Science Fiction & Fantasy

Advertisement

Fiction

Maybe Look Up

You’re just stepping into the crosswalk when the SUV screeches to a stop with its bumper six inches from your hip. It’s sleeting. It wasn’t sleeting when you left your apartment, so you’re wearing canvas sneakers with holes beside the little toes, where all of your sneakers always get holes, and you haven’t been able to feel your feet for six blocks. It’s been weeks since you got more than four hours of sleep, and two days ago the girl you briefly thought you were going to grow old with told you she wasn’t sure she was able to feel that way about you anymore. So there’s something crucial fritzing out in your brain, and you don’t register the near-death experience at first, just stand there blinking at the SUV with sleepy cow eyes, trying to understand what you should do next.

The SUV’s driver side window rolls down. You’re welcome, says the driver. Fifty-something white guy, business suit, expensive haircut. You stare. The window rolls back up. You stare some more. He lays on the horn, a heart-rattling blare in the quiet afternoon street. You shuffle meekly the rest of the way across the crosswalk. The SUV squeals away the moment your backside has cleared the bumper.

You reach the curb, and stand there in your wet sneakers and broken heart, and think, fuck, I can’t believe I let him get away with that.

• • • •

Yeah. You think that might be the one.

• • • •

Whoa, says An Li. Back up, back up.

An Li’s on the other end of the lumpy couch the two of you rescued from the furniture exchange, diminutive under the terrible chenille throw your mom sent you for your last birthday. Ever since she cut it short, An Li’s coarse salt-and-pepper hair sticks out from her from skull in all directions, like she just jammed her thumb into a socket. It’s great.

Back up here, she says again. That’s what you’re gonna go for? Some lame esprit de l’escalier moment? What about the girl that broke your heart? Have you even told me about this chick? Why not go back and fix things with her?

You make a face. Oh, you say. Oh, yeah, no. That’s not a great idea.

What? Why the hell not?

I dunno, man, you say. We just. We weren’t meant to be.

That’s what people always say to make themselves feel better when shit ends stupidly, An Li says.

Well, you say.

An Li says, it’s going on the list.

The list lives in a little palm-sized flip notebook, plastic purple spiral holding it together at the top, glitter-outlined unicorn on the front. An Li claims the notebook is a metaphor for the risks of nostalgia. She brandishes a pink gel pen that smells like plasticky strawberry foam.

Fix things with—what was her name again?

You wince. Beth-Ann, you say.

Wow, says An Li. No, okay, sorry, that was dick. Fix – things – with – Beth – Ann, she writes, penmanship painstaking and small.

Write the SUV thing too, you say.

Loser, she says, and does.

• • • •

You meet An Li on a syrupy warm Saturday afternoon when you should be finishing your waves and oscillations homework but are instead, predictably and ill-advisedly, curled under a duvet in the common room getting drunk to a backdrop of This Old House re-runs. An Li’s hair is waist-length, then, and she’s still wearing her snake-bite piercings, and she’s carrying a much-patched old hiking backpack you’ll eventually come to refer to snarkily as her bag of holding.

This sucks, An Li tells you. You’ve never seen her before in your life. C’mon, she says. We’re going swimming in the river.

You frown. Isn’t that gross? Illegal?

Not as gross as spending your Saturday afternoon with Bob Vila, says An Li.

I like Bob Vila, you say. Everyone likes Bob Vila.

Whatever, says An Li. Don’t be a loser. Life’s too short.

• • • •

Really, you’re pretty sure you couldn’t fix things with Beth-Ann, even if you wanted to.

This is the problem with all the big shit, right: you only get the one shot at going back and changing something, after all, thirty minutes give or take, and how much of the really fucked up stuff in your life can you fix in a half hour? With Beth-Ann, it’s not like there’s one catastrophic event that ends the two of you, not like you forget an anniversary or skimp on a birthday present. If anything, you have the opposite problem, too intense, too needy, too . . . you.

Maybe if you go back and tone it down, just once, at one crucial moment, put the kibosh on the romantic dinner you set up even though you know she’s freaking about finals, just chill the fuck out that one time she refuses to get coffee with your mother and you end up taking it too personally. Change that, and maybe you wake up in a new-construction three-bedroom out in the suburbs, not in the same cozy shit-hole you and An Li found during grad school and have been too cheap-slash-lazy to move out of for ten years. Maybe you have a big porch with a gas grill, kids, a swing set, a dog. Maybe if you bring Beth-Ann coffee and make sure she gets to class on time that one Thursday in April, instead of going down on her and making her miss a pop quiz that will end up dropping her Ethical Reasoning average to a B, the only one she’ll make at university, you wake up to a world where you go to yoga every morning and don’t have that weird scar next to your left eyebrow and have figured out how to have a glass of wine without ending the night blackout drunk.

You know. Or not.

• • • •

Oh, I’m a loser, you say. Whatever. Like it’s any worse than what we’ve got so far. You scoot down on the couch so you can warm up your bare feet against An Li’s fuzzy pajama pants, press your toes against the long bone of her thigh. Read it to me again, you say.

An Li licks a thumb and goes to flip a page back in the notebook. Her hands aren’t working well today, and it takes her long enough that you start to feel like a dick for asking. One, she says. Ace the first grade spelling test that made Miss Xander put you in the remedial reading group.

Still stings, you say.

Two, she says. Fuck up Danny Tremonti for making fun of your seventh grade homecoming dance dress. Man, you get bitter about these failure-of-wit moments, huh?

He told me I looked like Fiona from Shrek, you say. When I gave him the benefit of the doubt and said thanks, he made sure to clarify that he meant her ogre form.

Lotta pop culture lead-up to that one, but okay, says An Li. So what’s your scathing retort this go-around?

I was thinking punch him in the nuts, you say.

An Li laughs, and starts hauling herself off the couch, leaving your toes cold and bereft.

You sit upright. What do you need? you ask.

An Li gives you a withering look. To piss, she says.

You blush, sit back. Oh.

An Li’s footsteps have a peculiar distinctive rhythm these days, scuff thud, scuff thud, scuff thud.

• • • •

You and An Li tumble into friendship. It’s weird how that works. Somehow a thousand hours of stoned cartoons and fashion advice and midnight bubble tea runs turn into An Li being the first person you call when anxiety gets its knife edge under your ribs, when it’s been three days and the thought of eating solid food makes you choke on the bubble of your own panic, when a week of all-nighters turns into a month of couldn’t-sleep-if-you-tried.

You pick up An Li sobbing on the curb just before dawn somewhere in Inglewood after her boyfriend dumps her. When your grandfather dies, An Li calls your advisor and arranges for someone to teach your recitation. You get a cake delivered to her office on her birthday and convince her dad to pretend like it’s from him when you know he would have forgotten otherwise.

It’s just the way things go.

This one time you get the flu, run a fever so high that An Li is on the verge of forcibly hauling you to the ER. Instead, she takes off work and spends the day huddled with you under her stupid hipster owl quilt you always make fun of, even though you tell her she’s gonna get herself sick and end up being right, and even though you’re so fever-hot you both immediately get sort of sweaty and gross and have to pretend like it doesn’t bother you. You watch some terrible buddy cop comedy and you’re so congested that every time you laugh it comes out as this horrifying sucking-slash-honking sound. Because she’s an asshole, every time you start dating someone new An Li eventually tells them this story, complete with sound effects.

On the bright side, the hipster owl quilt is ruined forever.

• • • •

Of course you think about trying to go back and fix the big shit.

So sure, it’s not like there’s one test you bomb during high school that tanks your GPA and keeps you from getting into the college you really want to go to, one fraught conversation with your mother that ends up being the final cresting wave against the shifting wreckage of your mental health. But like. You could try, you know? Go back and leave a book about meditation on your teenage self’s pillow. A book about feminism. Fuck, a book of poetry, even. Go back to the first day of freshman year and transfer out of the bio class with the professor who will end up inexplicably hating you. Don’t get high the night before the SATs. Skip the SATs entirely and go on that camping trip with your brother, the one where he sees a grizzly bear and won’t shut up about it for months afterward. Go on a camping trip by yourself, somewhere far away, somewhere quiet and cold and moonless where you don’t have to think about anything but the vast emptiness of the sky.

You never know, is the thing, right? This is the shit they tell you, obviously: whatever you change can have far-reaching, unforeseeable consequences. Maybe one of these small kindnesses to yourself would be the difference between Ivy League and state university, between a career-making summer internship and scrubbing down tables at a burger joint in your parents’ hometown. Maybe you’d have started a Fortune 500 company. Maybe you’d have a Nobel Prize.

You know. Or not.

• • • •

You could fix things with Nehal, says An Li. I always liked Nehal.

I’m pretty sure he became a backup dancer for Miley Cyrus, you tell her. I don’t think I’m cut out for that lifestyle of fame and glamor.

We’re old now, says An Li. Surely he’s not doing that any more. He’s probably, like, a dentist.

Even worse, you say. Also stop trying to fix my love life.

Your love life is super bad, though, says An Li.

There’s a snag in the throw, pulling the nubbly fabric into a long, puckered line. You pluck at it, trying to smooth it back out. I don’t wanna, you say. I mean. I don’t wanna change anything too drastic. You know? Like, I’m not looking to—

You trail off, try not to look around at the bright cramped living room, the ugly pomegranate painting An Li won’t let you get rid of, the crooked shelf overflowing with your collection of superhero figurines. An Li catches you doing it anyway, studiously looks back down at the notebook, pretending not to see.

So, she says, number seventeen, cheat at the lottery, is a no-go?

You smile. Apparently that never works anyway, you tell her.

An Li makes a disbelieving sound. Sure, she says. That’s exactly what they’d want you to think.

• • • •

The list is bullshit. Surely An Li knows this. Surely she knows that you don’t give a shit about having a winning lottery ticket, or a house in the suburbs, or a Nobel Prize. Surely she knows that all you can do most days is sit around uselessly wracking your brain for ways you could go back, and fix things for her.

Of course there aren’t any. Studies show: more caffeine, or less. More red wine, or less. Less red meat and more fish, except not too much because that’ll fuck you up, too. More exercise, probably. Go back and leave a Post-it for your twenty-four-year-old self: Future You says get An Li to take up jogging. Bully her into going every day. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

You know. Or not.

• • • •

There are bad days. There will be more bad days, and then bad days will be all you get.

On the bad days, do you ever think about going back to that drunken Saturday afternoon? Getting up and leaving the common room, hiding in your dorm room until you know the coast is clear, rewriting everything from the beginning?

No. Never. Not even once.

• • • •

One four a.m. near the end of your thesis, you’re going cross-eyed fucking with MATLAB scripts when An Li bangs into your room and says get in the car, we’re going for a drive.

She puts the top down even though it’s too cold for it, and the night is silver and ink-blue over the ocean as you wind your way north along the PCH. An Li’s wearing this hilarious fisherman’s sweater, heavy gray cable-knit with wooden toggles at the neck. You bitch so much about the cold that she eventually pulls over and makes you wear it instead, half wrestling you into it when you try to refuse.

Sometimes you think about the way her bare shoulders looked in the moonlight, the slide of muscle under cold-pricked flesh, and can’t breathe under the weight of all of the limitless inferior cosmic possibilities, the improbable grace that must exist in the universe, to grant you a moment like that.

• • • •

On the day you’re supposed to get to change something, you borrow An Li’s car and drive toward the Santa Monica Pier instead.

It’s a flat gray day, wind churning in off the Pacific, driving all the tourists away. You buy a plastic bag full of stale close-packed cotton candy in Windex blue and kill fifteen minutes trying to feed it to disinterested seagulls, listening to the warped tinkle of the carousel over the hiss-crash of waves. Once upon a time, An Li taught you the trick to sometimes winning at milk jug toss, though the sometimes is key; you spend eight bucks in tickets before you get a win. The attendant rewards you with what you think is supposed to be a bear, orange and overstuffed with hard plastic pellets, its stickered face already peeling off in a vaguely horrifying manner. When the sun blips out of existence over the horizon, you buckle your winnings in the passenger seat and point yourself east.

An Li’s in the kitchen when you get home, prodding at a grilled cheese on the stovetop, Velveeta oozing out of cheap, soft bread. Her cane’s out today, leaned up against the oven door, unused for the moment. That took forever, she says when she hears you come in, then, what the actual fuck is that?

You flop onto the couch, settle the terrifying bear-creature lovingly in the corner next to you. It made me think of you, you say.

I see that whatever you changed had no effect on your inherently unpleasant nature, says An Li. So? What’d you end up going with?

Uh, you say, poking at the corner of the bear’s smile, trying to get it to re-adhere. I went with the SUV guy. Flipped him off and reported him for drunk driving.

An Li turns around to stare at you, still wielding the spatula with one hand. Liar, she says eventually. Oh my god, you’re lying. You didn’t change anything, did you. I mean. I shouldn’t be surprised, but Jesus. You’re such a fucking sentimentalist.

Whatever, you mumble. Your grilled cheese is burning.

I know, says An Li, turning back around to flip it unhurriedly. This one’s for you.

• • • •

You wake up in the morning to a stiff neck and the weight of An Li’s head compressing your liver. The TV’s on, a low game-show murmur, and the crusts of your grilled cheese are cooling on the coffee table.

Hey, you say. You gotta get up. I’m late for work.

An Li frowns without opening her eyes, turns her head to bury her face in the curve of your hip. Call in sick, she says.

Can’t, you say. You lift a hand to scrub your nails gently through the soft bristles at the nape of her neck. But I’ll make dinner tonight.

An Li snorts, slides her head off your lap and wiggles down into the cushions enough that you can escape. It better live up to last night’s culinary masterpiece, she mumbles.

You bite down on a smile, and roll your eyes instead. Whatever you say, loser, you tell her. You’re pretty sure she’s already fallen back asleep.

Outside, it’s a cold, clear day. The sky is a heartbreaking infinite blue, and you should’ve brought a scarf, maybe even gloves, and the shirt you’re wearing smells like the memory of An Li’s shampoo.

You’re just stepping into the crosswalk.

You wouldn’t change a goddamn thing.

—For Sara

Jess Barber

Jess Barber

Jess Barber lives in Cambridge, MA, where she spends her days (and sometimes nights) building open-source electronics. She is a graduate of the 2015 Clarion Writing Workshop, and her work has recently appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection. You can find her online at www.jess-barber.com.