I never asked to be reborn this way. I had always thought that if the Buddhist monks were right, I would be one of the lucky ones turned into a golden retriever, living with a nice suburban family somewhere in the woods.
But it seems I still have much to atone for in this new body. My green-and-blue, blotchy skin wrapped around me like a straightjacket, immobilizing me as the women walk past in summer dresses, the color red stuck to their lips, the hordes of men swaggering past in their button-down shirts and Apple watches they’ve probably forgotten to charge.
I wish I could read the men’s watches, know what time of day it is in this place where the sun does not shine. Everyone around me seems to move so fast. If I so much as space out for a few seconds, a whole new set of people have already filled the place and started to dance. I lurk, as I always do, low to the ground by their feet. And none of them ever notice me. Why would they? No one had noticed me in my last life, even when I’d stood well over six feet tall. At least I’m consistent. Still the one clinging to the wall.
I focus, trying to get a grip on the present moment, so that I don’t drift off again. My mind seems to be the only thing I have left, so what happens when I lose that? Drink in all my surroundings, I think, they keep me alive. I regret my choice at once. This place has its music turned up way too loud. It makes me shiver and hurt. Everything smells the same and it smells terrible, a sharp poison that my new body knows to avoid, to creep away from. I cannot remember the poison’s name, but I can remember what it used to taste like. It wafts and dribbles out of a bottle lying under the table closest to me. Since I have forgotten the poison’s original name, I give it a gender, call it man, because there is a king’s crown on the label of the bottle, and because I want to put my lips over it. Perhaps that is why I was put in this form. I was a sinner, from the day I was born.
There are others like me, in this room of eternal dancers. We are a unique kind here. We are the watchers, always still, always taking silent breaths. All else moves, or is moved. The tables, chairs, the blue-and-purple lamps, the thin plastic straws tucked away underneath floormats, the occasional quarter with flecks of chewing gum clinging to its ridges, the little rainbow flags spotted with grease, the crumpled napkins that sometimes have numbers tattooed onto them – all these beings are moved by the dancers, usually to the trash can, but other times to a place that I cannot see. We watchers are the only ones spared from the movement.
Most of us are no larger than a bottlecap, though others – the ones who have been here longer, or have found better, darker hiding places, have swollen to the size of rats. I can feel the presence of their past lives as they grow larger, just as I am sure they can feel mine, taking our forms in deliberate shapes and dark silhouettes, spelling out our stories on the walls. At first, I want to retch at the sight. My neighbor has turned himself into the vague shape of an eyeball. The iris is jet-black and spotted, like his body. And while I want to believe that this means he used to be a great observer of people who only did good in the world, I get chills when I look at him.
Shit, I’ve drifted again. How long has it been since I last felt myself in the present moment, and not torn between the past and the future? Focus. Look around you. The bottle is gone, the one with the crown label, the one I called man. It, like everything else in this place, has been claimed by the movement. Something hard and cold stirs in my gut. Regret, that I never gave my love the attention he deserved, that I never crawled to his side and introduced myself. I’m a coward.
But look! There at the kitchen door, propped up next to a stack of boxes that say ‘canola oil’, there he is, another bottle, the same label, except this time his neck is gouged, and cracks run from the wound down the torso. Who hurt you, lover? I am going to fucking shoot him. I’m trying to move to you, rush to your side so you can lean on me and rest easy, so you can tell me the whole story and cry your burning tears onto me.
But you’re so far away. I would have to become larger than all of the other watchers to reach you, larger than anyone’s ever imagined one of us becoming. I would do that for you. If you let me in, I can fill your cracks.
My heart races as one of the dancers reaches for you. Something that another person says makes him laugh as he drags your body off the floor. He turns to talk to them and dangles your neck in the noose of his hand. If I could release my spores now and poison him, I would. I would watch him grab at his neck, choke and cough up a thick spit, die like he deserves. I would turn him into a still object to be claimed by the movement. But you don’t want that for me, do you? You’re the angel sent down from God to lead me to repentance, to a path of peace. They had always told me in church that Jesus would wear a crown when he returned. Does that make me Judas, that all I want to do is kiss your face?
It is not easy to watch the dancers kill you. They drink your insides, wipe their mouths, wince at your taste, and throw you into the trash can and eulogy you by bitching about how quickly you emptied. I can hear the cracks sunder your body as you hit the bottom of the trash. No one else in there to catch you, no convenient patch of mold to soften your fall. The sound of you falling is the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s like someone stabbing me in the gut, repeatedly, where I can’t reach out to twist the knife out of their hand.
And the dancers laugh. They have a pile of dead bodies in a can, and they tell jokes, sipping their drinks between syllables while others grind their flesh together, trading tongues and coming up for air only to yell across the room for a different song, their hands jamming into each others’ pants while lights twinkle overhead and reflect false stars onto the wet, laminate flooring.
It almost six months before I see you again. I’m beginning to tell the time by the decorations they put up in here. When I last saw you, it was Halloween, pumpkins and bats and orange-black, and some of the spiders hadn’t turned out to be decorations.
Do you remember my neighbor? The dancers found him sometime between last Christmas and Easter. They scraped him off the wall with a screwdriver. Couldn’t they have at least used a proper tool to do it? But this is the way things happen here. Once a watcher makes himself known, the movement steals him away. I can still hear the sizzling, and how my neighbor’s black-irised eye had burned as the vinegar ate him away.
I wrote you a poem! You’ll have to come down here for me to read it to you, though. Even when I cannot see you, I can smell you, and I smell you now. There are many other sharp smells in this hell, but I love you, so I can tell the difference. Yours is a fall scent. Crisp apple and syrup. And each time the dancers pour you into thumb-sized glasses, the smell cuts over all the others. There you are! A drop of you plopping to the ground, your sweet fall scent filling my head. So I shake, with what little movement this life has given me, and I strain to suck down a droplet of your body that falls from a dancer’s glass. Every taste burns my face, shrinks me. And as I drink I whisper all the words that have been bottled up inside me, gushing out, but you do not speak a word back. You set my whole body on fire and don’t even give me a smile or a laugh to compensate me. Still I drink. I
can’t be much larger than a penny, and I don’t have much of me left to lose. But inside, I am the size of a giant, striding across mountain-tops and ripping trees out of their stone roots like they were weeds.
Usually, in visions, I wake in the future, the past carried away in a thick mist. But now, in this state I look down and see my pink, fleshed hands. They are holding an assault rifle. I am standing in a club, much like the one I’m confined to in my hell, and I stand tall, much taller than the people covering their heads with their hands. I squeeze the trigger, and my chest tightens at the sound of their screams, strangling me. I know this is wrong. The bullets have already flown out of my magazine, but I throw the rifle down, as if breaking it would reverse the last two minutes. Blood slicks the laminate floor so wet that I almost slip as I find my way down to my knees. There is only one thing left to do. I draw a handgun from one of my many belts and jam the barrel in my mouth. They won’t take me alive.
The vision shifts, and I wake. Back in hell. Before me stands a dancer wearing gloves and a cloth face mask, holding a dribbling spray bottle, fingers squeezing the trigger even before he aims. The liquid that comes out of the bottle is not amber, like yours, but clear. It reeks of vinegar, hisses on my skin, burns like a bullet in the arm. Something thick and green sweats off me and I can only watch as pieces that were once mine have pooled into the floor, the memory of you rusts to nostalgia, and my mind syrups into echoes. I (I,I,I) gag and spit and curse in a silent tongue that the dancers do not understand, but if they did and words could kill (kill, kill, kill), they would suffer endlessly, as I do. They have not stolen all of my words yet. They can’t fucking take that away from me, can’t take you away from me (me, me, me.) I whisper your name, before it is too late, so that you can know I was faithful even to the last, so that if you are an agent of God, you can plead my case with him, bear witness to my journey. Please. (Please.)
You don’t answer my calls. But that’s okay. We both know that this is what I deserve. Just do one thing for me. Remember me. Drop pieces of your body vigil next to mine so that I can smell you even in the end (end, end, end) that I can’t imagine now, so that we can cling to one another with smell, if not in touch, or taste, or whispered words.
Come. Don’t be afraid. I promise you that I will not scream as the acid takes the last of me. (me, me, me.)
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