A man follows Cassie through a big box store. She assumes because he is white and older and wearing a camouflage jacket, she should avoid him. She suspects he has made the assumption that she is shoplifting, is up to, or is permanently no good. There are times where she tells herself not to think this way. Living is hiking a trail. Cassie knows she is supposed to endure, but when will she get to luxuriate in the smell of the pine, run her fingers along the bark, learn to cherish the dirt? How can she do that if most of the time her impulse is to pause, quiver, smell the decaying animals hidden beside the path, and disappear into whatever brush she can find?
At first, he is content to hover at the end of the aisles. Cassie pretends to be absorbed in a world of fifty cent white mugs, waterfall puzzles, blue-and-white boxes of macaroni and cheese. Then, she goes to find what she’s there for, a caulking kit, some white paint. When she crouches down to look closer, he is there behind her. She thinks he had to run to get there, but somehow she didn’t hear it. He presses his crotch to the back of Cassie’s head. She pushes and screams, and he grabs her hair. An employee comes and shushes her. This is a place of business. At the end of every aisle is another man, is another man, is another man.
Every ninety minutes is divided like this. Cassie has coffee with a well-meaning friend. They speak easy gossip, caffeinate, pause, and somehow, out on the patio, get into a rhythm of talking social issues. The friend cracks the truth out of Cassie, until the geodes of her life spill out onto the table. They pause to admire the crystals, to sip their coffee. And when it’s time to go, they hug or shake hands or promise to do this again, soon. But maybe with drink-drinks next time because these kinds of conversations go even better if they’re had over yellow or clear liquors.
And then Cassie walks home and the fellowship she felt makes everything she passes—the thin feather clouds, the old building with Nothing Compares 2 U written on it in purple spray paint, the ants swirling on a dropped cough drop, the car with the flat tire—a part of her.
My friend heard me, she thinks.
On social media, Cassie sees her friend has posted a well-meaning message about standing up for the rights of others. Of respect. Then in the comments, the friend’s great aunt has told a long rambling story about how the blacks were so mean to her deceased husband. He experienced racism! A middle-aged white man appears in a puff to remind her that blacks do most of the crimes. Has she heard of Chicago? Has she heard how many blacks are carrying guns? How their culture glorifies violence. Another woman says the blacks get everything in this country and always want more. I have friends suffering because they are white.
Cassie’s friend says in response to each: I hear your point.
A plane with six hours of turbulence, a man sitting alone at a movie theater with a bag at his feet, waking up and the bed Cassie was sleeping on is full of fleas, a tsunami of itching, a teenage boy yelling out his car window, I am going to rape you, bitch while the girls in the backseat of his car laugh, staying with someone for too long because he kept saying things like you have no idea what I’ll do if you leave me, hitting a Dalmatian with a car, it ran out into the dark and it was dead in the split second before her brain registered what it was, waking up in the middle of the night and thinking about all the awful things she has done and said and thought and refusing herself a sip of water because she deserves even the smallest bit of hurt, a time where a person Cassie loved was tipping toward their death and she saw the signs that depression was gripping their wrist and pulling their neck, but she didn’t go and see them, didn’t return their texts beyond a few: let’s see each other soon. The struck by lightning feeling of I failed them, I failed them. You could have done better.
Cassie says, she can’t remember how or why she got here.
And the group says that for half of them it’s that way. Life is a shipwreck. You wake up on a new shore, and your brain only lets you know the things you do and do not need to survive. The past is like saltwater; you don’t allow yourself to drink and wallow in it, unless you’ve chosen death. You treat the people you once loved like dreams. Something to think about only for a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day.
Cassie’s job is to sew. Six days a week, she makes the hot pink panties and bras women outside will wear to look sexy. She puts on the little bows, remembers how much she hated them in the before. Every time she bought a new bra, would sit down and carefully snip off the eensy ribbon sewn to the space between the cups. It’s easier to use cotton, but the silk is sexier.
There is something about the generic sewing of clothes, underwear after underwear, that lightens her skin. Then bleaches it. By afternoon, she is translucent. It makes her anxious to see the sewing machine needles, so close to her lungs and sternum. By the end of each day, she is a skeleton. Cassie would like to ask someone, how can you learn how to become a good person when the punishment is to spend most of your time being nothing? The stack of underwear she sewed looks so bright against her ivory bones.
Each day here, Cassie is forced to walk in the same park. She watches two squirrels going through the trash. A sparrow rolling around in dust. Throws soda cans into the recycling bin. And every day, the same little boy with a gap between his front teeth falls into the lake while reaching for his soccer ball. He screams once and smashes against the water. And every day, Cassie saves him. She holds out a branch for him to grab. She leaps into the water, slaps him so he doesn’t pull her down into the depths, and bobs and pulls him to shore. There are hugs from his crying parents, his smiling face, a phone call from an authority figure telling her how wonderful she is, a newspaper reporter who wants to do a story. And every day, when Cassie is finally alone, she thinks of herself as the wad of cotton you find in an empty pill bottle. You reach and reach for something that will help make the pain a little smaller, but you just get trash.
Cassie wants to be a mom, wants to have enough money to not worry about anything, but not so much money that she doesn’t feel like a person anymore. She wants to be a physical therapist who specializes in helping combat veterans, she wants to be a lawyer who advocates for people experiencing mental illness, she wants to teach sign language, she wants to find a way to exhale good. Cassie doesn’t know if this is because she’s actually a good person, or if it’s a way of telling the world, look, look, I am valuable. Please care about me. I promise my life is worth your time.
Once a week, very briefly, we are allowed to gather, and clasp hands to speak of better things. They tell us it’s a time so seek penance, to let a man wearing black-and-white make us feel baby horse leg shaky with the possibilities of a new life waiting for us outside.
We are told suffering makes us worthy of admiration, transforms us into statues to be admired from afar. Sometimes, oil leaks from our wrists, we cry pure and shining, and it makes them gather around. Now, we are miracles. We have traversed the beatings, we have lived with scraps, and had everything torn away until we are marble, we are behind velvet ropes, we are written about using critical conventions to place distance before emotional reckoning. We have been shaped, and baked, and glazed until all potential threats have been chipped away.
A new prayer of restoration: Blessed are us all that have endured, our words are gold whenever we've spoken our humanity, acknowledged the right to be a person. We give thanks for strong-headedness, for every person who refuses to accept the world as it is, and pushes toward the world it should be. We bless the voices that remind us there is a possibility for everything to be better. Amen. Amen.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Megan Giddings is a contributing editor at Boulevard and a fiction editor at The Offing. Her short stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Black Warrior Review, and CRAFT.
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In this museum, when I think of it, the player pianos are always playing the music from An American In Paris. An older woman wearing a fabulous necklace gives me two glasses, she said, "I am happy to be a part of the happiest day of your life." I have never felt bigger. I have never been happier to be contained.