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Phantasmagoria

by Brianna Sanow

Rain is sliding down the window pane in a thick layer, as though someone is aiming a garden hose directly at it. I’m sitting at the kitchen table slowly and carefully enjoying the bowl of cereal set before me. Wilson sits across from me, staring at a newspaper dated two days ago. He’s not so much staring at it as he is looking straight through it, into something inside his own mind.

I enjoy myself more every day living in this house. Nothing ever happens, which is precisely why I like it. Usually things turn from dismal to worse until I’m moved somewhere else. And the cycle keeps repeating itself. I hold on to the thought that maybe this time it’s different, that maybe I found where I belong, at least as much as a person like me can belong somewhere. At this point I’ve learned not to think too optimistically so as to save myself from inevitable disappointment, but for now I can’t stop myself from hoping.

Wilson is probably in his early thirties, although he carries himself as someone much older. He has a plain yet handsome face, noticeably strong hands, and the posture of a man who has given up. Although I’m not positive yet what he’s given up on, it seems it may be the pursuit of having a happy life.

“I’m sorry to bring you into this,” Wilson says. “I’m a mess.”

I put the spoon I’m holding down into my bowl, slightly surprised by the unusual discharge of words. I’ve been here for four weeks and have had close to no conversation with the man who has taken me in.

“This is the happiest home I’ve ever lived in,” I tell him. For reasons I can’t grasp, an expression forms on his face as though what I have said makes him very sad, but he gives me a lingering look, as though he thinks he might understand.

Wilson sighs, grabbing his face with his veiny hands. “My wife died six months ago,” he says, struggling to get the words out, as though maybe he’d never spoken them before. “She was never able to have her own children. We’d made plans long ago to be foster parents, to adopt eventually, but then…she wasn’t able to.”

“I’m very sorry,” I tell him, and I mean it. I hate the word “sorry,” really. How is it that the same word that is an appropriate response for accidentally bumping into someone or interrupting them mid-sentence is also a valid reply to a disclosure of deep grief? I hope the sincerity shows through in my voice. I’m unsure of what else I can say.

Sometimes when terrible things happen to people it makes them calloused and they don’t care when they see other people in pain anymore. My biggest fear is that I might one day become one of those people, so when someone tells me something really sad or fucked up that’s happened to them, I try to focus on it for as long as possible and imagine what they might be feeling. My psychologist tells me I shouldn’t do this. She says it’s not healthy to assume other people’s problems as my own, and that instead I should strive to cheer someone up if they’re feeling sad. Even though she endured years of college to earn the entitlement of being a professional giver of life advice, I’m not convinced Dr. Alma always knows what she’s talking about. After all, ministers don’t tell jokes during funeral services; they deliver eulogies and say a lot of sad shit that makes everyone listening cry even harder.

My cereal is getting soggy so I start spooning it into my mouth again, all the while trying to guess what it might feel like to have the person you love the most die. I’ve never known anyone who died. Not really. My dad died when I was an infant, but mostly that just makes it seem like I never had a dad at all. He shot himself in the head while sitting on a couch in the living room of the house where I spent the first thirteen years of my life. The only reason I know how he died is because once I read my file when Dr. Alma had to step out of her office during one of our sessions to calm down a patient who’d shown up in hysterics. I guess I was in a crib just a few feet away from the couch when it happened. Sometimes I like to imagine that right before he did it, he picked me up in his arms and held me for a final goodbye.

Wilson has gone back to staring through Tuesday’s paper and my cereal is gone now. I’m still hungry and I’d like another bowl, but one thing I’ve learned is to never ask for more than I need to. I don’t think Wilson is in this for the money; it’s a meager compensation, anyway. It’s really just enough to cover the added expense of having someone living in your house, but some people will give you almost nothing so they can make a little profit from the system. I guess Wilson sees me staring at my bowl because he asks me if I’m still hungry. In the back of my mind I wonder if this is some sort of test, to see if I’m going to be greedy or not, but I decide to be honest and tell him yes. Wilson takes my bowl and fills it to the brim with cereal and milk.         “You should always eat as much as you like,” he tells me. Then he dismisses himself to his bedroom.

It’s summertime, so I don’t have to go to school. Wilson has a very irregular work schedule; there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it, but he always lets me know when he’s going out or leaves me a note if I’m asleep. There really isn’t much to do to entertain myself. He doesn’t have many books and the TV only gets five channels, but he does have a lot of pictures. Normally I would feel bad going through someone’s life like that, but he has them inside albums that are placed on top of the coffee table for anyone to browse through. Mostly they are filled with photos of him and his wife. She was very beautiful with espresso brown hair and light blue eyes trimmed in green. I can’t help but notice that in all of the pictures they look so absolutely in love and yet so miserable at the same time. I wonder how that feels, to be in love but not be happy.

Tonight Wilson is sprawled out on the couch, a half-empty bottle of whisky on the coffee table in front of him. He is talking to the TV while an overly made-up woman with piss-blonde-colored hair encourages the viewers to order some revolutionary set of Tupperware. I feel uncomfortable for the first time since moving in. Of course he has every right to drink in his house if he wants to, it’s just that for me no good has ever come from being around inebriated men. When I was twelve, my mother started renting me out for the night to her male “friends.” She would invite guys over who would be anticipating a drug-infused fuck from her, but instead she’d get them loaded and offer them her daughter for a price. So as to hold onto some shred of faith in humanity, I would try to convince myself that they wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t completely out of their minds on heroin and booze, and that if they remembered it, they regretted it the day after.

I retreat to my bedroom for an hour and then decide I’ll go check on him. Wilson is passed out now with the TV still going. I turn it off and grab a blanket from a nearby chair to cover him up with. He latches onto it in his sleep and mutters, “I love you, Lara,” under his breath while he slumbers. Even in a drunken sleep his dead wife is all that’s on his mind. I’ve decided now that Wilson is harmless.

Last week he came home one night with his arms full of bulging paper grocery bags. He asked me if I enjoy cooking and I told him it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn. Tonight is the sixth night in a row we’re attempting to learn together.

“I think you can flip the bacon now,” he tells me. I do and find that I’ve cooked the underside to a black crisp.

“Just the way I like it,” he tells me with not a hint of sarcasm in his voice. The crunching sound of our teeth biting into the sandwiches fills the otherwise quiet kitchen.

“How did your wife die?” I ask him without thinking at all.

Wilson stops mid-bite, a dot of mayo on the side of his upper lip. He is looking at me as though I might be the first person who ever asked him this.

“A drug overdose,” he tells me. “Lara was an addict.” He wipes his mouth with a napkin. “Sometimes I think I may be the only person in the world who’s never done a drug in their life and yet married an addict.”

Wilson has opened up to me. Admittedly, I’ve somewhat forced him to. But he could have lied instead. I’ve never really opened myself up to anyone. Lord knows Dr. Alma has tried a thousand times to get me to share about my “abuse,” as she refers to the events of my life, but I guess I never had any interest divulging my thoughts to a woman the state has appointed to give a damn about me.

“Do you think a person dying is about the same as being abandoned?” I ask him.

He chooses his words carefully. “I think maybe with death there can be more closure,” he tells me. “And possibly less anger.”

“But Lara didn’t have to die. She could have stopped abusing drugs.”

“Well, yes,” he says. He’s silent for a moment. “And I’m constantly angry with her for that. But it’s easier to be upset with myself, because I could have stopped her. And I should have. I didn’t, though, and now she’s gone. Sometimes I can’t wrap my head around the fact that she’ll never walk through the front door again, and that it’s partially because of me.”

I digest what he’s said along with the blackened bacon in my stomach. In some ways, Wilson is the most confusing person I have ever known. Maybe it’s that he’s the first true man I’ve come across in the sense that he so readily accepts the blame for his choices, or maybe there is a feeling of obligation that comes with sharing pain. Whatever it is, I want him to know about the things I’ve kept from Dr. Alma, the things that I’ve buried so deeply within myself that they are hidden away in the marrow of my bones, invisible from the outside but always present in my blood.

“I know more about you than you know about me,” I tell him. “That doesn’t seem right, to have a stranger living in your home.”

Wilson smiles a contemplative sort of smile. “I don’t think we’re strangers. And anyways you have the right to your privacy. For me, it helps to have someone who listens.”

That is enough for him to gain my trust entirely. I begin speaking and continue until there is nothing left undisclosed. He is the priest and the kitchen my confessional, a thick curtain of hurt enclosed around us. I admit not my own transgressions but rather the errors of those who have wronged me. The chipped linoleum tile floor becomes holy ground and I can feel myself ascending, rising out of the valleys of my past. Wilson takes my hand and squeezes.

As I drift into sleep that night I can still feel the warmth of his strong hand on mine.

The edges of summer are furling now, rolling in to their end. I sit on the couch reading an informational packet from the new school I’ll be attending in a couple weeks. I hear Wilson at the door now, fumbling to find the right key.

“Goddamn frosting,” I hear him mumble under his breath. Quickly I open the door, revealing a flustered Wilson balancing in his hand a richly frosted cake, glowing with the light of seventeen dripping candles. “Maybe I should have waited to light them,” he says.

“Oh, wow,” I say in a hushed voice. The last birthday cake I’ve been given had only five candles on it. He begins to sing to me in a showtuney voice and I laugh until I cry. “You’d better make a wish,” he tells me, and I think to myself that I wish I could have those years back, those missing candles. Instead I plead to the birthday gods that Wilson will give me a cake glowing with eighteen flames.

It’s three in the morning and I am awakened by voices wafting from the living room, Wilson’s and a woman’s. I roll over in bed to face the other direction, figuring it’s none of my business. I try to think of anything besides the low hum of conversation creeping in from under my door as I count the seconds like sheep in my head. 1,387, 1,388, 1,389… Curiosity has gotten the better of me and I silently make my way out of my room and down the hall.

“I wish I could make more sense right now,” the woman says. “It’s like I’m on fire, like my whole body is…Oh god I’m sorry, I think I’m gonna throw up again.”

As I make my way into the living room, I watch as a woman with her back to me vomits into a bucket she grabs off of the coffee table, next to several open photo albums strewn across it. Wilson pulls back her chocolaty brown hair with one hand, stroking her blanketed back with his other.

“I think we have some nausea medicine in the cabinet,” I announce as the woman heaves another round of puke into the pail.

Wilson looks up at me with a shameful expression of guilt worn on his face.

“Ezra, I didn’t realize you were awake,” he says. He looks down with nothing else to say. I grab some paper towels from the kitchen and walk back to the couch, handing them to the woman who sets the bucket back on the table. As she turns to look at me am I am met with the face of a ghost, a phantasm.

“Thank you,” the gaunt woman tells me weakly, wiping the edges of her mouth.

“It’s Lara,” I say to myself.

I look again to Wilson, his head still bowed. He says nothing.

“I wish you didn’t have to meet me like this,” Lara says.

I take this as my cue to leave. I walk out the front door, barefoot and still wearing pajamas. The air outside is thick and muggy and clouds my already confused thoughts. My pace quickens from a brisk walk to an outright sprint. I can’t remember the last time I’ve moved so fast. Have I ever really run from anything at all? My whole life I’ve been a human ball, bounced from place to place, hurtled through situations by the force of other people. I run faster. Sharp chunks of gravel and broken fragments of glass cut into my feet as they pound onto the pavement with the full force of my weight, and I think to myself that it is glorious. It is fucking glorious just to feel and to know for maybe the first time in my life fully what it is that I am feeling: hurt. It rips through me like a dull knife jaggedly slicing through a hunk of meat. It is real because I allow it to be.

I find myself in a park a few blocks away from the house. Breathlessly I collapse onto a bench. Flying bugs swarm around the loudly buzzing streetlight across from me, the only sound that I can hear. I think to myself that maybe I’ll just keep running. Run until I turn eighteen years old and I’m free to bounce where I please, off the court and into my own game.

Soon I hear footsteps approaching. I don’t even have to look to know that it is Wilson. He sits down beside me without a word.

“You’re an illusionist,” I tell him. “You made me believe in a false reality.”

“I was only ever trying to fool myself. It was easier to believe my wife was dead than that she chose a damned drug over me.” Wilson shifts his weight and stares down the path.

“If anything, I can relate to you more now. I know what it’s like to be second place, or no place at all. Only thing is, no one’s ever coming back for me.”

“I understand you might never have shared the things that you did with me if you had known the truth.” Wilson pinches the spot between his eyes with his fingers. “I don’t know what kind of person does that, lies about someone they love dying. I felt ashamed that she left me. Unlovable. Like I must really have some serious character flaws for my wife to enjoy getting high more than she enjoyed my company.”

“I’m not one to hold grudges, Wilson. If I did, by now they’d outweigh my own strength by far.”

“And that’s good, Ezra. Really, that’s the way to be a lot of the time. But I want you to be upset with me. I want proof that you still feel something when someone does you wrong. Because if you’ve lost that reaction entirely, you’ll spend the rest of your life letting people walk all over you.”

I try to summon a feeling, an indication that I can acknowledge the good from the bad. People are just so gray. The black, the white. Trying to separate the positive from the negative.

“I was feeling,” I tell him. “When I ran out of the house. I felt betrayed and hurt. And you did that to me.”

“I’m very, very sorry Ezra.”

“No, I mean, you made me feel something,” I say slowly, reaching out for truth in my words as I speak them. “Maybe it was fabricated but we shared things with one another. You are maybe the first person to treat me with respect without making me a charity case and that has opened me up. Being exposed to pain is going to be a part of that.”

Wilson and I sit side by side on the bench lost in our own thoughts for a while. I don’t know how much time has passed but it’s still completely black outside. I focus on the ground, staring at a small flower struggling to grow through a crack in the pavement.

“Is she staying?” I finally ask him.

He nods his head, the shadow of it cast from the streetlight ebbing and rising on the pavement. “She says she is.”

“Does that mean I’ll have to go?”

Wilson turns his face from me toward the path down the park. I already know the answer to my question. I look into the direction he is gazing. Past the light from the lamp there is only complete nothingness. A questionable sea of darkness I cannot perceive.

I don’t know what lies beyond, but there must be something.

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