BAND-AIDS FOR BULLET WOUNDS
She feels most comfortable with a stranger’s seat pressed against her knees, the low hum of a plane’s engine as she leans her ear against the window—the past behind her, the world beneath her, the possibilities endlessly before her. She has grown up in this in-between, in the cities she never chose, in the weightless metal wings over the Atlantic, her identity crafted from the colored countries of digital maps. She finds relief in these moments suspended above the Earth, the times she belongs to no one, no city, no land— nothing to tie her back to the memories that tie her down. It’s freedom that feels like holding her breath, slowly letting it out, drenching the air with the hope of the unknown. It is easy to erase the pain when there’s nothing but your reflection to remind you of it.
She finds escape in escapism, in the disruption of routine, in the shirking of responsibility.
She fathoms, in the unfathomability of human flight, the possibility of staying alive.
The plane touches the tarmac with a jolt, and her white knuckles release their tension, fingers splayed out on the arm she shares with the blonde girl beside her. They could almost be sisters, her and this stranger—blonde hair, white skin, Calabasian fry— but hers is all fake, the product of self-loathing, of the relentless attempts to hide the truth of who she is, what she’s done, where she comes from, the identity she relinquishes and repossesses whenever she finds it most convenient. As they taxi to a stop, the girl turns to her, notes the sweatshirt she wears with unbridled pride—Look at me, it says, see how I belong—and smiles.
“My brother went to SC,” the girl says. “Good school.”
“Yeah.” The corners of her lips tilt softly up. “I love it.”
“I visited him once. Dope parties.” The girl looks towards the front of the cabin, where people stand in pointless anticipation because the line does not move and will not for a while. “I go to Berkeley.”
“That’s a great school too.”
The girl shrugs. “Yeah, but I would’ve gone to SC if I’d gotten in. Lots of my friends go there. I’m from PV.”
The girl abbreviates because she assumes—from her accent, from her lived-in Goyard—that she too grew up in the sunny suburbs of Southern California.
“That’s cool,” she says, and does not correct her. “Went back to visit family?” “My dad’s birthday.” The line begins to move. “What’s your name?”
She gives the girl only her nickname, because this is what she always does. She’s been told it shrouds her in mystery, but she does it out of simplicity. There is safety in its pronunciation, in its anonymity. No trilled R’s to hint at her non-belonging, the iceberg tip of her unbecoming.
“I’m Alli,” the girl says. The man at the end of their row removes his bag from the overhead bin. “You should follow me on Instagram.”
“Definitely.” Alli takes her phone, and she hears the tapping of her acrylics against the screen. When she hands it back, her profile is pulled up—5,238 followers, a calligraphed A as her icon—the follow button already white in request.
“I’ll follow you back.”
Alli smiles before standing, her pink carry-on the last thing she will ever see of her before she disappears behind the basketball player who’d taken up two seats in the adjacent row. She will never think of Alli again, but once in a while, the highlights of her life will appear on her newsfeed and she will wonder, momentarily, where they’d met. She will remember the peaceful lulling of the plane, the minute-long conversation, the first-row seat to her life she grants out of politeness rather than interest.
These relationships are shallow, numbers on a screen, faces on a feed, and some deeper part of her knows this. But this part of her she has obscured in salons and sororities, and the part of her that seeks to belong finds a sense of gratification in the upped digit of her social media. The proof that what she does matters, that her struggles mean something, that she is not inconsequential, a speck of dirt in the entire history of the universe. It is human arrogance, to think you are something more than luck and stardust, that you—of all those who have come before you—will not suffer the same oblivion—but still she allows it, and finds in it the thread of hope that ties her loosely to life.
It is 9:30 and he is the last one in the building, but he cannot leave until he climbs his mountain of paperwork—pen, calculator, rope, shovel. He glances out the window of his private office, over the twinkling lights of San Mateo, up to the sky he can never see in the foggy Bay Area mornings. A plane glides through the night, and he knows better, but he pretends it is a shooting star. And even though he’s learned not to wish on such foolish things, the lighter parts of his dark heart tug at this childish desire.
He turns back to his work before he can give in. After all, he has a long drive home in the Audi he bought with the money of a man who may or may not be his father, and he’d like to get there before his roommate decides to call over one of the five brunettes he keeps on rotation.
He, personally, prefers blondes.
“It’s a bit of an Oedipus complex,” he was told once by Joshua—he thinks his name was—of the wire frame spectacles and broken nose. This one was a psychiatrist, some self-satisfied bastard with an eponymous health clinic and a shiny new Porsche. Just the kind she always liked. She wasn’t one of those women who brought home the entirety of the drug cartel or those convicts in wife-beaters whose scent lingered on the five- thousand-dollar couch for many weeks after they were gone. No, her taste lay in successful men, men full of potential, men who would have made decent fathers had they been kept around for longer than her requisite month.
He doesn’t think about it though, how the girls that boil his blood bear an eerie resemblance to his mother. He refuses to think anything of her at all. He is gone now, and he has made his home, twenty-three and all alone, but he likes it that way. No lingering laughter in the dark, no desperate moaning behind closed doors, no ghosts of a misspent youth hiding in the too-expensive everything she bought to obscure the emptiness of her existence. Just a townhouse on Lombard street, five college grads in three bedrooms, the dull drudgery of a 9 to 5—or, occasionally, a 9 to midnight. He likes the ordinary, the certainty of the alarm always ringing, the car always starting, the traffic always flowing. He likes the office that waits for him every day, the silence of his solitude, the numbers that never change no matter how many ways you read them.
He finds escape in the mundane, in the solidity of routine, in the inescapability of responsibility.
He crosses the last seven on the last paper and grabs his keys. As he heads out of the office, he drops the paperwork on his boss’ desk and nods goodbye to the night guard he thinks is named Hank. His white knuckles grip his briefcase as he steps out into the garage, and only release when he is comfortably settled in his car, Drake’s breezy beats on Bluetooth speakers. Loosening his blue tie—blue is for odd days, reds are for evens— he leans his hand against the wooden steering wheel, his Louboutin loafers on the accelerator, and revs the engine, the noise revitalizing even through his exhaustion.
He pulls out of the garage, into the lamp-lit streets of the suburbs and onto the highway. With the exception of the few red lights whizzing by, he is alone, the highway before him, home on the horizon.
The Uber pulls up to the hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf, and she thanks the driver with an effervescent smile. His eyes twinkle at the sight, and she knows what he’s thinking—her friendliness, her bubbly laughter, her constant questioning—this green-eyed girl is full of life, but he will never know how the green eyes are contacts hiding the messy obsidian of her truth.
“I love your hair,” she says to the girl at the check-in desk, who already seems to like her because it’s difficult not to when you look like she does. There are girls who wield such beauty like weapons, traps in a life-long game of manipulation, smiles like loaded pistols. She admires how they wear this strength, how they use it for gain without a care to the consequences. Her own beauty is a mask, not a rose to a thorn, but a charming cover to a below-average book—harmless and disappointing.
She gets an upgrade though she’s done nothing to deserve it, and when she lays down to bed, she finds relief in the foreign room, the king-sized sheets, the shades of beige so far removed from the pinks and greens of her tiny studio apartment.
She grabs her phone and checks the last of her social media for the day, responds to messages in languages she switches between like her mother’s changing moods. She stalks Alli’s profile and finds a photo of an acquaintance from freshman year, and something about it excites her though she hasn’t spoken to Sara in three years. The world is so small, she thinks, and I am a part of it all.
She forgets, for the most part and always when she is alone, that the world forbids her this. But there are too many ghosts in her entrails right now to remember that she does not belong. That on top of it all, her identity means nothing if it is not stamped on paper, the years she spent here pointless without certification, half her life gone, given to people with whom she seeks to forge relations, even after three of them betrayed her.
She lives, consciously and unconsciously, in the pursuit of an identity that is both hers and not hers. It is why she comes to San Francisco now, why she searches for acceptance to a school that will give her two more years in this country she lays claim to.
In this country that refuses to lay claim to her.
But unrequited love is not a foreign concept to a girl with commitment issues, always appreciating a challenge until it is conquered, boys she takes to her bed like the stuffed animals of her childhood, alternating each night so feelings wouldn’t get hurt. She is a citizen of the world, collecting men in each of the cities she travels to, always an arm to hold her, a pair of lips to kiss and chase the emptiness away.
Tonight, she texts the one she knows in San Francisco—another person she met in passing at a frat party once, Instagrams exchanged, Snapchats added, names hastily typed into contacts before jeans were undone, shirts undonned, minty lips and vodka breath and a messy bed at her best friend’s house she apologized for in the morning. She does not wait for his response because the red of the hotel clock tells her that it is midnight. She never goes to bed this early, but she’s got plans tomorrow, and the dark has been feeling ever encumbering since that night two months ago.
She puts her phone to charge, closes her eyes, and prays to the God she no longer believes in that she’s left all of her nightmares behind.
Hey! How are you? I’m in San Francisco for the weekend, was wondering if you wanted to meet up :)
He wakes up at 5:30 every morning. At 6, he is in his car—high school basketball shorts, SCU hoodie, stomach full of toast because it’s all he’s ever learned how to make— starting his hour-long drive to San Mateo. There is an Equinox in the building facing his, and he signed up for it the day they interviewed him for the job. At 7, he pushes through the glass door of the gym, heads to the locker room, grabs a towel and begins his training. At 8:15, he places his usual order on the Starbucks app and steps into the shower. At 8:30, he crosses the street, suit on, and picks up the food that will last him the four hours until lunch—two Spinach Egg White Wraps and a double-shot latte with a pinch of vanilla syrup. At 9, he sits in his private office, pen in hand, shovel in spirit, ready to start the day’s work.
He never deviates from his schedule.
Today, however, he wakes up to a text message from a girl he only vaguely remembers through the hazy fog of vodka. She was blonde, he recalls, and foreign, he thinks, looking at her name. She was hot, his body tells him.
He considers his response, fingers hovering over the keyboard, but then realizes he should have been dressed two minutes ago. Later, he decides, and sets out to start his day.
It bothers him that he leaves two minutes past schedule, but he pushes the accelerator a little further on the highway and makes it to the gym on time. The text idles in his mind as he trudges on the treadmill, scrubs himself clean, bites into the warm wrap. It is unexpected, and he is not a fan of the unexpected.
He is, however, a fan of blondes.
Hi! I’m working today, but I’m down to grab some drinks at 8.
She has spent the day deliberating his response. She has screenshotted it and sent it around the world—Los Angeles, São Paulo, Seoul, Stockholm. She wants opinions— What do you think he means by drinks? What should I say? Do boys even use exclamation points or does that mean he likes me, or wait, does he use it because he doesn’t like me so he doesn’t care if I think he’s being overeager?—but she also wants validation. Reassurance that she is wanted. To prove that she is capable of being loved.
She walks the campus with bated breath, admonishes emotionless men with the heartbroken tour guide, befriends the entirety of the MFA classroom with a smile that never hints at her darkness, ruminates on all the terrible possibilities of tonight as she discusses her future with the program director. She knows this is what she wants more than anything—the choice to live in the country that has created her—but it is much easier to distract herself with the anxieties of an inconsequential boy than to consider the possibility that she will be taken away from everything she knows. A bruised heart is tangible, easily fixed with a shot of tequila, but there’s no cheap cure for being born in the wrong place.
She does not think of it as she curls her hair, sparing only quick glances towards the mirror, as she paints her lips red and absolves her entire body of the hair that makes her human. She also does not think of the hints of crimson that still linger in her underwear, the remains from one of the many things that make her wish she wasn’t a woman. Instead, she wonders if he will like the dress she dons, if he will appreciate her dark humor, if he will buy her a drink and take her home and languidly explore her.
He arrives at precisely 8, and she is glad, for the first time, that she is not late. It is drizzling outside, and she is curled into her mother’s hand-me-down coat, and she steps into his car with a sense of awe that she does her best to tone down when she sees his face. He is sinfully handsome, and usually she’s not a fan of beards, but the slight blonde scruffle suits this one well. He’s clad in a suit and a dark red tie, and after the sight of his car, she has no doubt he’s had his wardrobe personally tailored. He’s staring at her too, at the hair curling over the cleavage of her dress, and there is lust in his eyes and maybe a little something more she can’t quite place.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hey,” he responds and leans down to kiss her. It’s a forehead kiss and it reeks of possession and usually she would question it, but today she’s just content for the distraction.
“Where we going?”
He raises an eyebrow. “You asked me out.”
“Fair,” she says with a chuckle. “What would you recommend then?”
He looks out the windshield, leaning over his wheel, the coiffed hair at the top of his 6’6 frame scraping against the ceiling. “We’re right next to the Pier. We could walk around, do something touristy.”
She pouts. “There is water falling from the sky.”
“It’s gonna stop soon.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugs. “It’s always like this.”
“How about we drive until it stops, and then we make our decision?”
He clenches his jaw. “Alright.”
With one hand on the wheel and the other on her knee, he pulls out of the hotel.
He is right, of course—the drizzle stops about five minutes later. He parks the car on the top floor of the nearest lot and holds her hand as they descend the stairs to Jefferson Street. It is nearing Christmas, and lights hang off of every touristy ledge in Fisherman’s Wharf. He finds comfort in it—not in the beauty of the lights, but in the certainty of them.
She molds into his arm, head to his shoulder, hand in his hand, as they make their way down the street, passing 24-hour diners playing Deck the Halls and arcades of Santa Baby and nightclubs shoving trap remixes of Jingle Bells down too drunk throats. He enjoys the way she fits into him, because this is the way he thinks romance should be. He has no plans to see her after tonight, but he is not the kind of man who does anything halfway. It is a trait his roommates tease him tirelessly for.
“You need to get laid, man,” Alec said once, after one of his five consorts had gone, his hand playfully tapping her ass on the way out. He sat on his bed and pulled out a bong and texted I miss you to the other four. “I’ve got, like, a hundred girls who would bone you in a minute. You’re fuckin’ facey, bro.”
There are things he struggles to explain to them, like how he’s always preferred the dependability of a girlfriend to the sporadic existence of a player. He will satiate himself with sex when he needs to, but even with girls like this, he always endeavors to make an effort. He will break their hearts, eventually, but he will do it the way it should be done. He will give them memories of something other than the creaking of his bed, so that when they shed their final tears, they will do it over something that mattered. Over the decimation of their imagined infinity instead of the wistful pining for his body.
You are your mother’s son, a voice intrudes.
My mother never showed anyone love, he responds. I show them nothing but.
And yet you hold hearts in your hand and break them just the same.
He ignores it and pulls the girl closer.
“Wanna head up there?” he asks, pointing to the Ghirardelli sign lighting up the park.
“What’s up there?”
“Is it any good?”
“I’ve heard good things.” “Let’s do it.”
She thinks, as they sit at the restaurant bar, him in his suit, her in her dress, that they look like an Instagram power couple, the ones she follows because she likes romance, but only in digestible doses. She enjoys writing about it, reading about it, watching movies about it, but when it comes to living it, she could never fathom dedicating her life to one person, to be restricted by one choice. How could she relinquish her ability to run, the relief she finds in the skin of others, the right she has to her own autonomy? Even now, his hands holding hers above the table, she struggles to fight the urge to vomit.
It surprises her, this visceral reaction, some primal urge to combat the fear of a broken heart. She has always found solace in avoidance, in denial, in shoving her traumas into the attic of her mind and locking it all away. She does not think of the ticking clock of her legality, how Americans will find her exoticism endearing until the moment her visa expires, until she is forced back into a country she belongs to on paper but not in spirit. She does not think of the countless times that she was violated, because one time is already too many, and two times is more than anyone should bear, but three times is a cruel trick of fate, a test to see how much weight it would take to break her. She does not think of the resulting pregnancy that was... until it wasn’t. And she won’t think of that either. She couldn’t give a life a kid would have deserved, and she certainly didn’t deserve that at only 21. She made choices to make up for the choices she couldn’t make, and it’s not that she regrets it, but she wishes the blood would stop so she could stop remembering it.
But then again, that’s what the tequila is for.
She’s tipsy now and the laughter comes easier. She prefers this brand of chemical imbalance to the one her mother cursed her with.
“—I know you must have so much fun at your boring tax job, but—”
“It’s not a tax job. It’s financial consulting. I have no idea where you got that from.”
“You told me! That night—”
He laughs. “Why would I tell you I work in taxes if I don’t?”
“Hell if I know, but you did.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I distinctly remember you telling me.”
“I distinctly remember you being too drunk to distinctly remember anything.”
“I distinctly remember you not being this much of an ass.” She kicks him playfully beneath the table and he grins.
“My apologies. You’re right. Even though I work in financial consulting, I told you that I worked for the IRS. Must have slipped my mind.”
“Must have,” she says, and with a hidden smile, takes another sip of her tequila.
“And how’s your thing going? You still writing that book?”
She waves her hand in dismissal. “No. That one sucked. I’m on a new one now.”
“What’s it about?”
“You wouldn’t get it.”
“You don’t get my boring financial job, and I still explained it to you.”
“Clearly not well enough.”
He smirks. “Clearly.”
“Ok, fine.” She sighs, taking a swig, gathering the courage she’d never have sober. “It’s fantasy. There’s this girl who’s an assassin and—” She stops. “This is stupid.”
“Because you’re looking at me like I only have one eyebrow.”
“No,” he says, smirk deepening. “I mean, why are you writing about that?”
“Oh.” She blinks. “I don’t know. I like it, I guess? Fantasy’s always fun ‘cause you get to make up all the rules. The assassin—I think I just like writing girls who don’t give a fuck. Who have no problem solving their own problems and getting a little bloody in the process.”
She sticks her tongue out. “At least it’s not a boring tax job.”
He takes her back to her hotel, and he lays her down to bed, and there is something about the way her blonde hair curls over the soft cotton of the pillow that makes him want to run his fingers through it, to touch his hands to her scalp and pull it forcefully towards him. It’s a familiar sight, though the bed is slightly different, these sheets too white to the cream of his memory, but he recognizes the stench of alcohol, the sad eyes veiled with seduction, the slightly drooping lips with too much to say and not enough liquid courage to say it.
He has done this many times, and he finds comfort in this routine, though the way he unbuttons her dress is different than any of the ways he’s done it before. Back then, it was always rushed, a means to an end, to get her to bed and sleep away the regret. Always a responsibility he was tasked with because if he didn’t do it, there would be nobody else, and it was him—she never failed to remind him—that ruined her this way. It was his fault she wasted her youth away, her 21st shaking a rattle over a cradle than her hips over a stage. But now he takes his time, letting the black silk slink to the floor, letting his callused hands slide over the curves of her body, letting himself tuck her hair behind her ear and lean his lips down to kiss her.
This is how he gets his kicks, in the moments between the silence, the moans and whispered names and lingering touch on skin parched for affection. He sees her broken in the way she moves, like a window taped whole, rattling in the rain, water seeping through, but holding stubbornly together. He wonders what made her this way. He has an urge to peel back her layers and expose the rotten core of her, to join her putridity to his, two halves of a broken whole. But he reminds himself that this is only a tryst, her name will mean nothing to him tomorrow, a face in his past, a means of survival.
He will carry on with his life, give in to Alec’s persistence, sit at a bar at midday drinking back the calories he worked off during the week, thinking of girls and thinking of work, but never thinking of her. It is a skill he has perfected, the silencing of a voice that threatens to destroy him.
She, too, has learned to silence the choicelessness that haunts her. When he touches her skin, she does not think about its gentle caress—it will remind her too much of the weighted feeling of unwanted hands. When he climbs inside of her, she does not think of how she feels complete—it will remind her too much of how it felt to be emptied. She thinks only of how it feels to have wanted this. To have made this choice. To be at the helm of her own destiny.
They are all parasites, these things, these people, these beings who take from her, some by force, some for survival. There are parasites she welcomes, like the boy now above her, these symbiotic creatures who find a home in filling the cracks of her skin of armor. Even she is a parasite, leeching off a land she does not belong to, her existence an invasion to those born with the right to call it home.
She wonders if people cannot help the things that they do to make them feel alive, if dying is a way of seeking these needs when they can no longer find them in existence. She thinks of the people she knows and wonders what part she plays in providing these needs, if she is the spider that weaves the tangled web of their lives, or one of the many flies caught in it, a means of temporary satiation for their human insatiability.
She has learned to fill her emptiness with carnal needs, and she never feels as alive as she does right now, panting breaths and wandering hands and clumsy mouths. The words between kisses and the laughter in the silence. It is a high she seeks to find between the balance of fear and life.
When it is over, they lay beneath the sheets, her leg curling around his, his fingers stroking the ridges of her hand, searching it with the eyes she didn’t notice were blue until he was laying there beside her. These eyes darken now, back to the black she thought they were, and it is a crack in his perfect composure. She wonders if maybe he is anything like her, a pile of broken bones trying desperately to be normal.
“You have big hands,” he says.
She flinches out of his grasp and hides it beneath the sheets. “Um, rude.”
“That’s not—” He reaches for it, twining his fingers through hers again. It’s that same possessiveness, but this time it’s hesitant, and she enjoys the warmth so she lets him. “It was an observation, not an insult.”
“My mother.” I get a lot of things from my mother.
He tries to hide his smirk. “So you come from a family of big-handed women.”
“That’s rich coming from you. Did your mom sleep with a bear or an elephant to get your height?”
His smirk fades. “Depends. Which one has the Maserati?”
There it is again—that crack, that darkness—and she doesn’t know how to deal with his brokenness when she has so many fissures of her own, but he has filled her needs tonight and not reciprocating wouldn’t feel right, so she does what she always does when she is feeling down. She knows it is contagious, her laughter, flowing like a wave through seas of strangers, a plague that decimates with joy. It gives her comfort, to know that she is the cause of glistening eyes and bared white teeth, tilted up lips and the sweet sounds of glee she emulates but never truly feels. She hopes it will find its home in him, cure his brokenness at least for now, but he responds to her laughter with only a soft smile.
A week later, he spends Christmas beneath a 20-foot tree with a man whose name he learns only for the night because he knows it will not matter come the new year. His mother drinks eggnog like coffee and the right strap of her dress has fallen off, and the man whose name he won’t remember drapes his hand around her shoulders and cups her breast. Neither of them care that he is there because he is an accident, a mistake, and he wonders why he ever came back. But Christmas is for family, and though he’s made a life off his child support, he’s never learned his father’s name.
On New Year’s, she digs her toes into the sand of a land that welcomes her home, jumps the waves and makes the seven wishes to the sea god of her nation. They are wishes she counts on fingers because they are too many, and they are all different variations of the same one—to be free, to be free, to be free. She wishes her mother would put down the knives she wields like razors to her wrists, and she wishes she will never end up like her, trapped in a country, in a marriage, in an institution. Trapped by the love she gave until there was none left for herself, the ghosts of the choices she was too weak to make trapping her with despair.
She promises she will move somewhere new next year, where the walls won’t bleed with the memory of her confinement. She promises, too, to stop sleeping with strangers, but four hours later she is pressed up against a wall by the body of a man who she only knows by an Instagram handle.
It is not the new year until I wake up, she tells herself, curling into a bed that has never felt like hers, and she falls asleep to the aftertaste of gin and a sweaty stranger’s skin.
He is not often on social media, but he returned to San Francisco on January 1st and there’s not much to do without the monotony of work. He sees the filtered photo of her on the beach of a country he cares nothing for, but her skin is tanned and her hair is blonde and he remembers how she made him smile once, so he double taps it before scrolling on.
She sees his name on her screen and remembers how he held her hand. She has lost the urge to vomit, and she wonders if it is because she no longer fears the possibility of him or if the possibility has already become a thing of the past, a vessel used when needed then quickly thrown in the trash.
I miss you. He sees the text and it is unexpected, but he has begun to expect the unexpectedness of her.
I miss you too. She sees the text and there is a flutter in her stomach and she can’t tell if it’s bile or butterflies. She decides not to risk it.
He receives no response, but he has too much paperwork to question it.
Tape for paper tears.
Glue for shattered glass.
Band-aids for bullet wounds.