I’m standing on the cement stairway that sits gray next to the tree. It’s winter, and the wind blows up my cotton pants and up my insides. Goosebumps roll down my arms and my hair whips across my face. The tree still smells of cat piss.
Winter is not winter this part of California. The city of angels, they call it. It’s as if the cold refuses to infiltrate the city guarded by a blinding sun. But today, the wind soars.
At the end of the gray stairway are two looming red pine doors. They are bigger and redder than I remember in my childhood. The apartment building is smaller than I remember. I wish it were bigger; big enough to house what I want to believe are big memories. It is insufficient memorabilia. Behind me, a brand new apartment complex blocks what little is left of the sun. If I squint, I can see orange-vested construction workers with paintbrushes in their hands, jumping floors like acrobats. It is a circus, a choreographed performance only I can see. I open my eyes and the memory is gone.
Turning toward our house on the second floor, I see movements of a different kind, shadows stiffly pushing through years of dust and neglect. I imagine my mom in the kitchen, frying eggs and washing rice. I picture my dad slumped into our toilet, his callused fingers balancing a cigarette. My brother is screaming at the computer screen, and my sister is examining her face an inch away from the mirror perched on her closet. I look out the window and once again think I see flashes of orange and hear the rough laughter of working men.
I remember what it is like to be fifteen.
Cherryn and I used to catch ladybugs in the pathetic tree in front of our apartment. If I could even call it a tree. It stood barely four feet tall and was as skinny as my forearm. It smelled like cat piss even then, but less so. But there were so many ladybugs in that tree. Enough for both of us to forgive its rotten smell. These ladybugs would fly straight into our open hands like they knew we wouldn’t hurt them.
Cherryn was the pretty girl who lived below my unit. I lived in unit 202, and she in unit 102.
I remember what it is like to be seven.
It is summer now, and I’m back home. Janice is home, too. Again, I’m standing on the cement stairway that sits forever gray next to the tree. The tree’s been trimmed, but it still smells like shit. Like always, I hesitate in front of the two looming red pine doors. And like always, I walk in.
I’m on our balcony, watching Janice’s breasts rise and fall in time with her sleeping breaths. She must have fallen asleep looking out the balcony window, imagining the orange-vested acrobats and hearing the drumming of their drills. I can tell by the tilt of her neck.
Her face isn’t anything special, but I’ve always been jealous of her breasts. They are quite large for her size and well-shaped, whereas mine are of average shape and size. The sun reaches her in floating particles, diffused by the summer heat and the sooty mosquito net. Beside us, a hummingbird bobs up and down like a buoy in the ocean, only the air is its ocean. The air around the little purple bird looks solid. I run my right hand through the summer air to try to feel its solidity, staring at the bird while doing so. But air is just air. I am somewhat disappointed.
Cherryn moved when we were both 9 years old. That’s already over ten years ago. I’m beginning to forget what she’d looked like. How is she? Maybe she’s a school teacher. A waitress at some chain restaurant? No, she was too pretty. Maybe she jumped off the Empire State Building, and
became just another frog in the pond of all flattened frogs.
I hope Cherryn thinks of me too. We had so much fun. If she’s still alive that is. I look out again, and the hummingbird is gone. Anyways, the past is a ghost, insubstantial, unaffecting. Only the future has weight. Better that the air remains just air and the hummingbird gone.
Janice has been looking at our family picture for minutes now. Hiding in the hallway, I have been watching her for even longer. The picture is bigger than life, framed in brass and hung on our living room wall. It is dusty now that there is no one home to clean it. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that my sister might have lived my life after I did.
I don’t know who I am anymore. I live alone in this abandoned house, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a living room so big that one end is always warmer than the other.
The dust piles up faster than I can clean it. Even so, on certain nights, I find myself scrubbing the floors, the countertops, and the toilets so hard my hair comes out of its ponytail and I am heaving on the floor. It is then that I feel most confused.
I am confused as to why I am so unhappy. I am confused as to why, when I look in the mirror sometimes, I find the appearance of my face so funny I laugh hard enough that I lose balance and then feel so pathetic that I must put on a show for myself to feel a little less pathetic. After making sure I have regained my balance, I stand back in front of the mirror and pretend to stifle the sob that has been stuck in the back of my throat for three years. I do this hoping that this cursed sob will finally leave my body and free me from my hysteria and all my misfortunes. But I don’t hope too hard because I’m scared I will jinx myself. That’s why I pretend to stifle the sob, not incite it because nothing is ever that straightforward. It’s like looking but not really looking at something with your peripheral vision. Sometimes, you see things more clearly this way. It hasn’t worked yet, but I believe it will someday. My acting is getting better and better every time I put on this show. One day, I will be so good that I will accept my acting as the truth. I am convinced that when this day comes, my life will be one filled only with good fortune and light.
But not really, because I am not crazy. At one point, I thought I was. I really did. But after careful analysis, I came to the conclusion that I am not crazy.