Water Vapor

by Claire Li
Issue: Ricercari (Summer 2012)

It’s the smell that registers first, the earthen sweetness of wet pebbles that I’ve grown to associate with the moments before a rainstorm. I glance up at the heavy clouds that glower down at the parched land. The usually black telephone wire outside my window has been colored white by the bodies of seagulls, wary of the impending storm. A pale smear across the otherwise charcoal background glides lazily in low circles. It’s close enough to the ground that I can see beady eyes weighing the choices of landing before the storm breaks or taking advantage of the free ride provided by the heavy gusts for a while longer. Or maybe that’s just my imagination.

A streak of movement diverts my attention, and I turn just as a raven lands in my mom’s vegetable garden, hopping a few times before finally stopping. Its eyes bore into mine as it tilts its head at an inquisitive angle. I stare back with equal intensity, because an irrationally stubborn portion of my mind does not want to be fazed by a mere bird. An erratic motion around its beak catches my eye; I squint and lean out the window to take a better look. My eyes widen in surprise when I finally recognize what it is. A petite butterfly wing, the same ebon shade of dried blood as the raven’s beak, is fluttering helplessly, the rest of its body trapped inside. The raven is either unperturbed by its unsuspected meal, or completely unaware of its existence. Feeling somewhat sickened by the scene, I close the windows and draw the curtains, giving up my inane staring contest.

The clouds have held in their urge to rain until the morning, as if they plotted to unceremoniously dump everything on me as I run towards my first class. The bell has rung already, but that isn’t why I’m running; on any other day when my sneakers aren’t squelching like an abused piece of silly putty, I wouldn’t waste my breath on hurrying to class.

When I open the door, I’m greeted by the squealing of wet rubber and even higher pitched shrieks of girls screaming across the room to each other. I always imagine that this is what a slaughterhouse sounds like right before the pigs are turned into pork. Our teacher is sitting in her corner desk, completely oblivious to the noise, or anything else that doesn’t happen to be on her computer screen. I head towards my desk, ducking a few times to avoid being beheaded by an airborne football.

Apart from the drought finally breaking, it seems to be a pretty normal morning.

Today he happens to be precariously perched on the edge of his desk, peals of laughter emitting from the small flock of people that are somehow always crowded near him. The odor of 99 cent hair gel and smoke that oozes from his skin overpowers the smell of the rain, and even the perfume that those girls seem to enjoy drowning themselves in. I stifle a snort of disgust and bury my head in my arms, silently cursing whoever it was that decided to seat students by their last names. The noise gradually recedes into a pleasant murmur as my body decides to reclaim the hours of sleep I had lost last night while waiting for the quiet thrum of raindrops.

I wake to the sound of raucous laughter, the sight of the teacher blushing fiercely, and the smirk on his face that is just a touch more arrogant than usual. The noise eventually pitters out, and I roll my eyes; no doubt he has shown, yet again, just how much of a smart aleck he is. My gaze skims the board behind the teacher. Trigonometry. Another lesson on a lesson we’ve already learned. I feel my focus slip as her droning voice nearly lulls me to sleep again.

In the corner of my vision, a hand reaches over to tap his shoulder. He tilts backwards and someone whispers something in his ear, something that causes a short snort of laughter and a disapproving glare from the teacher. He sits up and flashes her a smile, the picture of saccharine sweetness, which causes the class to dissolve into small fits of giggles again. Wisely enough, she chooses to ignore it and continue her lesson.

He leans back into his chair and I glance over to see his smile dissolve. I stare. No, his entire face is wiped clean, like a painter who tore off his piece of work to reveal another blank canvas underneath. I blink rapidly, startled by the unfamiliar image, but more startled still by the realization of how unfamiliar it is.

Is he really always smiling? So often that it seems alien the moment he doesn’t? That shouldn’t be possible, not unless it’s drawn on, and the sudden thought that he wears any makeup is so ludicrous I nearly laugh out loud. Yet he’s not smiling right now, not when there’s no one looking at him. Except me.

I flip through every image in my memory of him. Smiling, smirking. Irritating. Smiling. Fake. My fingertips abruptly turn cold as the last word flits across my mind. It must trigger a lockdown on my brain, because suddenly I can’t think. As quickly as a thought emerges, it’s swept away into some deep crevice where I know I’ll never find it again. I don’t understand. Because if that’s true then…

No. Impossible; it’s impossible for anyone to that.

“Well actually, it’s quite simple. You just substitute sine x over cosine x in that equation, set these two equal, then cross multiply as usual and solve.”

I jerk away as he leans over my desk and scribbles something incoherent on my paper that looks more like the font Wingdings than any type of Trigonometry that I’ve ever seen. The rest of the class has returned to a steady buzz of noise, although everyone is still seated, probably under the teacher’s tenuous command. There’s an empty worksheet under my arm, blank except for the recent addition of his vertical scrawl, and a similar but much more complete one on his desk.

“Why’d you do that,” I hear myself mutter. He looks at me curiously, making a slight crease in his forehead that shifts the heather in his eyes to slate gray, but that smile is still unfaltering.

“I thought you’d just asked,” he shrugged. “I mean, you were completely spaced out during her entire lecture.” I feel my eyebrows lift higher off my eyes. There hadn’t been a moment in the past thirty minutes where I’d been anywhere near conscious enough of my surroundings to form an intelligent question. Although I know that I have a habit of thinking out loud, it has only—as far as my knowledge extends—ever happened in private. Small tendrils of heat slowly dig their way up to my face as the last wisps of lethargy finally leave my head and I remember what I’d been thinking of. He must take the scarlet blush for my indignation at his comment, because he immediately raises his hands in a mock symbol of peace. “Not,” he hastily adds, “that I’m judging or anything.”

I make a small guttural noise in response, and proceed to stare at my worksheet with enough intensity to burn a hole in it, praying to every god I know that I hadn’t said anything other than that. If they are feeling charitable today, then I also pray that this uncomfortable warmth in my face will cease to exist sooner rather than later. I hear the heavy sound of silence to my side, before someone else calls out to him and snatches his attention away, and the dull waves of noise return to my ears. My eyes continue to bore into the paper before me, trying to discern some sense from the stream of letters and numbers. After several minutes and a handful of eraser shavings, I’m rewarded by a head that’s pounding from my attempt to retrieve knowledge that doesn’t exist there. I swear colorfully under my breath and shove it back under my arm.

Now that I’ve considered it, I can’t get the notion out of my head. I want to examine his face, to scrutinize that bend in his mouth and see for sure if my idea is actuality. I want to ask him if that’s really the case, that he doesn’t usually show a real smile. More than those two things, I suddenly want to give this person—whom until several minutes ago I’ve never regarded as anything more than a garnering of trouble and idiocy—a reason to smile for real. Obviously, I can’t do any of those things without him thinking that I’ve been dropped on my head too many times as a child, so instead I fix my gaze on the clock, which I swear is moving slower by the minute, like a marathon runner who has eaten one too many cookies before the race.

My heart leaps into my throat as the piercing sound of the bell cuts through my reverie. The squeal of chairs and thudding of feet follow promptly after. Somewhere, someone exclaims that the rain has stopped, which is followed by a series of moans and complaints by everybody else.

I sense the slight motion of him getting up and walking towards the door. Halfway there, he stops and turns around to face me and the otherwise empty classroom. “By the way, I just wanted you to know. I don’t wear makeup. Ever. At all.” He turns around to leave, then pauses mid-step and faces me again. “And also, thank you.”

A quick smile, a wave of his hand, and then he’s gone, leaving me to stare after him with what I know is a dumbfounded look. So he had heard. He probably heard every last word. I drag my hand down my rapidly flushing face and clench my teeth together to prevent myself from yelling out in frustration.

There had been something else too, that contributed equally to my currently bewildered state. Technically speaking, it was a difference so small, it hardly counted as noticeable; a slight shift in the lips, one small crinkle in the corner of an eye. My parents often complain about the quality of instant green tea from the kind that must be meticulously handled in an intricate ceremony of preparation in order for the true flavor of the leaves to be presented. I could never see the difference; for me, tea was tea and there are no questions to be asked. Now I finally understand the contrast between the real thing and an imitation. It creates the distinction between conjuring a feeling of vapid irritation and the notion of something beautiful.

The rain has returned steadily in the past few weeks, but now it’s nothing but a murmur in the background of the abrasive gale that lashes my hair against my cheeks. My knuckles whiten around the handle of my umbrella in the relentless grasp of a corpse. Even though, at the mercy of the wind, the taut piece of fabric over my head is about as useful as a plastic bag, my fingers refuse to move, refuse to unmold themselves from the comfortingly familiar feel of the juncture between metal and the plastic knob at the bottom of the pole. I look down at the wild array of flowers cradled in my other arm, and I suddenly feel foolish. Foolish for not giving up ten dollars for a nicer bouquet from a store, instead of this medley of plants from my garden that had looked so exquisite earlier under the morning sun, and also foolish for being here at all.

The patch of ground in front of me is still a discolored shade of brown, lighter than its surroundings, but traces of green already dot its surface. The marker, apart from the carefully engraved lines in carefully spaced rows, is still unscarred, the surface unsullied by any spider webs or dull pink mounds of gum. His name, carved in a flourishing, almost garish, cursive, is the only thing that differentiates it from the hundreds of stones that surround it.

A small crimson tulip frees itself from my grasp and is quickly caught by the wind. I snap my hand out to reach for it, and the rest of the flowers also tumble to the ground. The umbrella lands next to me with a barely audible tap. I don’t know why I don’t pick it up, but it teeters a bit before being carried and thrown by the wind at a gravestone a few feet away. Neither do I know how long I stand there, perhaps a minute, perhaps thirty, watching that bright green piece of fabric slowly shrink into the dusky landscape, and feeling an irrational urge to laugh at how helpless it is against the storm. The large pile of flowers at my feet has dwindled down to a few that resolutely cling together against the onslaught of the wind. Their vibrant corals and indigos look gaudy against the bleak background. I shift my feet a little to coat them with mud. That’s better; they aren’t too out of place anymore.

There are beads of water dripping down my nose and tumbling off onto the ground. There is a trickle of water running from my hair into my eyes. It stings them just a bit. Does some of that water consist of tears? I think it’s just rain, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to cry for someone I barely knew, but I can’t be sure. No, I don’t think I feel any sorrow, just numbness. I can’t feel my toes anymore, or my limbs for that matter, the frigid air had claimed ownership of them a while ago. I can’t feel my heart pulsing in my ears or the sound of my brain whirring as I usually can when I’m thinking either, though I don’t think those two things have anything to do with the cold.

Which smile was on his face when he died? Maybe it was the one that he always wears, the one that is flat and fake like instant tea. Maybe that’s why it’s so cold right now. Or did he, in that moment between being here and a blissful oblivion, realize what had just happened, and stopped smiling? It is a chilling thought, to think that under these layers of frozen earth, his face looks just as it had in my imagination; devoid of mirth, of vitality.

I close my eyes and take in one deep, frigid breath, realizing that I had forgotten to breathe in the past seconds. Nothing will change by my standing here and reminiscing on the past, except maybe my catching a cold. Nothing can change anymore. He has chosen his life, or lack thereof, and I still have mine. But this is, and might always be, my one great “what if”. There was a possibility of having some sort of “perhaps” that doesn’t exist anymore. I raise my head towards the sky, and wince at the discovery that the muscles in my neck have cramped up from staring at the ground too long. The rain has stopped sometime during my contemplating, and the slightest shaft of sunlight peeks through the opaque clouds. It’s not enough to melt my frozen body or even raise the temperature a single degree, but the landscape looks the tiniest fraction less sepulchral. I give the tombstone one last look before pulling away, leaving behind nothing more than a few scattered muddy flowers and a pair of footprints. Not permanent perhaps, but they’ll remain there for now, or at least until the next rainstorm.