By: Maddie De Pree
I am half-watching it on my laptop while I eat. He is delivering the State of the Union, the Vice President sitting behind him. And then, in the middle of his sentence, both heads burst all over the Speaker’s white suit. She blinks, touches the spatter of blood on her face. Then, chaos—the Secret Service barrels into view as Representatives scream and duck under their seats. The cameras keep rolling, but the sound cuts out. Commotion and dead air.
I stare at my laptop for several seconds, waiting for something—an announcement, a noise—but the screen stays quiet and small. Looking at it, I have the uncanny sensation of watching bugs in a jar.
I turn to the cat, who is sitting next to me on the couch.
I think this may be a joke, I say.
He kneads a cushion with his paws.
I close the laptop then reopen it. I pace back and forth. And then, because I can think of nothing else to do, I pick up the cat, walk onto my porch, and stand there holding him in the cold. Gradually, other doors open—one by one, up and down the street—until we are all silhouettes in our doorways, looking out at one another in the dark.
Eventually, I call Lia, who picks up on the first ring.
Hey, I say. Can you believe this?
She pauses, and I wonder if she is standing on her porch too, breathing in the same Atlanta air.
Yes, she says.
I wake up to my phone vibrating with news alerts. Apparently the Speaker was sworn in late last night, but no one knows much more than that. A Vice op-ed reads, “I Don’t Know What The F*ck Just Happened, But I’m Honestly Kind Of Psyched.” The Washington Post simply reads, “What Now?”
The dean emails all of the professors to tell us that classes are cancelled for the rest of the week. I email my physics students and tell them that their lab is cancelled too. Immediately, a student responds: awesome!!!! I send back a thumbs-up.
After I drink my coffee, I spend an hour scrolling through Twitter. People have been making content all night—memes and threads, plus several accounts weighing in with their measured takes. Recordings crop up every twenty minutes, then get removed for violating Community Guidelines.
i didn’t see it, someone tweets. what was it like?
Like two water balloons full of red paint, someone replies.
I decide to drive into Little Five Points, though I haven’t been in over a decade. Unlike the rest of the city, it hasn’t changed much in that time—it has the same grungy storefronts, the same gum-covered telephone pole. In front of the Zesto’s, I see two people praying.
I park my car on a side-street, then wander into a vintage shop and sift through a bowl of soft plastic keychains. The sticky note on the counter says they’re from the 1970’s. I pick one up and read the words printed on its surface. HAVE YOU SEEN ME LATELY? And on the other side: I’M TRYING TO FIND MYSELF.
How much? I ask the shop attendant.
Ten dollars and fifty cents, he says.
I toss it back in the bowl and walk across the street, into a store that sells crystals. The cashier looks up when I enter, then goes back to scrolling through her phone. She looks older than my students, though she’s several years younger than me. Apart from the two of us, the shop is empty. I turn toward her, then pick up a crystal and roll it over in my fingers. Quartz shot through with threads of gold.
I wonder if they’ll store the Speaker’s suit with Jackie’s, I say.
The cashier looks up from her phone. The walls are lined with plastic bins of stones, organized alphabetically: Black Tourmaline, Blue Lace Agate.
Ma’am? she asks.
They have Jackie O’s pink suit refrigerated somewhere, I say. The one from Dallas. With JFK’s blood all over it.
Right, she says, and resumes her scrolling.
As I walk back to my car, I think about a woman I dated in grad school—a New Age-y lesbian who was aptly named Sage. We were lying in bed one evening when she told me that the energy of my apartment was off. She said that too many intense emotions could create holes in a space’s aura. This, she said, was likely the reason for the off-ness.
I don’t think I believe that, I told her.
She shrugged and flipped onto her side, away from me.
You don’t have to, she said, and turned off the light.
I waited until she fell asleep, then cried. I remember sobbing raggedly in the dark, covering my mouth with my open palm to avoid waking her. I did this often, and to my knowledge, she never woke up. She was a heavy sleeper.
During this particular crying spell, she rolled toward me in her sleep and draped her arm around my waist. An unconscious motion, heavy and warm.
This is what I think of as I drive home. People dreaming, reaching for each other in the night.
Lia and I are on her back porch, drinking wine while wrapped in a blanket. Though it is midnight in early February, we are warm—Lia’s husband is wealthy, and he has paid for outdoor heating. But he isn’t around tonight. He’s traveling for work, and their five-year-old, Ollie, is sleeping inside. I lean forward and uncork another bottle of wine.
Can we just say it? I ask. Can we be glad that he’s gone?
I’m going to, Lia says. She pulls up Twitter and dictates a tweet while she types it with her thumbs: Rest in hell, piece-of-shit bastard.
She swallows a gulp of wine and hits send, then looks out at the dark. We sit there together, thinking in different directions. After a few minutes of silence, I speak.
Do you remember the fire in the dorms? I ask.
No, Lia says. She reaches for the bottle and tops off her glass.
It was sophomore year of undergrad, I say. Someone passed out and knocked over a candle. Our whole floor was burning.
Lia stops pouring.
Did that really happen? she asks.
Yeah, I say. Some firefighters pulled us out through a window.
Lia corks the wine and pulls the blanket tighter around us.
I don’t remember that, she says.
We lapse back into silence. Beneath the warmth of the blanket, I start to nod off. I can feel Lia’s body next to mine. Then, a noise: Ollie opens the sliding door and walks onto the porch in his footies, scrubbing his eyes with his fists. Lia straightens.
Honey, it’s late, she says. Why are you up?
Ollie stands in his pajamas and looks at the floor, one little fist still working away at his eye.
Sorry, he says. I thought I was asleep.
When I get home the next morning, I see the cat crumpled on my doorstep, stiff and bloodied and dead. I stand there, stunned. Someone has drawn a long gash from his belly all the way to his throat. The blood has soaked through the fibers of my welcome mat and stained the wood below. I step over the mess to get a garbage bag, then sob as I roll him in the mat and place the bundle by the curb. Inside, I text Lia: Someone gutted the cat.
Jesus, she replies.
I run to the kitchen and vomit in the sink, then pour myself a glass of water to drink while I cry. The water is slippery with dish soap and I shudder. It makes my mouth taste sudsy. Too clean.
For the rest of the day, I do nothing. I walk around the house eating corn chips, then wrap myself in a weighted blanket that I bought on Black Friday. I sleep on the couch and reach for the cat, then cry when I remember that he isn’t there. I write an email to Lia and delete it. I stay up late and tweet, I am awake. Below it, someone replies with a GIF of a baby dancing.
In the middle of the night, I wake up with a thought that I haven’t had since childhood: I want to go home. But I open my eyes, and here I am.
We are on Lia’s back porch again, huddled under the blanket in the dark. I look over at her and see that she’s packing a bowl. She lights it and inhales, then hands it to me. We pass it back and forth until there’s nothing left to smoke.
My phone dings with a Twitter notification. Earlier, someone started a thread of the First Lady’s “best mourning outfits.” So far, it includes a pink skirt-suit and a white sheath. I thought it was funny, but when I showed Lia, she said it made her depressed. I stare at the notification until the screen goes black. Then I lean forward and look out at the trees, standing tall and alert in the cold.
What are you thinking about? Lia asks.
A physics experiment, I say. Young’s double-slit. It’s a basis for quantum mechanics.
Sounds complicated, Lia says. Her eyes are closed.
All you need to know, I say, is that a guy named Young fired a single particle and observed it going through one of two slits. Not both.
Uh-huh, Lia says.
But the particle showed evidence of having gone through both slits, even though he only saw it go through one, I say. It’s a breakdown of objective reality. It deals with what might happen rather than what is.
Lia snorts then moves closer under the blanket. I feel the high humming through both of our bodies, connecting us like a single thread.
It’s a big deal, I say. It means that there might be multiple outcomes for the same event. Multiple realities. But we’ll never know, because we can only observe our own.
Ha, she says. Double slit.
We sit together quietly after that. At some point, she tips her head onto my shoulder and leaves it there. I look down into her face, inches from my own. I touch the tip of my finger to the dark fringe of her eyelashes. She wrinkles her nose and smiles.
Hey, I say. Who would you sleep with? If you could sleep with anybody.
Hmm, Lia says. Maybe the guy who plays John Oliver.
You mean John Oliver? I ask.
Yeah, she says, and we laugh and laugh and laugh.
Somewhere in the laughter, Ollie appears on the porch. He says something, then says it again. He wavers before us like a mirage. We stop laughing, wipe the tears from our eyes.
What was that, Ollie? Lia asks. What did you say?
I said it smells like the woods out here, he says.
That’s right, honey, Lia says, and yawns. Ollie walks over and climbs under the blanket, between us. He curls up against Lia and buries his face into her side. She pats his head absently. I can feel his feet pressing against the side of my thigh.
What if the new president dies? Ollie asks. His voice sounds muffled beneath the blanket.
That won’t happen, says Lia.
But what if it did? he says.
I look at Lia. She looks back at me, then turns away.
We’d get another text alert, she says.
The next evening, Lia hires a babysitter and meets me at the bar. It’s hosting an unsuccessful karaoke night—a handful of people are drinking, but the only one singing is a pasty man reading off lyrics in a flat monotone. Since no one else is interested in the mic, the karaoke man performs song after song after song. By the time he finishes his fourth number, Lia and I are drunk, laughing, and talking about nothing.
After a few more drinks, I hear the karaoke man distantly speaking into the mic. Seconds pass, and I realize that the bar has gone silent. When I look up, I see the karaoke man glaring at us from across the room.
Stop laughing, he says again.
I look at Lia, then back at the man.
You two in the corner, he says, and gestures at us with the mic. You’re laughing at me. Stop laughing.
Jesus Christ, Lia mutters, then yells at him to piss off. The karaoke man blinks. Someone snickers. The bartender walks up and places a hand on his shoulder, says something into his ear. Someone even offers to buy him a drink. But no one can comfort the karaoke man: he is suddenly furious, inconsolable, and he storms into the dark alone.
After he’s gone, Lia and I split another drink. We make some more jokes, but none of them sound funny anymore, so we give up. Something has shifted in the air; the atmosphere has sobered, and people drift into the parking lot to go home.
Outside, we stand between our cars, huddled together in the dark. Lia has wrapped her scarf around her fists; she forgot her gloves at home, and her knuckles are red with cold. I take off my hat and pull it over her ears.
We could go to my place, I say.
Lia removes the hat slowly and hands it back to me. Beyond the stretch of the parking lot, cars whip by.
I can’t, she says. He’s getting back in the morning.
As I weave my car back to my neighborhood, I think about the haircut I got last week. I’m always nervous in salons, and this time was no different; I sat in the chair, flushed and sweating, as if the stylist had discovered everything about me and disapproved of what she’d found. For her, though, it must have been mundane—she covered me with the polyester cape, fastening it too tightly around my neck the way they always do. When she fluffed my hair loose, I stared at my reflection and imagined her cold fingers slipping through my hair and under my scalp, straight to the smooth, white curve of my skull.
So, she said. Tell me what you want.
Images slide around me while I drive: ungraded tests, a car flipped onto its side. The body as an eggshell, the mind a runny yolk. And Lia: Lia in my kitchen, lying in my bedroom, prying me open gently, mouth moving in rhythm, saying I love you, I love you, I love you.
Tell me, she said. Tell me what you want.
I pull over beneath a streetlamp and rest my head against the wheel. The light is too bright, and I close my eyes against it, feel the world glowing red through my eyelids. I picture the veins in my body as a map, a web of roads winding nowhere, the cars stacked bumper-to-bumper, moving too slowly to make any difference. I count my limbs and sigh. On some neighboring street, a siren sounds.
Maddie De Pree is an undergraduate student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including The Thing Itself, Mikrokosmos, and Zoetic Press’ Viable chapbook series. She is a Best of the Net nominee for her story, “Vidalia,” which was published earlier this year in The Gordon Square Review. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of PHEMME Zine (www.phemmezine.com), an online platform that publishes marginalized authors and artists.