Strawberries nestled between lumps of brown sugar-coated oatmeal for breakfast. Juicy, grainy, sticky.
Birds sing between the branches of jacaranda trees to the tune of something that sounds like honey spread on leaves, butter on bread. Snippets of summer radio remind us to stay hydrated while the cars whistle by, slowly. There’s nowhere to go. August will come.
South Los Angeles is just thirty minutes from the ocean. But most days, the only body of water we touch comes from the one we create. Sweat and joy. Pain and sadness. Cool to the touch.
Our heads submerged, coming up for air only when it is time to shower.
After breakfast, there’s always a can of Altoids. Inside, flakes of brown and green leaves. I watch you roll and lick, then pass. No mint, just grass. An early flame. We sit on your porch in plastic green beach chairs and smoke for hours. Through the morning, through the afternoon heatwaves, and wonder.
* * * *
We didn’t have any money. We were always driving around in old cars. Cars that belonged to someone’s sister or roommate, cars that someone’s something or other said we could borrow while they did their backpacking trip through Europe, a graduation present to themselves. We celebrated your graduation with beers, upgrading from Keystone Light to Corona. As if that was a rite of passage. No lime, still cold.
I celebrated your graduation by graduating from my parents. Nineteen and just happy to be loved by you.
Who needs parents who don’t know how to parent themselves?
This is how I remember us that summer.
Dinner always begins with the crack-and-pop of Trader Joe’s two-buck-chuck wine bottles. Moist cork. Glass pressed to your nose. Blackberry and aged grape. And the most important flavor: oxygen. Breath of life. Just enough, not too much.
Kitchen knives placed perfectly, Netflix ready on your computer. One day, we’ll afford a television.
Boiling water for pasta and fresh-cut cilantro, the crunch of black pepper, rosemary-crusted lamb roast. Fingertips pressed on the oven. Electric heat burning my face.
There I am, nineteen and already looking like my mother. Her waiting and all.
“I want to go everywhere with you and I want to go nowhere without you,” I say drunkenly, pulling you on top of me, undressing you with my wine-stained lips. And nowhere we go. We lay and smoke and watch ourselves become black skies. The place where stickiness feels like vast seas.
We knock down glass after glass with exhilaration, a forgetting. Like to be drunk is a climax, like to no longer be sober is to remember. Inhaling enough of each other to be high, cutting ourselves off just before comatose.
Multiple universes exist, I know that and only that for sure. But I still want to ask: where do the stars go after they die, where do meteors crash on Earth, where do you and I fall when we finally decide to wake up?
This is how I remember staying.
* * * *
I often wonder. If I could go back, would I tell myself the truth? That most of the time, my eyes were closed, like I was just bracing myself, hoping that I could make it through all the horrible parts of my life and somehow still come out alive?
Will you save me?
I never asked directly.
I remember my parents talking about one day. One day, you will meet someone who you will share your life with. One day, you will be loved.
One day, they said, as if they were ever happy.
You kill cockroaches and yell at landlords while I pop two pills of Effexor, watching from the window. Peering through the blinds, I can feel you sighing as soon as you reach your car, the parking ticket flying like a kite underneath the windshield wiper. The auto shop across the street would always win the street-parking-war. Right next to an auto shop, you said. The perfect apartment.
Always preparing for the worst, you and I. Ready for a break-down. You never did go to that auto shop.
Has the lamb finished cooking, baby?
* * * *
Do you remember wheeling our baskets to the laundromat around the corner, our entire evening blocked off just to separate colors? Do you remember the church chorus serenading us while we soaped clothes? Do you remember the smell of street-grilled carnitas and piping hot tortillas? How we always stopped at the taqueria on the way home, how I would ask for all three types of salsa. Drenching my tacos until they bled.
Too much detergent, baby.
I’m sorry. I’m always too much.
You can tell that wine has oxidized, if not by your nose, by your mouth. Tornado spinning on your lips, spiraling inward towards itself. Stringent enough to rub the insides of your cheeks dry. Wine goes down best when you close your eyes.
I could never handle my alcohol the way you could. Stinging. Sour. Full-bodied, all tannin. Jagged, dry burn in the throat like sandpaper rubbing the roof of your mouth. Nausea to make your head spin. Heartburn in the chest. Prepared to erupt.
A pause, then deep sigh, from the hollow part of your belly. The place where it hurts so bad that no one can ever visit, not even me, the supposed love of your life. I know this place because I have this place, too, and I promise: for all you think you have seen of me, you have never traveled here.
You, on one side of the bathroom door, and me on the other. Me on my knees.
What’s wrong what’s wrong what’s WRONG.
Is it your voice or mine? I cannot be sure.
When I finally unlock the door, you glance over at the unflushed toilet. You don’t know what to say after, and I can’t blame you.
We will always remain silent about these nights.
Here’s a question I have been dying to ask you: when (if) you remember me,
Do you remember the summer, the girl on her knees, or both?
I tried to leave once before I really left.
Maybe, it was only in that space, the distance between us, and between that locked door, that we finally heard each other.
You remember, don’t you?
It was you who told me to go.
My bags packed. Suitcase at the door.
We never talk about that night. How you opened me up and left me exposed like the cork, the tree pulled from its roots.
I asked you to ask me to stay, and yes, I know I should have just said I’m sorry. But I was nineteen and still playing games. Pretending to be an adult when I was a child. Pretending to be your confidante when I still was a stranger to myself.
Our values are just different. Not just opposites-attract-different but irreconcilably different. Maybe it’s a good thing.
Your words melted like ice on my tongue, slid down my throat. I took the words with me when I left, when I found myself awake the next morning somewhere other than your bed. I told you I was a child.
But I came back, you remember that part, right? The knocking down of it all, the truth peering in like light through the window, the opportunity for us to set it straight. There was a chance for us to stop annihilating each other with our own demons.
When I returned, it was you on your knees this time. Please, never again. I love you. Whatever you need. The first and only time I have ever seen you cry.
You can give someone everything and it’s still not enough, baby. It’s never enough when they don’t love themselves.
This is how I broke.
I wonder what it would be like to work on a vineyard, to pull grapes and press them into something beautiful, to watch liquified fruit swim through machines and bottles, and eventually end up in the hands of two people, like you and me. To give someone something beautiful.
To give someone something that they want to remember.
* * * *
Why do people stay together when they are so different?
We learned to give each other space. So much air, we stopped breathing altogether. Squeezed every ounce of sweetness out, wringing the towel, licking the glass clean. Until there was nothing left but the pungent, sour, suffocating, sharp-like smell of acid.
Aeration is good for wine until it is not. Until it rots.
You never asked me, but I know it was always on the tip: Why are you like this?
I think you should have trusted yourself. But maybe that is why people stay together when they are different. Because of the things they refuse to admit, to each other, and to themselves. After all, here I am.
Years later, still letting the wine swirl, tasting you turn on my tongue.
Gabrielle Trúc Cohen (she/her) is moved by narratives that interrogate space. The spaces we take up, the spaces we leave behind, and the spaces where we live in-between. She has previously published an essay about this in diaCritics, a journal of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian diaspora arts and culture. This is her first published work of fiction. She is a multiracial, Vietnamese-American writer from California who currently lives in Saigon.