“What are you? Everyone asked Bee what she was.” Fiction
Seven degrees exist between when it is acceptable to order an overly complicated, obsessively-sucrosed drink that somewhat resembles coffee’s distant cousin, with a recycled sleeve and extra foam, and when one must carry a black coffee on ice.
She lived in this cavity—in the difference between a cardboard cup and plastic dressed in condensation. She settled here in this perpetual indecision. It became comfortable. For, never having been able to fully resign herself to one location, this confusion followed her. It made sense. It felt like home.
Kind looks from attractive men on the street would occasionally tease a reluctant smile from lips typically wound into a hardened grimace, but she never changed orientation or instigated conversation. With feigned direction towards her destination to compensate for the lack thereof in her life, she walked in straight lines.
Resolute towards the security of further confusion and the possibility of another stamp on an already well-loved passport.
Gripping firmly to caffeine or twisting a loose thread on her tattered black sweater, her insecurity hid in these places. In the tightness of her clasp on her phone as she walked. In the one earbud pumping bass and the other tangled in her lapel. Behind her broken sunglasses which shielded unlined eyes from darker realities.
Her hands were her tell.
What are you?
Everyone asked Bee what she was. Feeling especially snarky she would sometimes respond with “I’m a human, I think” or “Today, I’m a fucking manatee,” feigning incomprehension of the question, responding fluently in sarcasm.
But she knew.
She had gotten this question for too many years not to know.
What are you?
They asked her what she was so they could put her into a box. Exert no effort. Make no attempt to listen to the rest of anything she had to say. With one question she was pre-defined before ever learning that she liked pistachio ice cream or that she’d read The Sun Also Rises six times or that she separates her M&Ms by color and that she loves romance when it happens to other people but the concept intimidates her when it is reflexive.
The stereotypes existed for this reason.
For every answer she could give they would pin her as the nerd, the future-doctor-lawyer, the immigrant child with the accent, the one who talks with an attitude like she’s been repressed her whole life. And then Miscellaneous.
Misc. worked for her.
Commitment. She sipped on the word like the taste burned going down. An acidic repulsion to a concept that perpetually napped in the back of her throat. It scared her. She did not fear change or darkness or heights or immensity or snakes or spiders, but she feared this. She was scared of feeling so deeply, so all-consumingly. Of putting herself so completely into another. Co-depending her happiness. Tying herself to one. One place. One person. One life.
One didn’t leave doors open. There was no escape route with one.
No plan B.
When one was taken away, you are left with nothing. She knew enough basic mathematics from twelve different primary schools to piece that much together. One minus one was zero, but if that arbitrary “one” that she tied herself to were to leave, or die, or grow bored, or get tired of keeping up with her spontaneity (or ADHD or crazy overcompensation for her familial troubles as it was called by so many scrubs sporting MD and PsyD and DO after their names), she would have less than zero.
Zero is having no one to begin with. She would have then lost.
She would have negative one.
She put herself in boxes so no one else could. So the nondescript “they” didn’t have the power to confine her, to corral her reckless.
Bee wasn’t reckless in the kind of party-animal, high-chasing kind of way; rather, she was reckless in her secrets, her words so carefully chosen.
She never had to commit, so she lied. It was more fun. She could play with peoples’ brains and make no apologies. They would never know. To them, she wouldn’t exist in three months. They didn’t care, and she got her rush out of it.
She tried drugs. They did nothing for her. Chemicals so futile they didn’t even succeed in making her loopy or putting her to sleep. The out-of-mind-and-body escapes that so many episodes of Skins and Degrassi convinced her of bored her and prompted nausea in the morning. Her rush was the adrenaline. The fear and excitement of telling a lie. Or just disappearing.
She joked often, the quizzical pitch change at the end of a sentence that deciphered a lie from a sarcastic quip or witty remark would often go unnoticed in conversation or otherwise not exist at all. Every parent-teacher conference and report home concluded with the same four words since the second grade, “Bee is an . . . enigma.’ Her eighth-grade science teacher went as far as to call her a “pathological liar”. They couldn’t categorize her, so instead, they diagnosed. She didn’t fit into any of their preconceived boxes.
So she left.
Ten miles an hour. Her fastest escape was ten miles in one hour. Sixty minutes wouldn’t even get her out of her zip code. She didn’t drive, so instead she ran. Ten miles in one hour. One mile in six minutes. One foot in front of the other. An escape sponsored by Nike.
She didn’t like to run the same way no one particularly enjoys getting out of bed when they forget to brush their teeth.
She just did.
You just do.
It was what she had to do to stay sane. To evade attachment. Because attachment was the most addicting of drugs.
Bee also didn’t do feelings. Another illicit high that she avoided. Not to say that she didn’t feel, she was really a very sensitive person, but being such, she was inclined to the extremes, more apt to endure months of debilitating sadness then periods of inexplicable, unprompted, contentment without warning. She didn’t do anything halfway, so saying, in every emotionally charged instance that she “didn’t do feelings” with a well-rehearsed eye roll wasn’t entirely true. She “did” feelings, she just had enough of her own that she didn’t want anyone else’s, lest she overdose on too many. So when they began to set in with the formation of a group of friends or the possibility of a crush, she left.
Nine sets of neighbors. Nine front doors. Nine kitchen tables. Nine sets of cabinets with jam jars filled with assorted spices. Nine lives.
At twenty years old, she had lived nine incomplete existences. To everyone else, she said that staying in one place bored her. To herself, she knew that it just scared her. Remembering directions. Becoming a regular in a place where she knew the waitress’s name and the waitress knew her order.
People knowing her.
And then there were the missed opportunities, the hundreds of realities existing simultaneously to her nine. She would be a fool to miss them. Bee was not a fool.
Leaving was easy. Arriving was seamless. The middle was difficult.
She got used to leaving. Living out of a duffel. Eating at diners with dirty spoons and leftover pie. Getting on planes when she made enough money working at those greasy diners with poorly washed cutlery.
Arriving was a game. She had been a classically trained ballerina named Seven in Amsterdam for three months. She was a cheating diplomat’s daughter, Poppy, in Cannes for nine weeks. A gay socialite called Fox in Helsinki for almost a year (she was having fun). An ethnically ambiguous model in Milan who just went by X.
She left Italy last week after telling a somewhat falsified account of a dinner with Allegra Versace, having forgotten that she was at school in California at the time. Her skin was a strange sort of mix that could fit in anywhere. She just was. Sometimes her skin seemed lighter than her classmates’ or her hair less blonde than her colleagues, but she easily lived under the radar, monochrome outfits drawing no attention to her disposition. Her almond eyes and big brows piqued curiosities and initiated conversations, but they never lasted long. In each place she could be something else. Someone else. That was the rush of leaving. The newness. The nothing to live up to. The nothing to prove.
One of the infinite shrinks that she had been sent to after turning in an essay “loaded with emotion” or a painting that disclosed “obvious unresolved issues” asked her why.
Why she didn’t stay.
Why she didn’t join clubs or make “a good group of wholesome friends.”
She told her it was because she was an introvert and to “please remove the cheap lipstick from her teeth” and left.
She was not an introvert but the lipstick did not suit her pasty complexion.
Her parents were kicked out. And kicked out again. They kept leaving. Social services considered this an “unstable living situation,” so she was shipped to boarding school outside Geneva. She called herself Ace. No one pronounced it right. Geneva was boring.
The rain promised comfort like a bad politician—the concept far superior to the muggy reality. Austen novels and innumerable films romanticize these storms—beautiful moments of symbolic cleansing or dramatic kissing, the stage for countless epiphanies. I’m young but I’m not dumb. This kind of false optimism plagues Switzerland. Everyone is too damn happy. It doesn’t make sense.
There is nothing here but geraniums and chocolate and cows. So many fucking cows.
—Ace (with the Swiss-German accent it sounds like they are all calling me “Ass.”)
She didn’t stay.
Her birth certificate called her Bird. Her parents called her Bee (until she was fourteen). But after that it was up to her. She had no identity given to her in those post-preteen years of phases and self-actualization, so she tried them all out for size.
She would be a fool to believe that the lies would never catch up with her.
I was full aware that it was a matter of time before they looked up my name and discovered that I was not a Namibian tennis player or the runner up to Ms. Maryland or traded for a prize-winning goat. I lived in the mean time. The mean time was enough time. I didn’t want anymore.
I’m lonely today.
I mean, I’m lonely most days but no one knows. For all the acting I’ve done, the citizens of Bangkok should have believed that I was Broadway star for longer than four months and nine days.
Today, the lonely is different. It’s a longing sort of lonely. Probably a symptom of the cold and the shitty holiday paraphernalia that makes the entire planet smell like a bloody cinnamon cookie and the movies on the plane becoming increasingly Home-for-the-Holidays oriented.
I never let myself want. Leaving is easier when I don’t want . . . when I don’t have anyone to say goodbye to.
I think I’m too good at lying. I shouldn’t be able to convince myself.
To believe that I genuinely like being rootless. To think that “perpetually lost” is my desired state of being . . .
—? (still haven’t figured out who to be here)
Her parents were so in love. Their senses of humor so different, they played off each other in the kind of fourth-grade, hand-holding relationship way. They fought, but they fought because they loved each other. The fought like they cleaned the gutters, they didn’t want to but they knew they had to do it once in a while for a sort of detox. For all of the love that they had, she just couldn’t do it.
Her parents kept secrets. Having moved so many times for so many undisclosed reasons, Bee just accepted their normal. She had nothing to compare it to. She would never know where her mother lost the pair to her favorite pearl earring, or how her dad got the small scar under his left eye, or in what they found so much mutual amusement that their laugh lines matched in density. But if she knew, she would want, and she couldn’t want.
Want is a road that dead ends in disappointment.
There was a boy.
She caught feelings from him like a flu. She didn’t want them but they were contagious.
She didn’t like it, perpetually feeling sick and on edge.
She tried to forget him.
He had blue eyes.
When the sky and the sea and her favorite sweater were all blue, blue eyes were not easily forgotten. They both had small duffels but lots of baggage.
He had nice eyes. Valentine’s candy was still on sale.
He had nice eyes. Blue.
He had blue eyes.
It was dark in the pub and I was lonely and London is rainy and he had nice blue eyes and flirting was never my problem.
I’m a flirt. I have no problem saying it. No reservations. If that makes me a tease then fine. I’m a tease, but flirting is like dangling strings but never getting tied up. It’s a game and I’m competitive. But this was different. His eyes scared me. I patted down my hair and tried to read his expression. I wanted to know what he thought about. What he thought about me.
People didn’t scare me. I never let them scare me. I intimidate them. I know how.
Fear was weakness. I was not weak. I would never be. But his eyes were blue and they were unsettling and I was unnerved by their vehemence.
Sitting at the bar surrounded by friends with a no-longer-cold Guinness in front of him, he didn’t talk. He did a crossword.
He did a crossword and I am competitive.
I straddled the stool next to him.
“Sixteen across. Apollo.”
His accent wasn’t British. It was just foreign. A mix of things that meant that English was his most-used language, even his language of choice, he probably dreamed in English sometimes, but it was not his first language.
“Using the ‘P’ from ‘psoriasis.’ Sixteen across is ‘Apollo.’ Son of Zeus, brother of Artemis. Apollo.’
“Oh yeah. Right. Thank you.”
He showed no interest. That was not normal. She didn’t get it. Bee won. He wasn’t even playing.
Condensation toyed with the edge of his newspaper, skating down the side of his now lukewarm beer.
Bee had a mulled wine. It was hot and spiced, burning her tongue—she liked the sensation. It was overwhelming. Painful.
Lukewarm was boring. He was lukewarm. I used my sleeve to wipe at the rivulets of water gathering around his pint making a puddle on the fake wood and left.
I didn’t do lukewarm.
“does that mean ‘Leviticus’ is wrong?”
I didn’t turn.
“I mean, not the religious doctrine, the word. I need the ‘L.’”
“The root. The root is Levites. You still get the ‘L’ but it fits. You spelled it wrong anyhow.”
“Uhh, oh. Right. Thank you. Wait, where are you going?”
I didn’t turn.
This was more familiar.
I walked out of the pub . . . wasn’t in the mood to pay . . . hadn’t worked in a while and pricing a mulled wine at 6 pounds 50 was straight thievery.
I didn’t condone thievery.
“No, I mean my name. It’s Rite.”
“Have you got a twin called Wrong and a cousin named Maybe?”
“Funny. Never gotten that one before . . .”
It was raining. I walked faster. He followed faster.
”Do you have a name?”
. . .
“You didn’t ask for it. I just figured you were curious if I had one. Now you know I do. Are we done here?”
This is dumb and petty but I had landed in London twenty-three hours ago and hadn’t thought of a name yet.
He wasn’t asking . . .
I didn’t hear him at all . . .
“Bird. The name is Bird”
It was my name. It wasn’t boring and I had never really used it.
“Yes. Bird. Bird is my name.”
“So what, you have a twin called Fish and an aunt called Rat?”
He mumbled, twenty paces behind, a cigarette falling off his lips.
“I do, in fact. Thank you for asking.”
“I mean, if we are discussing families, my father goes by Frog and my mom is named Seal.”
Remarks like this could be the root of the whole “pathological liar” thing. But what Ms. Foster calls lying, I call creative energy, perpetual entertainment.
Bee wanted to be a lot of things. She wanted to be blasé, emotionless, numb. It worked with her image. She tried so hard to adopt that persona, but that didn’t make it hers. When a family adopts a child, it doesn’t change its DNA.
She was glass. Everyone that touched her left fingerprints. They smudged but they never left.
She hated it, but she cared.
She twisted to the right until it stuck. Rite. The hot burned into her spine, melting each vertebrae. It hurt, painting red onto pale skin. Too sore to step out of the torrent. Addicted to the sting. Transfixed, she stood. The apostrophe of her back curving to protect her breasts. Considering the masochism of her actions, her limbs went numb, draining any power that the heat formerly held over her body. She refused herself relief, reaching again for the dial and pulling it left. Instantly the water turned cold, then frigid. The glass fogged. She wasn’t numb anymore. Needles tracing every mistake down her spine, the fuzz on the nape of her neck pushing back against the water, shivers vibrating through the plasma in her blood, pulsing through blue veins she could no longer feel. Her lungs seized, provoking a kind of pre-orgasmic intake of breath. A gasp formerly only aroused by a kiss on just that spot of her neck.
He kissed that spot.
She knew she couldn’t stay.
Six. She landed in Istanbul at Terminal Six.
She liked the journeys. Airports made sense. They told you what to think and do. Autopilot. Easy.
A continent separated her from blue eyes.
The Ingratiator. Before I started leaving by myself, that was my superhero name. It feels dorky and lame now, but when I was ten, it was so cool. In a classroom of sticky fingers capable of becoming invisible or light up shoes who could fly on demand, I could fit in. That was the most important power of all.
No one else got it.
It’s like I spoke another language.
It feels like I do here.
—Lole (I’m reading Lolita and like the name and don’t have any better ideas)
P.S. I think I may start to learn Turkish.
She didn’t learn Turkish.
Eighteen. She sat at Terminal Six for eighteen hours. She didn’t know where to go. She didn’t want to go. She was tired. She wanted to stop. She never wanted to stop like this. She would want it for a moment then hear a boarding call and shake off her exhaustion, wipe of the sweat of self-frustration. Keep going.
She didn’t know how to stop.
He was like the hiccups. You had no say over when they went away. He was still there. Taking up space in her brain.
She did not condone thievery.
He stole space.
Three years old. The last gift that she got was from her parents when she was three years old. It was a doll filled with lavender. They couldn’t tell her where they got it or why but she didn’t care. She called it Sophia.
Sophia’s name didn’t change. Sophia was to Bee what the museum was to Holden. Consistency. No matter where she was, no matter what happened, Sophia would live in the innermost pocket of her backpack. She may lose an eye in Croatia and lose her lavender smell over the years, but Bee’s nose remembered the smell enough to know that it was there. She never told anyone about her doll. It was juvenile and stupid and hers. It was one thing that was hers. Bee’s.
He knew about Sophia.
She told him about her one night when she couldn’t sleep so they walked.
He didn’t laugh.
She almost wanted him to laugh, to mock, to ridicule the fact that she was twenty and carried a doll around like a child. It would make it easier. She would like him a little less, maybe.
He was an itch that she couldn’t get rid of. A bruise under her skin that she didn’t know how she got. That she didn’t want, that she covered in layers of Maybelline and Mac, but that didn’t make the sore go away, it was just harder to see.
I’m in Dublin. No idea why. Bored out of my mind. But I’m here. It was closer to—
It was closer to what felt like home.
My hands are shaking.
I don’t do “home.”
I don’t get attached.
You can miss people in pieces. You can miss eyes and hands and accents. You can miss the way they make you feel. You can miss the things you did together. You can miss the parts, but you can never miss the whole person. You can’t miss the whole because you never knew the whole. You never would know the whole. That’s not how people work.
It’s like pain. You can miss the sensation. The act of feeling so deeply, so all-consumingly, but you don’t want to hurt. You want the pieces of the hurt that make you feel, but you don’t want the scars or the tears.
He was pain. The momentary gratification that you missed in parts. He was the intensity that you knew you would regret letting yourself feel later.
But it wasn’t just him.
She missed herself.
She missed the way she acted and felt and laughed when she could breathe. She didn’t think about leaving everyday while she was there. She thought about it sometimes because that’s how she was, but she allowed herself to feel comfortable for a moment.
She made friends there.
She became a regular.
Stacy brought her a soygreentealattewithextrafoam when she walked in, without asking.
She used to hate that. She didn’t anymore.
It had been four months since they met. It had been three weeks since she left. It had been three weeks since they spoke. It had been sixteen years since she cared the way she did four months ago. It had been twenty-seven countries since she hurt the way she did now. She associated the concept of “missing” with her parents, her first bed, the pillow that she put her first lost tooth under, the couch that she hid under when she was in trouble, the only home she would seldom admit to, but knew.
She landed at Heathrow.
“Twenty two down. ‘Matcha.’”
“No, you didn’t.”
He was quiet.
“If you ‘knew’ you wouldn’t have put ‘Stability’ at twenty-two across.”
She walked to the bar, picked up a napkin, lifted his drink, wiped the puddle of impatient water from the fake wood and ran her finger through the condensation left on his glass.
She grabbed the pen out of his hand.
He started to say something.
I M H O M E
His eyebrow kinked, confused. Surprised.
She straddled the stool next to him and ordered a cup of ice.
The crunching sound annoyed him, but it amused her.
“For how long?”
Bee shrugged. Looking young, vulnerable, unsure of what she was doing and why and what to do next, where to go, who to be.
Her voice was steady.
Her hands twisted a loose thread on her sweater, pulling at it even though she knew she shouldn’t.
“You can call me Bee.”