Fiction slider — 12 July 2016

winter tree birdhouse
Proust, in the Treehouse, With a Deadly Kiss
by Willem Myra
Photo by Patrick Breitenbach under Creative Commons License
… while on Wednesdays I’d see her by the phone booth down the street, reading this or that. Reading Carver or Highsmith or Keret. She’d just stand there, on the curb, impervious to passersby, her bony hands holding the book and her attentive eyes plucking the pollen out of it. It wasn’t her looks that had caught my interest—although, admittedly, she was attractive in her own twisted way—nor her questionable reading place choices, but rather the trekking backpack that accompanied her in this world and the other. Bulky, squared, overstuffed with mystery. Whenever I thought about it I’d imagine it carried the same rubbery smell of the insides of a car left to roast in the sun during summer, when the Eternal City is plagued by sultry temperatures. The backpack wasn’t just cumbersome but heavy too, and the girl, hunched over because of it, appeared tinier than she was, fragile, child-like even. Yet, her standing there for six or seven hours every Wednesday, just standing and reading and greeting those who said hi and helping those who more or less implicitly asked for her services, all this without even breaking a sweat or lamenting back pains, well, I mean… wow. When did they stop making people like that?

Name’s Mona, an acquaintance of mine told me. Twenty-seven years old. Born in Tripoli. Libra. She speaks three languages, none of which of any real utility, if you ask me, and is a hopeless teetotaler.

One day I approached her like an old friend would and asked if she was busy. Not particularly, she said, closing her book. So off we went.

Skipping introductions, we walked quickly and silently to the train station, where I bought tickets for the both of us. We waited a couple minutes, her reading, me people watching, till we were able to board the eleven-thirty am train leaving Rome.

She didn’t ask where we were going. She didn’t say a thing, to be honest. And seeing I myself wasn’t much of a talkative fellow, at least not at such early hours, she stuck to her book. Today it was the Israeli writer’s memoir.

We sat facing each other, the trekking backpack resting on the seat adjacent to hers. I pretended to look at the other passengers while I studied her out of the corner of my eye. She was wearing worn jeans and a light-purple fluffy pullover. Heavy-looking winter boots kept her anchored to the ground. She was taller than me, her legs long and thin like those of a spider. She wasn’t skinnier, though. Had curly hair coming down to her shoulders. Skin like wet sand. She smelled of red Sicily oranges, the ones with their bitter juice and their fish-guts-resembling pulp. When we had gotten on the train she’d taken off her sunglasses, so now I was able to make out the shape and color of her eyes. They were narrow and sunken. Fierce. Their hue reminding me of the liquid filling up the cryogenic tubes in those ’80s sci-fi movies.

You’re got really black hair, she said all of a sudden, which startled me for I thought I was the one doing the studying here. The kind of black I’ve never seen in men before.

Suppose I should’ve said something or at least I should’ve nodded my head in acknowledgment. Instead I kept quiet.

Outside the window, brick houses made way to wooden cabins which made way to spare, tall naked trees which in turn made way to a seemingly endless hill populated by sheep. The sheep seemed happy with their lives.

From a side pocket of the backpack, Mona took out pen and paper. She doodled for a while, the tip of her white-ish tongue sticking out between her lips. When she was done, she showed me her artwork. See this? she said. This is what you look like.

I thought, Yeah, sure, we’ve invented mirrors so I do know what I look like, thank you very freaking much.

I said, Huh, interesting.

This is how you look, she continued, with the unruly hair and the pointy beard and that emaciated body of yours covered in dark clothes.

Okay, I said, you’ve x-rayed me enough.

Has anybody ever told you?

What’s that?

That you, you—Remember that cartoon, when you were a kid? On Cartoon Network.

Which one?

Courage the Dog Who’s A Coward or something along that line.

Barely.

There. You look like you could’ve been a one-time villain on that show. You’d have scared the shit out of Eustace.

Easy with the compliments, woman, I might turn red.
She giggled and I took advantage of her good mood to ask if I could keep the portrait. She handed me the piece of paper, which I folded thrice and had the pocket of my trousers devour.

For the rest of the journey neither of us said a word. We got off the train at the fourth depot, my hometown. I hadn’t been there in over three years. The graffiti now vandalizing the station looked beyond clichéd—nicknames the writers had given themselves; four-letter swear words ’cause they’re cool; Fascist slogans and symbols. The air felt spoiled. The city a couple sizes too small for me. I already wanted to go back to Rome.

You mind walking a little? I asked Mona.

Are you kidding me? she replied with a smile. I could take you to the top of the Himalayas and still be able to run a 5K.

We crossed the city in under forty minutes, our feet going tip, tap, tip, tap with a rhythmic musicality that made the melancholy less oppressive. We walked past downtown, past the building I had spent most of my childhood in—twice I had to stop myself from taking a peek at the second-story window of the apartment Ma, Pa, and I used to inhabit, both physically and mentally—past my high school, past all the corners I had a memory cocoon still attached to, just waiting to be set free and revived. We stopped before we could see the traffic roundabout leading to the suburbs.

We sat on the curb in the parking lot of an abandoned mall. At the far end of the parking lot: windshield glass, cig butts, the dark skeleton of a burnt caravan. The mall: if this was a comic book, the artist would have drawn it covered in cobwebs.

I was out of breath; Mona still fresh as a daisy.
Why did I bring you here? I whispered. I genuinely have no idea.

You don’t?

Cross my heart.

Palahniuk says… she stopped short. I too felt uneasy repeating aloud thoughts that had not originated within my mind, even when I did hold them true. Palahniuk says, she began anew, that we are a different person to everybody we meet. Well, I’m sure he’s not the only one saying it. Point being. Maybe you brought me here because you saw in me the person you needed to visit this place with.

Please, I went. Don’t you start with the cheesy BS.

In front of us there was a modest playground. Swing, monkey bars, merry-go-round, slide, and one headless parrot-shaped spring rider. Once populated by kids, now the playground was deserted, the grass thigh-deep and hay-colored, the earth around the swing littered with beer cans and napkins and plastic bags. A treehouse sat at the exact center of the plot. Seven stairs—seven twenty-centimeters-long wooden planks precariously nailed to the trunk of the tree—led up to it. The way it worked is you, child, climbed those stairs, got inside the treehouse and then, exiting through the frameless window, let your bum go down the curving slide till you finally dropped into the sandbox. While the slide itself was now covered in writing—insults and phone numbers of allegedly easy girls—the treehouse had been spared by the degrading aura that had chewed up and spat out the rest of the playground.

What a depressing shithole, I said. You know, first time I ever kissed a girl… I pointed at the treehouse. Happened right there.

Mona turned to look me in the eye. Said nothing. Did nothing.

She was my girlfriend of two months at the time. First girlfriend. God, I was so awkward, and not in a cute way. We’d hold hands for hours to no end, but as soon as I made eye contact, that was it. I’d lose my mind. Shit. I was so… shy and, and filled with insecurities. She was older than me. Sixteen against my fourteen. Had had previous relationships. Had expectations. I had fantasies at best, theories of how things should have played out.

Days went by and I couldn’t bring myself to kiss her. I didn’t know how. I was terrorized by the thought of me kissing her the wrong way and disappointing her. Enraging her. What if she told the whole school what a pansy I was? What if she spoke with all the girls in the world and persuaded them somehow to ignore me forever? What if they agreed?

That’s silly, said Mona, her voice low.

I was a kid. I was dumb. Anyway, one day one of her girlfriends texts me out of nowhere. I didn’t even know she had my phone number. What the fuck is taking you so long, dipshit? She’s getting old waiting on your ass. I had to do something. So one Friday I brought her here. This was the farthest we could get on foot from both my home and school. It was late afternoon. Mid-November. The sun had set, meaning there were no kids, no parents, around. We worked the swing and the merry-go-round and all the other distractions, and we talked and we shared horny looks and we both hoped it would be the other one to make the first move. Eventually we ended up inside the treehouse, entwined together. Her head on my chest. My right arm, numb by now, stuck underneath her body. Stars were shining in the chunk of sky we could see through the window. It was the perfect poetic setup every girl dreams of. So I man’d up, closed my eyes, and finally kissed her. Our lips pressed together, the sound of her heartbeat, her cherry perfume and slight nervousness-caused sweat—it all conspired together to send me back in time. There I was, nine and carefree. I remembered how unrestricted I used to be back then. How I’d run around town pretending to be Arale, how I’d go with the other kids to steal mulberries from the school backyard, how, after a long day of playing soldiers we’d treat ourselves to some vanilla ice cream from this shop we always had to go through an endless queue to buy anything from. When did that kind of freedom stop being the standard for me? I remember questioning myself that Friday night as the stars shone their dying light on us.

So once the emotionally-loaded time-travel came to an end so did the kiss. I looked at her, feeling oh so proud of myself. I’m glad you did that, she said. The next day, when we met by pure accident while I was doing some errands, she pulled me by the shirt and stuck her tongue in my mouth. It felt so out of place and… gross? Well, one week later we were fucking for the first time, and a few days after that I was gifting her a ring, a real one, gold and Swarovski and all that. It had cost me all my savings, plus I had to borrow some money from Dad. But it was worth it. At the time, it was worth it.

And now? asked Mona, breaking her silence. Is it still worth it now?

Is anything you’ve ever done worth it, in hindsight?
Yeah, most of it.

Lucky girl.

What’s done is done, no need paining yourself over something you can no longer change. If I made mistakes, I try to amend to them. If I can’t, for a reason or another, then I’m at peace with myself knowing that I did all I could to turn into someone who will not be foolish enough to recreate that same mistake twice. Past me tripped and hurt her ankle. Present me learned how to walk straight. She’s a different person.

Panta rei and all that shit.

And all that shit, Mona repeated with a beat.

But I suppose you are right. What’s done is done. I know that. Still, sometimes I can’t help it but be saddened by remembering certain things.

Like your first girlfriend?

Like my first girlfriend.

So, how did she break your heart?

She didn’t. That’s the point.

You wanted her to?

Hell no. Although it is easier to deal with pain than with doubt.

What’s that supposed to mean? What happened between the two of you?

I shrugged. Nothing happened. Not between us. The relationship lasted—what? Eight, nine months? Then at some point we both agreed it was best to go separate ways. I know that’s what the breakupee says and not the breakupper. But it’s true. It was a mutual decision. Our chemistry had run its course. We needed to see other people.

A handshake, a smile, and the deal is over, jokingly said Mona.

Precisely. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. So years pass by. I graduate from high school. I move to Rome to go to university. New place, new friends, new girls. Everything’s going fine. Then one day I meet this old classmate, Nicky. We have lunch together and reminisce about the old times. And that’s when it hits me. Oh, by the way, did I tell you about your ex? Nicky says. I say, No, what happened? Is she okay? I wish she wasn’t, Nicky says. Turns out the sweet girl I’d departed from had morphed into something akin to a devil. Listen here. The guy she slept with after we were done cheated on her. So what did she do? She went to the police. She was seventeen; he was nineteen. He’s lucky he only got two years in Rebibbia. There’s more. My ex—she persuaded her baby sister to have unprotected sex. The sister got knocked up, had to say goodbye to her dreams of going to university and is now a single momma working two shitty jobs.

Doesn’t seem like the sharpest tool in the box.

Granted, the lil sis is at fault too. But maybe without my ex’s push… And that’s not all. My ex did settle down after a while. Married this guy who had inherited a small family-run business in town. He pays for her studies while she’s in Rome, pretending to go to university. Instead, she cheats on him. I know it sounds soap opera-ish. I didn’t believe it myself. Then I was shown the texts she’d sent Nicky to brag about it, and pictures of the affair. One more story then I swear I’m done. My ex and Nicky—they were friends. Best of friends, actually. That is until Nicky found out my ex had been frequently stealing stuff from her apartment, one little item at a time. First a book, then a blouse, then a necklace. And so on. When Nicky confronted her, my ex jumped into her own car, ran away, unfriended her on Facebook, and started these rumors that Nicky was jealous of her and tried to seduce her husband.

Boy, she sounds like a riot.

She sounds like a hurricane coming straight toward you while you’re handcuffed in the back of a car without a wheel.
Good thing you didn’t experience this side of her.

Yeah. Well… Yeah. I didn’t experience it first hand, but…I don’t get it, you know? How did she go from the girl I loved to whatever excuse of a decent human she is now?

Mona shrugged, the backpack hiccupping up and down.

I whispered, I bothers me. She was my first—everything. She’ll live forever etched into my memory and I’m not sure she deserves it, you know?

I got a new job offer, I said after a while, like I was sharing the good news with my family. Better company, more money. Nicer area. I’m starting next week. Only problem being, the new office is in EUR and every morning on the way in, I’ll have to walk past this kindergarten nearby. And inside the kindergarten’s front yard, right where everybody can see it, there’s a treehouse not dissimilar from this one.

I pointed at it. I pointed and pointed and pointed.

I’ll see it every goddamned day when I go to work and when I return home. And every time, those four wooden walls will work their magic on me. Only instead of reliving the novelty and excitement of my first kiss, I’ll instead think about the current state of my ex’s morality, and about whether or not I am responsible for her abrupt change. And it saddens me. It saddens me that the present—not even my present, but someone else’s—can affect my past. Ruin it. Time’s a circle that fucks you backwards.

A lorry parked not fifty meters from us. The driver got out, checked the tires, had a cigarette, ate a sandwich, had another cigarette. Then the lorry drove away.

Mona said nothing for a long time. Then:

Say, do you always talk so much about your ex on the first date?

This is not a date, I said, sure of my words. Is this a date?

A smile flashed on her face. She rocketed up, offered me the palm of her hand.

Let’s go, she said.

Where?

What kind of question is that? To exorcise this memory of yours.

She led the way to the playground. The tall grass bent sideways to let her pass. We stepped over a Coke can, a purple lighter, an old phone. She took off the backpack, leaving it by the base of the tree. Inside the narrow treehouse, she pushed me into a corner, bit me on the neck, sucked on my earlobes.

This, she said unbuckling my belt, reminds me of one of Keret’s short stories.

#
As I was about to climax she reached inside my brain and got a hold of something. When she pulled, I noticed a Smurf-sized Proust in her hands. He was casting scared glances all over the place, trying to escape. He scratched and bit Mona’s fingers, but she didn’t let go. I will not let go, she said, gently. Get over it. Proust tried to put on a fight, then remembered he wasn’t much of a fighter, so instead he adjusted his glasses—he wore oblong smudged glasses now—and put on a resigned look. Good boy, Mona said. She kissed Proust on the side of the head—her lips bigger than his brow—and showed him to his new home inside her big black trekking backpack.

#
When we were done, I thanked her and she slapped me, saying she wasn’t an aunt and that she did what she did not because she’d felt obliged but because she had wanted to. Then she started giggling, and since her giggles were cute and contagious, I started laughing too. Soon the whole treehouse was but one big laughter.

Afterward I rolled a joint, which we passed back and forth like we were playing hot potato, until eventually I took a one-, two-, three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-second long puff and exhaled smoke from every hole in my body. An ant was crawling along the treehouse pavement, carrying some white pear-shaped stuff on its back.

Hi, I said.

The ant stopped, briefly, and I hoped it’d look up at me and greet me in an elegant manner, like, Good afternoon, sir. Fancy weather, wouldn’t you agree?

But the ant said nothing, so I put out the joint on its head, picturing it screaming Noooooooooooo! as its little, powerless body instantly turned to ashes.

#
Whiffs of yesteryears.

That’s what memories are anyway.

Faded whiffs of things you might believe you recognize, but you don’t. For all you can find is the odor, and no matter how much you try to follow it back to its source, sooner or later you realize a source does not exist. Not anymore.

#
I waited for someone to walk by the mall and when this happened, I waved at him and asked him if he could come closer please, just for a second. It was a teenage boy with neckband headphones. He glanced at me and Mona, both still resting inside the treehouse.

Make me a favor, would you? I asked him. From the wallet I took out fifty Euros, handed them to him. Get us a pizza, please? A big one, from over there. I pointed out a pizzeria two blocks down. The change is all yours.

The teenager did as he was told, twenty minutes later he was bringing us our pizza alla diavola.

It cost thirteen-fifty, he said.

Okay.

Are you sure about the change, sir?

I winked at him. Go have some fun, man. Don’t worry.

He thanked me a couple of times and then disappeared behind the abandoned mall.

Mona and I ate pizza for the entire afternoon, drinking red wine and warm beer from her backpack. We shared stories about our past and dreams regarding our futures. When the sun went down and the moon, half hidden by the clouds, came by to say hi, we soaked the insides and the outsides of the treehouse in gasoline—Mona had a copious amount of in her godly backpack—and lit it on fire. We watched as the flames reached to the sky, and we smiled to each other and we had some more beer. Then we took the train back to Rome, where we went our separate ways and never again crossed paths. Or at least that’s how the story goes. Truth be told, I’d see her from afar every so often. For instance: on Mondays I’d see her in front of the La Rinascente, voluntarily sign spinning to attract people to buy roasted chestnuts from this seventy-something unemployed man sitting on the curb, on Tuesdays I’d catch a glimpse of her walking to the kindergarten surrounded by six or seven kid-sized Prousts, while on Wednesdays…

 

Author Bio

Willem Myra, 24, lives on a satellite of a city gravitating around Rome, Italy. He’s only recently started writing in English, but he’s getting there one misspelled word at a time. When he’s not procrastinating, he tries his best to earn that BA in media studies.

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