by Alaina Symanovich
Parallel (Intersecting) Lives
I’m thinking of how people disappear…
I will break up with you first. I will puncture my own skin.
–Lucy Corin, Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls
“The way I remember the difference between ‘dessert’ and ‘desert’,” Ana announced, tossing a translucent swath of blonde hair over her shoulder, “is obviously you want to eat more dessert, so it has two s’s, but you’d never want to be deserted, so it only has one s.
I tried to angle my face so my nose wasn’t downwind from Ana’s morning breath. Ana was mind-bogglingly aggravating. It wasn’t so much her behavior—her haughty asides and wet sneezes and hideously patterned fleeces—but her attitude: she knew the whispers behind her back would dissipate if she’d straighten her hair and wear Limited Too jeans, and that’s exactly why she kept her locks tousled and her clothes gauche.
“Very good, Ana,” Mrs. Lorantas said. She circled dessert’s second s with her green Expo marker. “And, of course, we don’t want to forget that ‘desert’ is not only a homophone; it’s also a homonym. We have desert, the verb, and desert, the noun.”
I hated Ana. Or maybe I didn’t. Ana had made me trust her, tricked me into believing her when she called us “best friends forever.” But apparently “forever” in her book meant “until my dad gets a new job in the Midwest.” And because I couldn’t control Ana’s father’s employment, and because she had duped me with her “forever” talk, I did what any rational person would do: I blacklisted her. She could go live in the stupid one-s desert for all I cared; my policy—and I thought it a wise one—had always been “leave before you get left.”
In the end, Ana’s family didn’t move. We finished fifth grade together and were assigned the same homeroom in sixth, though we were never friends again. Ana couldn’t forgive the way I’d severed our friendship with a 10-blade, and I couldn’t forgive the way she’d toyed with my trust. When her family actually did move, sometime between sixth grade and seventh, all I felt was relief: the searing, ripping-the-Band-Aid-off-after-hours-of-hesitation relief that she’d finally done what she’d threatened to do.
The first December we were together, my girlfriend and I fought in the multicolored glow of our Christmas tree, sob-shouting ourselves hoarse. As the fight wore on, Chloe wrapped her arms around her torso, simultaneously comforting herself and shutting me out. The ornaments we’d bought at Goodwill swiveled on their gold strings.
“I’m going to go to my parents’,” I sniffed, scraping the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand. I absolutely did not want to go to my parents’ house. “I’ll pack a bag.” I absolutely did not want to pack a bag. I didn’t want to do anything except take Chloe’s hand and guide her back to bed. It was past 2:30 in the morning. It was much too late to face the reality of an empty highway, an empty passenger seat, a vortex of wind and gray trees and my own cloying regret.
“No.” Chloe’s voice was suddenly clear, composed. “I’ll go.”
“I can’t be here,” she snapped. “I’ll go to my mom’s or something.”
“You can’t just leave,” I argued, ignoring the fact that I’d threatened to do exactly that. Chloe brushed past me, marched into our bedroom, flicked on the overhead light. Our rumpled teal sheets frowned at me. They didn’t want me crawling into them alone any more than I did.
“I need to get out of here,” Chloe announced, hauling a duffel bag onto the bed. She tossed random shirts into it. “And, clearly, you need to be free of me for a while.”
A fresh wave of tears clobbered me. “Please don’t leave.” My throat cinched the way it always does when I’m overcome with grief. I wanted to say something more—the one shiny, perfect thing that would earn Chloe’s forgiveness—and, for God’s sake, I was a writer, I was in an MFA program, I should’ve been able to conjure something eloquent—but all I could do was close my eyes to the pain. My esophagus was a balloon animal being bent, twisted, pinched.
I heard Chloe pause. “Why are you crying? You’re the one who was about to leave.”
My throat stung. I opened my mouth to try to explain myself, but the only sound that eked out was a wretched, airless grating.
When Chloe touched me, her hands heavy with concern, I lunged into her like a swimmer shooting through the water’s surface. When she held me, I could breathe again. I rested my head against her shoulder and gulped air and wondered if my soul was healing or leaking.
“Why do we study history?” Mrs. Lorantas asked, setting down her Expo marker and clasping her hands together. “Why care about the past?”
As always, Ana’s twig-thin wrist pierced the air. The girl practically rocked with anticipation every time an idea flitted into her head. In a quintessentially Pennsylvanian show of passive aggression, I pinched my lips and hit her with a disapproving glare.
“Because,” Ana shook her lank hair out of her face, “we don’t want to keep making the same mistakes. Something like slavery, or war, is like…it’s like a pit that we fell in before. And if we don’t keep reminding ourselves where the pit is, we’ll fall in it again.”
I felt my lips relax, unspooling like two shaken-out braids. Something about what Ana said made sense to me. Or, rather, it made sense in the vague, two-closed-doors-down way that most things did in childhood: like it was something important, and it was waiting for me, and maybe I’d find it—or maybe I’d abandon it the way I abandoned most things that were challenging.
Lately, the thrum of my blood has been Nevada, Nevada. It’s the beat of my heart and the scuffle of my steps. Until last year, I didn’t understand the lure of the desert, didn’t respect the taunt of an endless sky or the promise of empty space. I thought people who lived in the desert were zany, alien-like, fundamentally different from me. I imagined their lives shrouded in dust, dotted by lonely cacti, replete with rattlesnakes.
I know that Nevada literally means snow-covered, but I like to overlook that fact. I’m from the northeast; snow is neither new nor mysterious to me. Snow is, in fact, dead to me. What I’m concerned with now is dryness, brightness, strangeness. The smell of pavement radiating heat. The buzz of neon. Desert one day, Vegas the next. The only truths I care about are these: Nevada is far, Nevada is new, Nevada is wild, and if I flop my sopping-wet soul onto its sandy streets, maybe I will be redeemed.
Redeemed from what, I don’t know.
On Wednesday, November 3, 2004, our middle-school principal went on the PA system to announce that John Kerry had conceded the presidential election, and that George W. Bush would remain in office for a second term. Of course, we students had already heard the news, but there’d been newscasters talking about a possible recount, about voter suppression and long lines at Ohio polls and malfunctioning punch-card machines. That talk was, I supposed, over.
The news hit Ana especially hard. As the principal’s voice reverberated through our homeroom, she sunk down in her chair, rested her pale forehead on the edge of her desk. I thought she was just being dramatic, that she didn’t realize politics wasn’t something sixth-graders needed to worry about. Politics was for adults to bicker about every four years; it was for angry headlines that our parents read at breakfast and then tossed in the recycle bin. Sixth-graders were supposed to think about things like whether Andy and Shelby would break up, or who had the new iPod Photo, or how stupid it was that the boys were judging our butts (and how jealous we were that McKenzie won “best butt”).
I frowned at Ana. “It’ll be fine,” I said. My wealthy white relatives had wanted Bush to win, so he must’ve been the good guy in the race.
“It won’t be fine,” Ana said scathingly. She sneered at me so long, I worried her eyes might start bleeding.
Years later, I’m astounded by how presciently correct Ana was. History is a pit, a pit you’re doomed to fall into if you forget. We forgot the 2000s; we fell into Trump. Who would’ve expected it? Ana, that’s who.
I want to go to Nevada alone. I’m in a wonderful relationship with Chloe, and I want to end it. I itch to end it. If it ends now, it ends in a happy place. That may not be true in one year, in ten, in twenty, or maybe it will be true, but who can know? Who can afford that risk?
Of course, I don’t want to end my relationship. What I want is two parallel lives, one in which I’m engaged and one in which I’m single, one in which I stay here and one in which I flee to Nevada. I want to have two scenarios: two best-case scenarios. And if I can’t, if all I have is the old childhood bray “leave before you get left,” who am I to reject it?
Lately, Siamese with my obsession about Ana is my obsession about September P——(or at least I believe her name is September P——(it may be Autumn P——, or August P——, or not P—— at all but B—— or E—— or G——)). I recall, with frustrating fuzziness, a former student’s memoir about his elementary-school classmate, a little girl with the wonderfully singsong name September. A little girl who stopped coming to class the day after her sister was kidnapped and killed. I wonder where September lives, how old she is, how old her sister never got to be. I wonder if I’ve imagined this memoir and this girl completely.
I want to know September and yet I’m afraid of her. In my head, September looks just like Ana. She’s treated the same, too: ostracized, mocked. She speaks prophetic truths while boys shoot spitballs at her. She places lilies on her sister’s grave. Where is September now?
I’ll tell you where Ana is. Ana majored in political science. Ana has a good job. Ana’s mother—her very-active-on-Facebook mother—is ecstatically proud of her. Ana has good friends and a handsome boyfriend. Ana has visited China. Ana’s life looks like a best-case scenario one, one I’d zip myself into if I could, if I could do so without taking what is hers.
They say, scientists even, that every thought makes a path through your brain, that your brain is a map of what’s happened to it. You think and think and patterns are worn like deer trails through the forest. The deepest marks are the thoughts you repeat. It’s that physical. Enough intersecting ideas can make a pit.
–Lucy Corin, Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls
If I ever see Ana again, I hope I meet her at a bar in Vegas. Someplace swanky, someplace with music I love but am never able to find again, someplace lit in every color but white. Chloe will (and won’t) be there. I will try to talk politics with Ana, try to be the adult I couldn’t fathom in sixth grade, try to prove how good of a Democrat I’ve become (and she will shoot a spitball at me; she’ll pull a blade from her purse and carve a pit in my arm). She’ll give me a hug (she’ll leave bite marks on my shoulder). She’ll whisper, look how you’ve (not) grown! I’ll excuse myself to use the restroom. (And when I return she will be gone, leaving behind only our unpaid bill and my spilled blood.)