by Cynthia Li
Art by Catherine Hwu
Issue: Kalopsia (Spring 2017)
There were thunderclouds in her stomach.
She had met Nessida today again, and they’d kissed, but her heart had only been half in it. She’d busy worrying at the gray mass inside of her, wondering how she would keep her girlfriend dry.
Nessida. The name was oceans tumbling on her tongue. She could taste it, cold and salt to wake her and sweep her clean, wash through her insides and mingle with the storm.
The row of moonplants on her windowsill glowed in the darkness. She breathed.
She reached out and opened the lamp on her bedside table. It flickered to life, washing yellow light over her. It was old, a lighting fixture that also doubled as a sound ward. Her parents had gotten it custom-made at the night market years ago.
One day she’d taken the lamp in for repairs, and she’d met Nessida. The mechanic’s apprentice with a Knack for fixing, the ability to see what was uncalibrated in the mechanical workings of things and come up with a solution.
Something to be fixed. That what what she was. A broken piece of apparatus. But Nessida didn’t care, didn’t try to change her, even though the cracks in her perfection screamed at her to mend them.
They’d fallen in love. Her, the girl the color of sand, a pale brown between her toes. Nessida, the immigrant girl the color of the cliffs by the oceanside, amber in the setting sun.
Being found out wasn’t the reason she worried. Her parents wouldn’t mind; they were perfectly fine with her dating anyone. Nessida’s were fine with it too. She didn’t know what had started the anxiety, only that it had started, and all the worries that came with it had only gotten worse.
She picked up a pen and her journal from the lamp’s base, opened it to where she had left off. A list. She needed to write a list.
Reasons why, she scrawled. This was a familar exercise. All the thoughts circling in her brain spilled into the ink. Again. Again. Again. It wouldn’t fix anything, just gave that illusion, but she needed it.
— I don’t have medication
— my parents wouldn’t get it
Her parents weren’t into emotions. They were architects with a Knack for geometry, an intuition for right angles and straight lines, lined up in their vision.
But beyond that, it was drilled into their heads, feelings = lack of control and control = everything. Maybe because it was the only way of surviving when they were kids. Maybe because they’d just overthrown a dictatorship: Emperor Hsi had ruled for twenty years before his assasination by a rebel group. She had been born into chaos, waves of change crashing into the shores of the city. Her parents hadn’t been ready for the sudden swerve then, and they weren’t ready for one now.
Change, now: learning that their one daughter was flawed, and that they couldn’t do anything about it. She wished she could control her feelings, snap her fingers and make it all disappear. She wished.
She closed her eyes, inhaled, let the thought pass by, a dark cloud fragment, and continued.
— I shouldn’t feel like this
— I haven’t been getting enough sleep
She’d been sleeping later, well into the hours when nothing stirred but her thoughts, dragging down her head and wrapping her neurons in fishnets (worthless. If you were good enough you would be sleeping perfectly fine and wake up on time and not have to struggle to get out of bed in the morning). Even with the moonplants to calm her, take her mind off the noise of everything around her and into their cellular structure.
The thoughts returned, piling up like cumulonimbus clouds, dark, heavy, rain-filled. She gave up on letting them go and pressed her pen to the lines, handwriting growing messier. Sleep pulled at her eyes, but her mind was still wide awake.
— I should be happy
— I can’t do anything if I’m always like this
— I don’t know how to love her
That morning she’d met Nessida before she went to school and the other to work. Nessida had reached out, smoothed umber, wire-calloused fingers over the corners of her eyes. She’d traced the shadows under them. By the docks, her Knack was overwhelmed by the waves washing in and out, their music filling her ears so that she couldn’t hear anything else. A screaming melody of sea spray.
Her Knack was sensing — hearing, really, but it was more complicated than that — the movement of water. Everywhere. In the air, in the ground, in other people. Usually she could ignore the sound. Nessida was designing her headphones to help.
But close to people, it was unbearable. Every molecule hummed; humans are sixty-five percent water. She could never stand too close, never touch. They stole down to the docks as the sun rose so all the water in the world could drown out the noise. She could press Nessida close almost without flinching. But if Nessida wanted to go out? To see the rest of the world?
She couldn’t do it. Nessida’s headphones would help, but she needed, desperately, a problem she could solve by herself. She wanted to scream.
But she forced herself to breathe, again, to fill her lungs, exhale, inhale, exhale, again. It was okay to need help. She said it to herself every day. She was still waiting for herself to believe it.
The moonplants hummed. A familiar tune, but quiet — moonplants didn’t need much water; they survived with just a little.
It was okay.
Survival wasn’t a given. Bad weather could still drown her at any moment. She just had to learn to float, learn to swim, learn to make her way to shore again. In retrospect, she wasn’t doing that badly. So far, she’d always come back up for air.
She closed her eyes. The thunderclouds in her stomach had lightened, slightly. They would be back in the morning.
But she didn’t want to listen to them form.