This was one of those days where Mona felt too inside herself. Where the pain wasn't focused somewhere, rock hard, but diluted all over.
A voice inside her spoke like a distant mother: "You shouldn't kill yourself. You owe it to the world to not let so much beauty go to waste." She looked up, and felt people watching her as they walked by on this gray Sunday, felt their eyes contemplating her like something they wanted to possess for maybe an instant, not forever.
She considered walking over to the Brooklyn Bridge, crossing it once, twice. Scouting out the best possible places to throw herself off. Here? Or here? Where should she jump so as to gain maximum velocity, so as to hit the water at a speed that would break her neck, knock her out?
Mona was walking the city in a daze. She kept her eyes on the ground, or looked absently over people's shoulders, pretending to focus on something on the other side of the street when really she wasn't looking at anything at all. But she knew that people glanced at her as they walked by. A year ago, no one ever looked. Recently, however, she had begun to notice men looking at her. Older men. Men in their thirties, forties, fifties. Businessmen and bankers in slick gray suits, walking from listless corporate lobbies to leather-scented lounges, cigar and bourbon bars where wives and children were an afterthought. She has become drawn to the aura of men. Their aftershave, their prowess, their secret handshakes held the world together, kept it moving, stocks and bonds, deals and spiels. She wondered whether they looked at her and wanted to sleep with her. She knew that the fact that she was Asian held some sort of value, could be worked to her advantage. But the idea of such a game was still new to her. Whenever she looked up and their eyes were on her, she quickly turned away and looked annoyed.
A year ago, no one ever commented on her beauty. Now it trickled in in e-mails, phone conversations. From friends who felt that she didn't recognize her own value, worried that she gave herself away too quickly. But how could she give herself away too quickly when she has waited nearly half her life to give herself away? As a teenager, she had been unremarkable, a dull star forgotten at the back of the class, a girl too smart and ordinary to ask out. As an adult, it felt like she had finally outgrown her gawkiness, shed her old shell. But it was as if she didn't quite recognize her new body yet. Other people ended up recognizing it for her. Like Christopher. It was his looks that first caught her attention from across the reading room. But it took her time to realize that it was her looks that likewise drew him to her.
She could still feel his hands cupped around her breasts, pushing them upwards, giving her cleavage. He had the softest skin ever. Not what you would expect from someone in his thirties, but it was there, if you knew where to find it. The softness of his cheek beneath patches of scrubble that could be found when she pressed her cheek against his, or when she ran her finger along his jaw. The softness of his chest beneath the fur. His lips. The soft scrotum sac that hung like a plum between his legs.
Mona could always tell when couples were in love. They huddle, their faces brushing close like violets, whispering in each other's ears. When they leave, they get up together, walking side by side, stride in stride, the girl's boots clacking, so sure of themselves, across the floor.
Last night, there was a moment when Mona felt that Christopher loved her. He paused before an open refrigerator, a bottle of wine the color of olives clutched in his hand, paused as if to ask her a question.
She had told him she was on anti-depressants, because he had seemed so intent on making her come, but she knew that she couldn't; her body wouldn't let her even though her mind knew when the moment was coming, when the moment had passed. The medication dulled her, severed her mind from her body so that her mind floated somewhere above her, untethered, like a balloon that has left a child's hand only to come to rest against the ceiling.
"Wait," Christopher said, "Are you Can you drink if you're on Paxil?"
"Of course," said Mona. "Fill her up." But she was lying. She didn't tell him that one glass would feel like two. That two glasses would feel like four. That there was more than just the Paxil, that there were pink pills, yellow pills, white pills, and a delicate blue one the color of a robin's egg that rattled at the bottom of her purse like Easter candy. She didn't tell him because she wanted desperately to feel something, anything at that point. Anything to rise beyond the ceiling that had been slid over her head.
It would be such a shame, said the voice inside her. One less hot Asian chick in the world.
Right, thought Mona, It would be such a waste. People would file past wondering what ever happened to that 'promising young thing.' Boys would cry. Girls would roll their eyes and contemplate chipped nail polish, thinking 'how could she be so stupid' instead of, 'That could be me.' It would be a devastating tragedy.
Where does she get this ridiculous prose? "Devastating tragedy." It sounds so slick in her head, but she puts it down on paper and it dries quicker than ink. She has finally read too much for her own good. Too many biographies about talented, yet tortured female writers, wearing long trains, dipping themselves into slow-moving rivers to drown. Too many Dybekian short stories from The New Yorker. Heroines with fire in their eyes, hair salty and wind-blown, staring into the camera wide-eyed and captured, like a film still. Face it: women were weak. Tragedy is a woman, devastatingly beautiful, passing through life for only a flicker, not for this world. Mona is reminded again and again of an old photo she saw on a postcard: a woman jumping from the top window of a burning factory, white skirts rising diaphanously, captured in time by a man with a camera so that she is eternally plunging to her death. The moment before she jumps can be imagined, pieced together by your own imaginings of what you would do if you were trapped in a burning building, bolts of fabric lighting up like Roman candles, iron scrolls of Singer sewing machines twisting like vines as they melted, burning metal singeing the air. The moment after cannot. Perhaps the firemen come and collect her remains. Perhaps strangers leave flowers at the point of impact. Perhaps a newspaperman looks up her name to add a touch of humanity to her story. No one wants to think of what happens after. It cheapens the effect somewhat.
Mona wonders, if she went around the city collecting enough of these postcards, wrote, This is where I am, wish you were here, and sent them out to all her girlfriends, whether any of them would understand, or whether they would just write it off as a sick joke. She has been sick, after all. Perhaps they would stick her postcard in a drawer, file it away for another day when they had an answer. Or maybe its presence would bother them, a piece of mail that can't quite be marked "ACTION" or "FILE FOR LATER," an annoyance shuffled back and forth in limbo on a busy desk. Maybe they'd change their minds, check their watches, then call her up for a quick pep talk, a quick picker-upper, and then return to their lives in progress as Ph.D. candidates, med students, accountants, project managers, and future patent lawyers.
There was a time when the phone didn't stop ringing, when she took a break from life in progress and wore crop circlelike tracks along the halls of a mental ward for eight days straight, makeup-less, hair unwashed, locked in among people who needed way more help than she did. When cold white nurses with pursed lips checked boxes on clipboards, complained about their boyfriends to each other while they snapped on powdered rubber gloves, pumped her stomach, drew blood. They drew their maternal bodies towards her, engulfing her in their girth, and said to her over the metal bars of her bed, "No guy is worth killing yourself over, Hon."
Sometimes she wished she were back there.
"You know, they won't just let you in," said her therapist, as if she were asking to stay at a bed and breakfast. "You can only check yourself in if you can prove to them that you're a danger to yourself." Like, if perhaps you took too many pills, mixed the pills with Scotch, or slashed your wrists with an Exacto knife, and then decided to take a warm bath. Do thoughts count? Mona wanted to ask. Can't your own thoughts be a danger to yourself?
Mona checked her watch. Half an hour and she had to meet Fred. She wished that his plane would be delayed, perhaps until tomorrow, perhaps until next week. All she wanted was to be with a guy at that moment, and the only guy who wanted to be with her at that moment was someone she wasn't interested in. He was just a friend dropping in from out of town. Goddammit, she thought. I am so weak.
She remembered Fred's slouch as being effeminate, his voice nasally from year-round congestion. Every time she talked to him, she felt like offering him a Kleenex. Plus, he was so erudite in everything he said. (I can't tell you how broadly I smiled when reading your e-mail, he once wrote to her.) He was in law school. Everything had to be so logical. Everything had to make sense in the grand scheme of things.
She thought again of Christopher. The way he stood in front of the fridge holding a wine bottle in the chilling air. The way he walked back to where she sat in an armchair, stood in front of her so that his navel met her face. The way she hooked her finger over the elastic of his shorts and he pulled them down, revealing himself to her. The way he brushed back her hair, looked at her like he was so thankful when really she would have done anything for him. Thanks were not necessary.
Sometimes it came in the form of gun metal to her head. The cold barrel of a gun pressed against her temple, so cold, yet so intimate, like a kiss.
(April Kao grew up in California, where she graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College.)