The Art of Simplicity

The bathroom fan was loud enough that you could hear it from where I was: still laying in bed, trying to shake off the anxiety I’d been carrying for days. The buzzing sound made me shiver, even though I was fully clothed under the duvet. He was awake and it was definitely time for me to get up. My head was aching with the need for morning coffee as I drug my feet across the carpet. He used to make me a pot before he left, but the buzzing of the fan had stopped and he was already out the door on his way to work by the time I wiped the crust from my eyes.

It had been months since I’d tried to make him love me again. I had stopped completely. As the fall turned to winter, my focus had turned onto myself, submerging myself into work and taking classes. Things I excelled at, things I felt rewarded for putting effort into, things I never had to be suspicious about. You put the work in, you get a good grade- simple as that. And that was what I desperately needed: simplicity.

With this in mind, I rose and dressed myself in neutral colors. Simple. I let my hair bounce down against my chin. Simple. I decided not to put on any makeup. Simple. Okay, I decided to put on a little makeup. I was still a girl that cared how she looked. Simple enough.

Alex had noticed I’d been putting on makeup the last couple of weeks. When he asked, I brushed him off with “I want to look nice at school- it makes me a better student.”

This was halfway true. The other half of the truth was that I wanted to feel somewhat seductive while making bedroom eyes at my English professor. Realistically, given the opportunity, I don’t believe I would cheat on my boyfriend. But Alex, a chronic cheater who had been the source of many devastating blows to our relationship, always had his radar on full blast and always made it a point to accuse me of the worst. This had become an almost daily occurrence that often ended with me storming off to someplace quiet like a library or a theatre and writing until my hand cramped before I returned solemnly to the home we shared and crawled into a bed that felt usually much too crowded. And since I’d started taking this English class, the crowdedness loomed over me like a willow tree over an innocent picnicker. Well, maybe not quite innocent.

The drive to campus was so heavy and full of thought, I only realized once I’d made it to the parking lot that I’d never turned on the stereo. Instead, the same quote had been on repeat in my head:

“Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.” – Emily Dickinson

These were the words written on the whiteboard on the first day of class in Ethan’s classroom. Love is immortality. I sighed, remembering that day. It was not love at first sight- I’m not even sure such a thing exists. No, he was average. Average height, average weight, even his hair color lied between blonde and brunette in a way that was less than extraordinary. He was extraordinarily average. He was not the kind of man you’d find in the ads of a magazine or modeling for the cover of a book. He was the kind of man whose words you’d find inside delicately printed onto the pages, filling the blank spaces of the paper and filling the blank spaces of your mind. I could think of a few other spaces he could fill for me. Cue the fantasies. Blood rushed to my face and warmed me as I walked through the frigid winter air to class.

I slid through the doorway as a swift wind caught my back and pushed me forward, slamming the door behind me. A few eyes glanced up at my not-so-graceful entrance and I pulled my bag up to climb the stairs. I always sat in the direct center of the risers. I had read somewhere that teachers are least likely to pay attention to students in this part of the seating arrangement, so at least in the beginning, I figured if I sat here and Ethan paid me any mind, then I might be worth noticing. It didn’t take long before my writing style and overwhelming effort in his class became noteworthy enough and I realized I didn’t actually have to try to be noticed. After a while, this had just become my spot and my passion for literature got me the attention I so craved.

Ethan sat on the far side of room reading from his computer screen. He had reiterated to us throughout the quarter that the best writers are those who read often. Not necessarily books, but anything, really. Reading a billboard, even, initiates enough creative thought to prompt the writing process. I admired him for reading whatever he was reading. It was easy to admire him but less easy to be polite about it. I stared at him for six minutes or so as he ran his fingers across his mouse pad, wishing to feel the same gentle touch across my body. Cue more fantasies.

Unable are the loved to die. The terrible thing was, Dickinson’s poem neither referred to being in love with someone who returned the feelings or unrequited love, but just love in general. Generalized love, if there is such a thing. And I could hardly call it generalized with the way it ran like blood through my veins and captivated every part of me. I innately knew that this was the kind of thing people write stories about. And I had no easy way of following through. With so much to still work out with Alex, I instead choked down the feelings as much as I could, but I was sure that, if Dickinson was right, Ethan was going to live forever. Simple.

An Open Letter to My Barista

 

Dear Barista Girl,

I usually get home at 6:30 in the morning, tiptoeing from my SUV to my front door with my duffel bag and a coffee in hand. My neighbors all think I work the night shift. I do work the night shift. I also work the day shift. Sometimes I work 48 hours in a row. After that, I lose count.

You see, I live a double life. I am half emergency room technician, half firefighter. Often times I get off one 12-hour shift to go straight to another. Occasionally, I get to go home and sleep in the bed that I paid for. And sometimes, I stop for coffee in between. This morning, you were my barista.

There are some things nobody should ever have to see. I have seen a lot of them. Especially for someone who is less than a quarter-century old. I don’t talk about it often because there are still people who have seen far more than I have and the ones that haven’t don’t need to carry my burdens. But I’ve seen it. Husbands having heart attacks in the hospital room down the hall from where their wives died a month ago. Babies born fully intact, but too early to live. People so smashed in their cars that you can’t identify what body parts are what. Little kids not breathing with self-inflicted bruises around their necks. Gunshot wounds, chainsaw wounds, rabid animal bites… Between my two jobs, I perform CPR on someone roughly once a week. Some people like to throw out words like “hero” and “brave” and “strong,” but I am just another broken human drifting around the shadows of the world trying to keep other people afloat.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my jobs. I love them the same way you love yours. I just have days that make me feel the same way Frappy Hour makes you feel.

And I am tired. I am so tired. And my coworkers are so tired. And you… you are exorbitantly and wonderfully caffeinated. And this morning, as I sauntered into your workplace in a uniform that included red eyes, smoke-filled hair, saliva dried to the corners of my lips, and a mind filled heavy with replays of last night’s calls, I barely heard you cheerfully thank me for my service.

You looked so confused when I, very seriously, returned the thanks. So let me explain, Barista Girl. You are my hero. In this moment and in every moment in which my performance relies solely on how much coffee I’ve had that day. I believe just about every emergency responder will agree that you make a difference in the world so deep and you don’t even notice.

You fill our cups with the magic stuff that wakes us up, keeps us alert, and helps us work efficiently. You fill our cups after the 3am calls that didn’t turn out so great and help us wash down what we don’t want to remember. You fill our cups in the evening before drills where we practice over and over again so if we haven’t had our coffee before the real thing, our muscle memory will hopefully carry us through.

And I notice you. I know you’re on your feet all day trying to please the unpleasable. I know the smells of work follow you home and your apron has a permanent place in your passenger seat. I know you are probably overworked and, despite the number of espresso shots you sneak between customers, you go home tired just like the rest of us. But gosh, Barista Girl, with your unending smiles and wishful thinking and overall positivity, you just mean so much to me.

You are responsible for keeping the rest of us going. And that is a responsibility I can’t even fathom.

So I thank you for your service, Barista Girl. And my patients thank you for mine.

Breathing Fire

 

I was pacing in front of her, not knowing what to say. I wanted the floor to creak for dramatic effect when I walked around this house, but it never did. This house was well-kept and well-built and well…. Amazing. The wide-open spaces were enclosed by towering walls, which often made it feel like I was falling into a black hole. It wasn’t, like, a mansion or anything, but it was a pretty big place to be. It had been winterized a few months ago, so the cold nipped at my ears the way cats nip at unwanted touch and the darkness was blinding by the time I got home from school. I couldn’t open the curtains during the daylight anyway, for fear of being caught. Every now and then, the shadows would betray me and I would slip on the stairs. It started to make me nervous to walk around at in the pitch black. On days when I was having a particularly intense bout of unease, I often wouldn’t move much at all. So that, combined with my generalized anxiety disorder, combined with the bitter cold, combined with the expensive curtains and fancy, unoccupied furniture made this place really creepy. But the floors never creaked. Someone was really lucky to live here, but it wasn’t me.

She sat cross-legged at the dining room table, under a chandelier the size of an exercise ball, wide-eyed and lips closed tight. Her hands were clasped and her glasses sparkled in what little light peaked through the blinds.

“Who told you I was here?”

She paused before speaking earnestly, “No one told me anything.”

“What?”

“I mean I saw you walking and I followed you. You turned left on Mason Street and then left on 43rd, which didn’t make sense. I’m honestly surprised I managed to keep up- you changed routes and paces at LEAST six times.” She said this as if I had annoyed her on purpose with my attempts to avoid being followed.

I took a deep breath, “Signe, you shouldn’t be here.” The air between us began to thicken. Our eyes narrowed and you could hear somebody shouting outside from down the street. The discomfort was nearly palpable.

“No, no, no. YOU shouldn’t be here. I have every right to be here that you have. Which is literally none.”

It didn’t take genius to know she was right. She was always right. I couldn’t tell her that, though. Signe was a brilliant girl, but she already knew it.

The shouting outside grew louder, more intense, as somebody with a deeply masculine voice came closer to where we were hiding. Signe and I were quiet, listening. You couldn’t make out the words they were yelling, but you could hear the desperation like a deafening blast as the voice cracked with every cry. I could almost swear I’d heard that voice many times before.

Almost simultaneously, Signe and I came to the same terrifying realization: the desperation was for her. She shot up from the intricately designed, velvet-lined chair and marched, panicked, to the front door.

Without a word, my wide-eyed girlfriend threw it open with full force. For the first time, I saw what the entryway looked like in daylight.

“Jadon!” Signe called.

The curtains felt foreign between my fingers as I gently pinched them back just enough to peak through. People had already come outside their homes to investigate the yelling. Here I was, illegally camping out in suburbia while Signe and Jadon were making my hiding place the center of attention.

Jadon’s howls became muffled yelps as Signe took him into her arms, like a mother comforting her child. Signe’s brother was two years older and towered at least eight inches over her, an uncommon trait for someone with Down Syndrome. He did, however, exclaim my name as he recognized my eye peaking through the window.

“Aleks-ss-ss-ss-sander!” he stuttered excitedly.

Jadon was one of the few people that always remembered to use my chosen name. I’d only told him once to call me Aleksander and for him, unlike my family and, well, almost everyone else, once was enough. I’d grown to have a really soft spot for him. But right now, he was blowing my cover.

As she comforted him, Signe glanced at me apologetically. Her hair blew unmistakably fiery in the breezy sunset, giving her a look of danger that she would otherwise be rid of. She was a forest fire crackling with wit, balance, and focus. And I was merely a barren tree standing in her way.

I swallowed hard as a stern-looking woman wearing an expensive-looking suit glided toward Jadon and Signe. She looked exactly like the kind of person who would live in this neighborhood: rich, confident, and dressed to the nines. She probably used Ben Franklin’s to stuff her bun. I was tempted to run out between her and Signe, inevitably revealing myself to everyone watching, but to my surprise, she marched past them and up to the patio.

“Is everything okay in there?” she whispered in a heavy English accent through the cracked-open door without turning to look at me.

I remained silent, so she continued on, “I’ve been watching and I just want to make sure you’re alright. Do you need some food?”

She then craned her neck to face me, and then away from me, and then back toward me, pretending not to see me. I nodded. The woman pulled herself back onto the patio, shut the door, and turned to walk away.

“All clear!” She stated loudly enough for the concerned neighbors to hear.

Relief flowed over my face and I sank silently to the floor. I didn’t get up to lock the door. I didn’t pinch back the curtain to watch Signe and Jadon walk away. I didn’t move from that spot on the floor. I didn’t move, that is, until a knock woke me up many hours later.

My parents kicked me out shortly before my eighteenth birthday. A combination of coming out to them as a lesbian and then coming out as a transman two years afterward forced them to question their Catholic beliefs and, contrary to my hopes, it ended up being easier for them to abandon me than “abandon God.” Like most teenagers who are kicked out by their parents, I didn’t have anywhere to go and I didn’t have any money. My twin brother had a friend whose parents owned a vacation home on the other side of town, so the two of them graciously helped me break in and begin my life as a squatter. Admittedly, I don’t know how I feel about being labeled a “squatter,” even though I know that’s what I am in society. And in the bathroom. I don’t know how I feel about the second one, either.

Out of habit, I peaked through the curtains before creaking open the door. It was her: the neighbor from earlier, this time in silk pajamas and cat-eye glasses. Even dressed for comfort, she appeared unmistakably sophisticated. She entered with a silent prowess that demanded respect, immediately handed me a granola bar, and began gathering my belongings, which had been strewn about the living room, dining room, bathroom, and kitchen. After a few too many accidents on the stairs, I had confined myself to the lower level.

I tackled the bathroom first, figuring she wouldn’t enjoy laying hands on my personal products, but she was there within seconds helping me gather up syringes like it was no big deal. The last thing I needed was the lady who was apparently trying to help me to find out about my trans status.

Despite my internal panic, she never glanced twice at the tiny bottles labeled “Depo-Testosterone,” but instead delicately placed them back in their boxes and into my duffel bag. After a few lookovers to make sure we had everything, I attempted to replicate her soft steps as we headed out the door.

“Isabelle,” she introduced herself once we had stepped over the threshold to her home. I’d almost forgotten her accent.

“Uh, I’m Sander. I’m, uh… I’m diabetic,” I knew as the words exited my mouth that I was trying too hard to explain the syringes.

“Right.”

It was too late. She knew.

“Okay, I’m not diabetic.”

“I know.”

Yeah, she definitely knew.

Though her walls were lined thick with bookshelves, her home was just as dark and gaudy as the one I’d been in three minutes prior. I was not thrilled about the scenery, but there was a certain kind of peace that came with being somewhere I was allowed to be.

“What time is it? I have to be at school by seven thirty,” I desperately attempted to change the subject.

“You may as well stay up, then,” Isabelle nodded her pointed nose toward an antique clock sitting on the mantle as set down my bags. Between the reflection on her lenses glaring at me and the radiance of the fireplace, the room was flickering so deeply orange it was impossible to tell the true color of her wallpaper. The clock, on the other hand, indubitably read 6:35AM.

Within weeks, I had a safe haven. It was easy for me to empathize with this (incredibly intimidating) woman living alone in such a huge house, so I didn’t mind keeping her company. It was common for us to have dinner together, read together, and go for walks together. There were sometimes even moments I would keep from Signe, afraid she might feel threatened by my new, totally platonic, friendship. I knew Isabelle and I shared a special camaraderie, but it was nothing for Signe to become jealous of.

“Sander, come here!” Isabelle called one night from her bedroom. She was sitting against her headboard with a book in her lap. Her face softened under the glow of a candle. She was an undeniably sexy woman, for someone who looked so much like an angry librarian.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“Will you lay with me for a bit? My sheets are a little cold,” she said, patting the flat space next to her.

I shuffled over to her bed and clumsily fell into the blankets, which felt perfectly warm to me. This was not the first time she’d used this excuse. Isabelle turned on her side, smirking at me with a devious confidence while slickly intertwining her legs with mine. Her skin was soft against me, but shivers of discomfort still raced down my neck. Her gorgeously striking face and perfect curves could never hold a candle to the wildfire that was my girlfriend. But Isabelle had warned that if I ever pulled away, she would surely kick me out and feed me to the wolves. I was, once again, a prisoner of my own life with no way out.

She blew out the candle. This was one of those nights Signe would never find out about.

The Performer

“No, mom, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Tina’s voice was soft and unsure.

“No one is going to find out, Tina. We are covering our asses and it’s working. I don’t know how, but it’s working. And I’m not about to let you jeopardize that.”

I stood in the hallway, unsure of what I had just overheard. Karen, Tina’s mother, had always seemed genuine to me. It was startling to hear her speak this way for two reasons: 1) it meant she had done something terrible and 2) it meant my ability to read people wasn’t functioning as acutely as I’d always thought. You see, I was an expert on lying. I had fraudulently passed polygraphs just to be here. And here I was, a internationally-known criminal, lying to the faces of federal law enforcement officers and wanted by Interpol, only to be lied to myself. How could I not have known?

 


 

Three months ago, I sat in a telephone booth in France, waiting for a rainstorm to pass. With nowhere else to go and fearing I would run out of warmth before rain, I picked up the phone, put on my best adult voice (my natural voice, I suppose) and dialed the French police.

“Police. What is your emergency?”

“Hello, my wife and I are tourists here and we just found a kid…

“Thank you, sir. Can you tell me what he looks like?”

“I’m not totally sure, since he’s wearing a hoodie. He speaks English, probably around sixteen years old. He seems really scared and says he doesn’t have any identification. I think you need to come help him.”

“Thank you, sir. There are officers on their way.”

Within minutes, I was warm and dry, in the back of a police car, and on my way to somewhere with a hot meal for my consumption. The way I saw things, this was the only way for me to survive- mostly in the needs-based way, but also in the wants-based way. When you are a homeless adult, nobody gives a shit about you. But when you are a homeless child, there is suddenly love to give. Love I wanted.
The office they kept me in for questioning reminded me of Law and Order. Clean, but not too clean. Books were stacked behind a desk covered in neatly stacked paperwork. There was one of those little name plates on the edge of it reading “Aide Sociale a l’Efance” and I had a sneaking suspicion I’d made it into the Department of Child Welfare and Protection. A female officer strode through the doorway staring at me with deep concern. I slumped in my chair, with my hood still over my head, frowning down at me feet. If I was going to be a teenager, I needed to act like a teenager.

She asked me for my name for fifteen minutes before threatening to finger print me. Alright, she didn’t MEAN to threaten me. But when you are wanted by Interpol and someone says “if you don’t tell us your name, we are going to put your prints through the system,” it sure sounds like a threat. So I did what anyone in my situation would do: I lied.

“Okay,” I said quietly, “I will tell you who I am. I’ve been going by Beau and I’m from the States. I was abducted three or four years ago. Please…. I’m scared…. I just want to go home.”

“Alright, Beau. Stay calm. We are going to help you,” she spoke with the kind of concern that could only mean that she herself was a mother. If I was going to succeed, I needed to use this to my advantage.

“I just want to talk to my mom… in private… Please. Just leave me here in your office and I will call her,” I pleaded.

“There is a big time difference between France and the United States, Beau. I would have to leave you here until morning,” she said.

“Is…. Is there any way I can stay?” I peered up at her innocently. We locked eyes and I immediately knew her answer. I was playing my part well.

After taking a long overdue nap, I shuffled through the books in her desk. The lights in the hall were off, but I knew security must be patrolling the halls periodically and there were cameras in every corner. As much as I wanted to run away from this, I couldn’t. A good feeling had washed over me, anyway, after she had agreed to let me stay in her office. My odds weren’t great, but there was definitely a chance I could get away with this. So I shuffled through the books in her desk and came across the perfect resource: United States Center for Missing and Exploited Children. There was a phone number on the inside cover.

Six days later I was boarding a plane with Tina. Somehow, over the phone, I had managed to convince the woman at the US Center for Missing Children that I was a police officer in France. Then, I convinced the French police that I was Daniel Walker. And then I convinced a judge to let me go “back” to the United States. Because I am a minor, or at least everyone thinks I am, I had to have an escort. So then, Tina showed up, took one look at me, and was already so convinced that I was her brother, even I was surprised. Everyone else’s certainty had been so solid and overwhelming, that she didn’t even second-guess it. Even I started to believe I could be Daniel… but I wasn’t…. at all. I was just trying to survive and this was the only way I knew worked… at least, until now.

 


 

Tina’s shadow shifted as I stood silently against the wall of the hall closet. I had spent my whole life running and hiding, so you wouldn’t think this was so bad, but it was. It was really, really bad.

“The FBI might find out what we did to Daniel, mom. And if we let this guy go in for this interview, we are just going to let it happen. Can’t we deny their interview request?” Tina sounded desperate.

“Honey, it’s the FBI. You can’t deny something like that. But if we just pretend to be clueless, what’s the harm? For all they know, we’re just the innocent, traumatized family of a missing child who got taken advantage of by a con artist.”

There was a knock on the door. They were here to collect me. Karen and Tina’s footsteps marched solidly down the hallway and to the front to answer it, at which point, I crawled out of the closet, shaking. My body was thinking faster than my brain and, fearing for my life, I was suddenly running, full sprint, to the door as it opened.

I knew how to run- I’d been running my entire life, but this time was different. For the first time ever, I was running TO the police and I had never felt this sense of safety in a sprint before. Fireworks went off in my head, I’m sure from excitement. Only they weren’t fireworks… and they weren’t in my head. I suddenly fell to the floor, my entire body numb. The officer, who I recognized from the last visit, looked down at me with his jaw slack and eyes wide, while his partner requested aid over the radio, “Oh my God! I’m so sorry kiddo- you just can’t- SO sorry, but you can’t run at an officer like that! I thought you were armed, oh my God.”

“My name…,” I started.

“Yes, Daniel. I know your name. Just try to keep still. The paramedics should be here soon. Just stay with me, Daniel,” replied the panicked officer, placing his gloved hands over my wound. It stung at his touch, but was less painful than I ever imagined a gunshot wound would be.

“No…. my name is Frederic.”

In Limbo

My journal slid off my chest and hit the floor by my hand. I had apparently been sleeping. Well, sort of. I suppose dead people can’t really “sleep” in the traditional sense of the word. Yet here I am, with bloodshot eyes and drool gelling to the corners of my mouth trying to figure out why I’m stuck in Limbo. I won’t lie, I don’t really know what or where Limbo is or I would obviously tell you. It isn’t really a place, I guess, but a state of being somewhere between alive and dead. Other than that, you’re still pretty much functioning the same way you were before, minus eating, pooping, and interacting with living people. I have to admit, I miss the first one the most.

Shortly after I died, I saw my grandpa. Apparently, there’s a theory some folks have about Limbo. Basically, for someone to die completely, two things have to happen: 1) You have to leave your body. By “you” I mean all of your thoughts, memories, feelings- anything stored up in that brain has to be released so your brain can become a pile of dry, shriveled tissue. 2) Someone has to say your name for the last time ever. Obviously this step takes a little bit more time. The average is about fifty years. People like Michelangelo, Einstein, Ghandi… yeah, those guys will probably never leave Limbo. But for someone like me… well, it really doesn’t make much sense why I’m still here.

I carry my journal around religiously. I’d been writing in it shortly before the accident that killed me and for some reason I was able to retrieve it. I suspect it was such an ingrained part of my being that it was allowed to come with me. I can’t rewrite, erase, or add anything in it, though. That would change my life history and, since I’m not technically alive anymore, physics would never allow it. Physics DOES allow for my still-very-real journal hitting the floor to make a very-real sound in the natural world. I found this out the hard way the day after I died. So, this poses a problem if I drop it with people around. Luckily, over the last 86 years of being dead, I’ve gotten pretty good at sleeping in places where I won’t get noticed. For example, this morning I woke up under an exit sign in the Smithsonian before opening. Yeah, I’m pretty much living the life.

There were photos and replicas on display everywhere, since, you know, it’s a museum. As I sat up and peered around to make sure no one had heard, my eyes met one exceptionally large display with a bunch of extinct species of fish. I smiled to myself at the thought of swimming with these ginormous monsters. I could only think of one person who would have the balls to do such a thing: Carter. He was my driver the night we crashed. In fact, his fascination with fish was partly the reason he got gangrene and lost his leg. Which was the reason he has a prosthetic leg. Which was the reason he crashed the truck. I frowned at the fish.

One of the things they don’t tell you when you sign up to be a firefighter is that you will probably not die a hero. You probably won’t even die from cancer. The most likely causes of death for a firefighter are a) off-duty heart attacks and b) car accidents. We had landed the engine on its passenger side, so Carter was alright. On the other hand, my neck had been snapped from the impact of hitting the window and then smashed in by the fallen radio and computer systems that rode in between us. The bogus part is that our accident was on the way back from a call. We didn’t even have lights and sirens going. My death was a total dud.

As I was squinting up at my makeshift nightlight gleaming “EXIT”, there was whistling. It was pleasant, old-man whistling coming from the cardigan-wearing custodian at the end of the hall. I’d seen him a few times since I started coming here to find out how to leave Limbo. If my grandpa is right, then I’m only waiting on someone to say my name for the last time. I reached down to feel around for my journal. After 86 years, I can’t shake the feeling that that “someone” lied in its pages. My fingers ran back and forth over the tile floor- my journal had disappeared. I shot up at the sight of the custodian holding it over the trashcan.

“Tallie Woods.” He said to himself.

Everything went black.