. He takes the bags from the mouth of the machine and places it at my feet. Remember. Tilt, he says, walking up the stairs.
[ASHES TO ASHES]
When I sit cross-legged on a blue bench above the crushed bags and empty bottles, my foot kissing the gray carpet, Mary’s leg shivers against mine. When I watch the leaves fall like snowfall, still green and still willing, Mary is dancing under it and motioning with her neck for me to come, too, away. When I am so small the papers I carry sag on my shoulders, Mary burns them with her gaze, her eyes slick as wood. One day, when I find Ren the waiter staring at me as I walk past the restaurant and I make my hips fluid for him, Mary presses his lips to my neck with the two palms of her hands. When Ren abandons, Mary buys the groceries and lets me spit the cherry pits in her palms. When I want to love but have no place, Mary flings herself in front of me with her pinkie hooked onto her lip. One day, she tells me that she’s softer than cream and pathetic, but when I disagree, she talks about my hardness, how she’s never seen me cry, how she’s never seen my hair wet, how she’s never seen my eyelashes thin, how she’s never seen me dance. Then she tells me I’m hard as a carrot, that people can break their teeth against me and do so willingly. I disagree. I remind her. She disagrees. She tells me she will turn into a ghost and I will turn into a statue, she, with her thin fingers that braid pleats into my hair, her skin that the moon sticks to like a ring, her legs long as her longing. I’ve never seen you dance, and I’ve never seen your blood she repeats, refraining like a plea, and I’ve never seen you bruised, and I’ve never seen you with nothing I can’t fix with my palm. I catch her sweat with my shirt but she shivers away from me. And I’ve never seen you sick, and I’ve never seen you hurt, and Janet, baby, I’ve never seen you wrong.
[DUST TO DUST]
I’m hiding behind the long columns of Mead with its coolness aching against my hands. Mary follows me. “This is where I saw her,” she says. “In this building. I was looking at the chandeliers.”
“Let’s go in then,” I say. “Then I can meet her too.”
“She won’t come.”
“We’ll wait until she does. I’ve got time.” We walk in, taking off our shoes that click when we pass by the President’s office and smiling like bursting flame when we tip toe to the chairs that we’d be able to pile three of ourselves on and to the carpet that’s thicker than lust and we let our giggles bounce but stop when they bounce back. Suddenly, we’re shocked by the bigness, the chandelier dull and the paint pale, and I wonder how the chamber would look if I took enough people and packed them front to back and back to front in the whole hall, how many people it would take and how hot the room would be. We try to find a small place where our whispers won’t sound like screams. We go up the stairs, into the attic where the floor sighs but our whispers stay small. I once, she says, dated a guy who thought he was hard because he cursed and wore a snapback and got a C in math and listened to rap. I laugh, and we mumble to ourselves, the boys rolling past us and dissipating. The one that tried to draw her like the Virgin with Jesus sucking at her tit. The one that taught me how to drive when I was three months too young for my permit. The one that was married. The three named Tim. The gym teacher that tried to take the scarf off her neck. The one that kissed my heel. The one that called out hey sexy to another girl. The one that disappeared. The one that wouldn’t give his name. The one who took twenty mosquito bites for a night with me on a night like this. Me and you, she says, put together, we know a world. I answer no fabrications. Ever loved any of them? No. Hard, she says.
Hours later, we watch the sun dance through the windows until it stops. We listen to the footsteps and voices of the maintenance men until they leave. We sigh when the doors close. She turns on some music that’s slicked funked and jarred and I ask her where it’s from, but she says it doesn’t matter because she didn’t make it up. She starts dancing and I join her, and she laughs at how my elbows move like they’re pushing and how stiff my hips are. I don’t dance much you know, I answer, and she tells me that moving’s a good start. The slickness stops. Soon, we’re jumping and banging, throwing our hair around with no skill whatsoever but our stomachs that are hollowing from the bang of our laugh, wishing we could stay like this, but our hearts beat too quickly and soon we’ve got to slow down, look out the window, and watch how the trees sway when the night’s too dark to see while the hearts beat erratic moving and quickening.
[TILL WE FRY]
I fell asleep with Mary’s toes on my toes but did not see a shape blowing warm or feel a whisper like pepper or even watch a light flicker though you arrived like the last kiss I took to get a touch of us or a look from us and when we ignored you for our breathing you touched the empty part of your throat and sang a note too swift for our ears so we felt the tickle of your velvet brown dress and its blood mahogany lace against our noses but Roxanna, we heard you shift after you touched us, and Roxanna, we heard the footsteps before the bang when the sky fell on our stomachs because you’ve never seen me hurt and you’ve never seen Mary’s hair wet with wilting red streams, Roxanna, I wonder about what you wonder to cut the rod hard and make yourself smile and what, with your wilting form Roxanna, must have magnified to survive without struggle and to be seen without song, Roxanna, do you wilt like Mary’s arm after the hard rod and do you wilt where you aimed at my arm or her back or our necks and do you wilt, Roxanna—
This is how we wake up. Me taking the pole of the attic ceiling from Mary’s stomach and Mary unmoved and gaping at my knee. I ask Mary if she can stand and before Mary’s belly fills her with so much bitter she can barely move I carry her and we run out. And even while Mary’s stuffed in the ambulance truck like you, Roxanna, in your hall, she points no-fingered at my knee. A circle, Janet, she says, look, a perfect circle. Is this the wound you love?
I wait in the halls, where the white is too crisp compared to the attic musk of Roxanna’s cove. Mary rolled into a room on her bed. I wait, and it is the color that I ache for. There is no sign of Mary. The doctor is with her. I think about them, the colors. My skin like silting sand, Mary’s a lighter repetition, and Roxanna’s wine-musky and gone. Mary’s stomach has turned and is turning purple. My knee is lined with a red and raw circle. When I see her, her eyes are open. I walk in.
“Did Roxanna have children?” she asks.
“Three,” I answer.
“Then the ghost isn’t her, and Doc’s wrong.” Mary’s hair is black, black like descent. “Even the flowers have children. Even the sun.” She motions for me to come closer and lets me sit by her bedside. “Let me see your knee.” She presses the outside of the circle with her fingers. “It’s hurt. Your knee’s hurt, and it’s hurt perfect. You can’t even get hurt right.” She trembles and shakes. “But it’s hurt, Janet, it’s hurt, and that means something, doesn’t it?”
“It’s just a knee, Mary. It doesn’t bother me.”
“It’s just a knee, Mary, not a stomach.” I tangle my hand into hers and she sets it loosely by her hip. “It’s not a child. It’s red and not purple. And I’m here, and I’m here.” There are so many things to say, that cling onto the walls but are not formed. It was my pride. It was my cynicism. It was my carelessness. It was my skepticism. I was stupid, wasn’t I? I was contemptuous. I’m wrong. No, Mary, no. I was more wrong. I don’t deserve this. She lets go of my hand and stares at my wilting back in the black window. I don’t I don’t I don’t. When I open my mouth, she slaps her hand against mine. Janet, please, don’t make yourself my thief.
Stopped by the StopNShop for strips of cheese, fresh cucumbers, and a gallon of water. Took out a box of cherries and picked out some skin thin crackers. Slipped cash to the man at the front and held the bags close to my side so its thin skin wouldn’t break. Saw Mary sitting at the front bench of the science building, under a tree, facing the greenhouse. Walked over next to her and kept my pinkie on her shoulder.
“You won’t believe what I just saw,” she says, without looking at me. “Some kid, probably from the summer program or something, just straight walked through the glass and into the building. No preparation or anything. Just straight up walked. Isn’t that crazy?” she asks.
“Ridiculous. There’s probably an opening we don’t know about or something.”
“Right on the cactus patch, over the bushes, and through the glass,” she says. “What do you have?” I open up the bag. She spots the gallon of water. “You got this? All the way from the store? It weighs a ton.”
“Yeah.” She laughs, and gently moves it towards her, screwing open the lid carefully. I watch as her arm quivers when she lifts it up. Then, she places her other hand on the bottom for support and tilts the water over me completely like a kick and laughs at my clothes cold on skin now, tight as a squeal. She giggles. “You know what? I think you look nice like that, with your hair wet.” I shake my head so the tips of my hair flick some spring at her. And you too, I say, smiling so the ground shifts under us, you too.