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"What Happened?"

by Emma Choi


     An English classroom—September. The girl sits at a desk under-stuck with green and blue gum. She reads The Bell Jar: a battered copy, binding threads stretched thin like cobwebs. There are children everywhere, sitting on top, below, in front of, behind desks but they aren’t quite children and they aren’t quite adults and everyone here is changing and everyone here is the same. Suddenly—like a rush of cold air—there is a black backpack, a blue button-down, a paperback copy of A Farewell to Arms. “Hello,” she says. “Hello,” he says. “Hello,” says her heart. “Hello,” says his.
   The girl cracks a joke. The boy smiles. The world cracks open like a gumball.


     The girl retains the posture of someone ashamed of her body even though she has nothing to be ashamed of (?) She wears clothes that are sold to be preppy but on her, something else. On her, nothing quite the way it’s supposed to be: black hair lit blue, brown eyes shaded black, thighs described a thousand different ways: husky, thick, thunder, unique… she hides them the best she can. How to describe this girl of a thousand shells? Trapped, read the words in her head. Trapped. This girl writes poems on her palms and reads Bukowski under her covers at two A.M. This girl, convinced she will die early, that she is running out of time, out of something. This girl, girl of rainstorms—sometimes when it rains she stands in the doorway, neither in nor out, just to listen for a little bit, just to be quiet because there are no places in her life that are quiet anymore, only noise and rush and zoom and push.


1. The grandmother. Soft. In the sweaters she knits, the words she speaks, the weathered lines of her face. She patches blankets with scraps shaped like hearts; her potholders are faces of flowers. Forty years in a sandwich shop where the customers threw napkins on the floor—this woman of mountain springs and biology degrees studied the science of soda fountains. To her grandchildren she sings songs of mountain rabbits and streams of silver trout; she massages their fingers one by one to make sure they grow long and strong. She presses their smooth faces between her cool palms—palms of a healer—and asks them in accented English if they are happy. Are you happy?

2. The mother. Four feet eleven inches, although she claims it’s five feet. She has had one boyfriend: her husband—the girl’s father—and believes that love comes when you are twenty or older. Wait, she says, wait. Always wait. A woman who wears her sacrifice in plastic hair clips, an oversized goose-down coat, a pair of worn-soled burgundy clogs. A woman of cul-de-sacs and accounting firms, she loves her children more than herself. She tells the girl: you and I, we’re the same. Exactly the same.

3. The sister. Always linked to her boyfriend, a tall boy of caramel hair. She is softer around him, to the girl, stupider. She is always asking questions, questions that have predetermined answers, that are aimed to make the girl agree with her. Most nights she calls the boyfriend and they talk for hours and sometimes she hangs up laughing and muttering I love him and sometimes she hangs up crying and claiming, I’m going to break up with him. I will, this time. In two years this time becomes tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…


     As the rocket launches from a cornfield in Texas his eyes fill with wonder: the television screen reflected in the shine of his eyes, engine fire roaring through his spider-webbed veins. He drives his younger brothers out to watch the asteroid showers; he knows the names of the summer constellations. He’s never seen a shooting star but is saving a wish for when he does—his best one, he promises. For now, he wishes on clocks: 11:11 as the night burns orange.
     Easton has coarse brown hair and blue eyes that glow green in direct light. He is tall and beanpole thin. He has a southwest dimple, fifteen freckles on his neck, a crooked smile, crooked morals.
     “All the best authors are assholes,” Easton says, “I would rather be feared than loved.” Easton writes poems as he listens to classical music and they are beautiful and reminiscent and sad. He dreams of sailboats in South Carolina, ranches in Arizona, a field of sage. He has been in love before. He says, “In the best way I knew how.” He never says “I’m sorry” when he’s not. Has he ever been sorry? Easton is never cold, not even when he shivers, not even when his hands steam against the girl’s hellfire skin.


     On this paved path of asphalt and ambiguity there is no such thing as time. No, these are the moments made of molasses—the moments in which things are fossilized: a cicada, a leaf, a plastic pearl earring. Above: fireflies smattered in the stars, constellated in the still June air, simply waiting to be caught and they do, they do. Him: five. Her: three. He has always had better instincts than her. He can’t stand losing. And yet he cups them in his hands and as light drips out from between the cracks of his fingers he tells her here, come, make a wish…hurry… She is always making wishes with this boy. The trees sound like rain when the breeze ruffles their leaves. A cicada seatime. Here is the place she learns to love—the deer who are not afraid of you. The path just keeps going and going and going, past the blinking stoplight where they watch their shadows brush each other and whisper about how they are the only people alive. Here is where she learns his soul: the nooks, the crannies, the turns—together they draw the map of their sadness and see where they coincide. The night is an ocean, a vacuum, an anesthetic and they lather it like lotion over the puckered skin of their scars. Some nights she wishes they could walk forever and into the stars; others, it is enough to lean against his slim car and close her eyes and focus on the way his hip fits into her side, his fingers trace circles on her shoulder, the beat of his heart thuds in perfect time. It is elemental. It is poetry. It is so quiet. And one night he pulls her towards the softball field—his arm slung sloppily (sleepily?) around her neck—and she doesn’t remember falling but they are in the grass and her feet are tangled with his and his shampoo smells like cinnamon and her shirt is riding up her back and the stars are so low they nestle into her hair and his hand is drawing circles again and the planes of their noses are laid against each other’s and the air is an aphrodisiac and her lungs are expanding and her ribs are expanding and her stomach is expanding and her heart is expanding and she is consumed by this feeling… this feeling of…
     And he says her name.
     And he kisses her.


     There is always something going on here but there is always nothing leaving. On roadmaps the other side of the interstate is white space. There are a thousand roundabouts in a fifty-mile radius. Nobody leaves but only comes around the beltway. Around and around and around and around and…


“I love you”
“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it”
“Why would I say it then?”
“Because I said it”
“That’s stupid.”
“Yeah bu-”
“Shh. Stop talking.”


     The scars etched into his skin run a roadmap of white tissue that the girl traces with her fingertips, pretending these scratches are byways and highways and interstate lines. He lets her run away on his skin but when she tries to kiss his blemishes and make them better he shifts away—just a little, just enough.
     Mornings make Easton sad and dirty sneakers make Easton sad and the girl’s sadness makes Easton sad and it is hard for him to let her love him when he is sad because he knows his sadness will make hers worse. He is tired of making things worse. Sometimes when Easton is sad he will not reply to her texts and when she tells him she loves him he will change the subject. But none of this matters because she has been taught to believe love is not easy and love is not simple and the way this girl loves this boy is less like connection and more like absorption.
     Easton doesn’t know what to do with all of her love and she doesn’t know what to do with all of his retreat so they respond to their doubt in the way that works worst. But in spite of everything, they are always led back to each other. “I was wrong,” he says. “I love you,” she says.


1. Easton asks her, “Are you coming?” and the answer is always yes, partially because she does not know how to say no to him and partially because she does not want to waste one minute being sixteen and in love with this boy of lipbloom and starfire and astrobreath.

2. They discover sex in the blue haze of his bedroom and this is a new type of learning. Everything is so fast and there is breath and there is light and there is noise: the thrum of the ceiling fan, the timpani of his heart, her name murmured into her hair. She becomes infatuated with his body—lean, taut, instinctive—and is ashamed to admit it but he presses his thumb against her chin and lays his forehead against hers and tells her, “There’s nothing to be embarrassed of.” But between these flashes of light there are pieces of quiet. He holds her to his chest. She listens to his heart. He traces circles on her shoulder. There is fear in these moments; in the gargantuan silence they are only children again, surrounded by something that they cannot name. They fear the imminence of this thing, the inevitability. But they only hold each other—he pulls her close like he is trying to pull her into him—and they acknowledge it all and they do not try to name it.

3. On their fourth escape they stop by his mother’s house to grab his jacket and she is home and the girl can tell that she wasn’t supposed to be by the way Easton’s jaw clenches when he sees her car in the driveway. Two minutes the girl is alone with her and it is barely enough time to make pleasantries and say “hello, I’m—” until he is rushing her out the door and she is calling “it was really nice to meet you!”
     In his car they sit in quiet. The girl recalls the night his mother drove away from his father and Easton drove his fist into a vase. This is the kind of person he is, she thinks, the kind to shatter a vase and hide the pieces. So instead of asking the obvious question she kisses his cheek and asks him, “Do you wanna get going?”

4. He picks her up at seven and they go into the city and sit on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. As the sun melts into the skyline the tourists filter out onto the streets, but they remain on the moonlit marble and watch the city lights flicker on like swarms of fireflies. They sit without touching and watch the moon like it’s going to give them something. She thinks, “He makes me feel immortal.” She thinks, “One day we’re going to die.”


1. Mother discovers the girl’s betrayal, this girl who she did not know was capable of telling a lie, and screams how could you? as the kitchen tiles shatter around them. She grounds the girl for two weeks in which the girl writes him seven letters, each signed “Always.” He is worth it all, she thinks, he is worth anything.

2. Sister chews a wad of purple gum and asks her why are you still with him? and uses words like toxic and oblivious and complacent. She asks questions like condemnations. She holds her boyfriend’s hand like a handle of a leash.

3. Grandmother wraps the girl’s tear streaked face between her satin palms and asks her again and again: Are you happy? Are you happy?


She asks him “What’s wrong?” he tells her “Nothing.”
She asks him “What’s going on?” he tells her “Nothing.”
She asks him “What can I do?” he tells her “Nothing.”


     In his bed, the moment after lightning. Sunlight streaming through blue curtains, their bodies warm and curved together, her ear pressed against his heart. She asks him if he still loves her and he claims that he doesn’t know. She says that he does. No, he says, not anymore. Why not? she asks. I don’t know, he says. She thinks about how not knowing is worse than being sure. He says he is sorry, She tells him he has broken her heart. He says he is sorry. She tells him she still loves him. He says he is sorry. He asks her if he should leave. She tries not to cry. No, she says. Okay, he says, okay.
     She can’t remember if she closed the door on the way out.


What were you thinking the first time we kissed?
What were you thinking when we crashed your car?
Did you ever really love me or did you say it because you thought you should?
Did you know that everyone warned me about you and they all turned out to be right?
What were you wishing for all those times you wouldn’t say?
Where do wishes go after they’ve been made?
What happens to promises after they’ve been broken?
What happened to make you break yours?
Why can’t I stay angry at you?
Why can’t I decide how to say your name?
Should I regret everything that happened with us?
Do you?


     September. The girl walks into the classroom and everyone is upperclassmen now and everyone wears green jackets now and everyone is no different now.
     He sits in the back corner reading some book about war—his back to everyone. Her keychain still hangs from the zipper of his backpack. It is hard not to notice these things.
     As he turns a page there is a memory stirred involving July sunlight streaming through leaves but she closes her eyes and it is gone.
     The bell rings. The girl takes a seat.

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