Of the Emilys we’ve known you are the prettiest. You have the longest hair and the brightest face, the smallest face, the smallest face and the brightest; the longest hair. Had you been born in the eighteen-hundreds people would’ve written poems about you and had you been born in the eighties there would’ve been songs, rock songs belted out of a dry throat. But you were born now and so there is only us in our private embarrassment, saying, of the Emilys we’ve known, you are the most special.
Of the Emilys we’ve known you are not the kindest, or the smartest, or the most giving. You are however still the most special, because you are the most confusing, the least understood. It has everything to do with the qualities to which we assign the greatest value. If we valued kindness you would not be the most special Emily, likewise with intelligence or generosity. But our values, as you so often mention, waving your fork beside your pout, are illogical. You don’t value good things, you say, sending your coffee back into the bowels of the restaurant, complaining of your stomach. The waiters are dressed in black and white and scurry like rats across the terrace. Small lights drape the iron railing. A potted jasmine tree rests on the sidewalk below. Value is arbitrary, we return. Your good and our good are not the same good. It is our tired, familiar argument. Of the Emilys we’ve known you are the worst at arguing, so we always win.
Of the Emilys we’ve known you are the most dramatic. You drive at fatal speeds, laughing when the car skids and we scream in the back seat. When a boy has called you—as all the boys do—asking you to dinner, you throw the entire contents of your closet in a heap and wail that you’ve nothing to wear and the world shall end in one, two, three . . . And then with some coaxing you reach into the pile, looking away like you are pulling a paper out of a hat, and draw forth the most-perfect-thing. You aren’t afraid to strip to your bra and panties in front of us, and we don’t look at your body, not exactly. The outfit on you looks better than on the floor—you don’t ask, but we are eager to tell you this. You leave the rest of the clothes tangled and we don’t know how you do that—the hangers, with their faces turned in all directions, bother us.
When you return to the apartment you are flushed and your sleeves have fallen down off your shoulders; you look mussed. When you come back you are laughing, you are able to say That was terrible, as though you had no hope for it to begin with. We feel a bit crushed. You had no hope to begin with, you are able to say, you are able to come home laughing with your sleeves fallen down off your shoulders, mussed. We think you have evolved beyond tears; this is one of the reasons you are the most special Emily we know. We want to pry you open and drink your secrets, but you will not allow that, you are not aware that you wear them on your shoulders like sleeves sliding down to reveal something, some new and evocative layer of skin; you are never aware of this, so we tell you, in the kitchen Fix your shirt, and maybe you kiss us.
Of the Emilys we’ve known you are the least perturbable. You do not swat us away when we reach for the hard box between your legs. Instead you yawn and this is a swell enough deterrent and we roll away from you on the mattress, hot and itchy, itchy from the fibers poking through the sheets, itchy like spiders are crawling all over us. We sleep terribly, and you scratch us in your sleep, and we wake up discontent. You flounce from morning to afternoon as though you were made for flouncing; the mattress has hot itchy fibers that scratch us in our sleep, and you poke us in the morning and we roll away from you. You flounce back in the afternoon to show us a spider that has drowned in the toilet bowl and as we flush it you say, His legs were wailing at me, and we think you mean waving, and we imagine a little sailboat with one triangular white sail and the arms of a boy waving out of the water as the boat sinks beneath him and he drowns.
Because you are the least perturbable Emily you have already forgotten the spider by the time evening drapes over us like sleeves; we are discontent and continue to think about the spider and how we can incorporate it into a future conversation about value. The value of a spider is only smaller than the value of a boy by arbitrary measurements. Perhaps that was a great spider and the boy was a dumb boy. But both drowned and so their values are set to zero, negative, no value, and that’s what we mean by arbitrary.
On the terrace you unfold your napkin, say: Does that justify it?
Your sensitivities are particular and we are conscientious to sidestep them. We think of the postcard taped to the fridge in your apartment, an ocean scene from your hometown. The beach spreads like two open palms. The sea is calm and greenish-purple. There are white dots on the horizon and children walking at the shoreline, leaving prints. Any one of them could topple headfirst into the foam.
We say, No, we would never justify that.
Of the Emilys we’ve known you are the least careful. You will talk to anyone, even the old man at the phone store who says you look like his granddaughter, who asks for your number, and wants to talk to you later about how much you look like his granddaughter. We find his optimism troubling, as you are the prettiest Emily we know and his granddaughter—Emily or not—likely does not compare. You have breakfast with him, because you are the least careful; you tell him things you haven’t even told us, things that you think are secrets but we already know are not, because we know them. You tell your non-secrets because it makes you feel less careful, and even though you are the least careful Emily, you are always trying to be even less careful—why? It is a secret.
Your eyebrows are thick and dark, your most distinctive feature, thick and dark like an arch of small spiders. Over poached eggs he calls you Mona Lisa. We can tell you like that even though you know Mona Lisa has no eyebrows, even though you say later, It creeped me out. The grandfather appeals to your vain sensibility. You like the idea of being a painting, beautiful, admired from a distance, don’t touch, don’t touch. You are in your vainest hour of life, both aware of your beauty and unsure of it, always testing its quality in others. You are not the vainest Emily we know, although you compete admirably.
The grandfather, as you describe him, is tall and has a hooked nose. His spine wrenches at the base of his neck, arching him forward. He reminds you of the crab fishermen laboring on the easterly seaboard where you were raised, and when he talks you can see a violence behind his lips, at the teeth, a wet violence, a crushing of delicate crab, or lips purled around some translucent line, hands heaving to tie it tight.
When he asks about your childhood you explain the sea, how if you drop something in the ocean the currents will not bring it back to you. Instead you will find it washed up onshore, beaten and abused, possibly nibbled on by things deep below. Maybe it will snag in a fisherman’s net, maybe they will wrap it in butcher paper and deliver it to you with the day’s catch, if you are lucky. You say, I spent summers collecting crabs and muscles in buckets. My brother preferred sandcastles. Sailing, we both enjoyed. Of the Emilys we’ve known, you are neither the luckiest nor the unluckiest, but you do not believe in luck, instead placing your faith in something more sinister. So maybe our point is null.
You tell us about the grandfather with condescension, masked by sympathy, saying, He means well and He reminds me of someone I know and He means no harm.
One thing you do believe in is the ability of people to change, and you say this to us: I believe in the ability of people to change. It is like your belief in balanced government or total equality, idealistic and laughable.
We believe people only become better at recognizing their values, better at renaming their deficits to align with those values, the ultimate self-delusion. You have sent the coffee back so many times now we are expecting the waiters to bring tea. Black tea, green tea, white and black rats scurrying between tables on the terrace. You play with the silverware and your small bright face turns toward the sun and the tables on the terrace melt away into pools of clearish liquid, perhaps black or green tea but definitely not coffee. You return your face. There is a commotion over your shoulder; a tray has clattered onto the floor and all the rats shuffle to consume the fallen bits and we believe you have forgotten the conversation. We believe that when you turn your face back, looking over your shoulder, over the edge of the terrace, everything out there has melted into translucent ocean, clearish green or purple; we believe you can see bits of the drowned boy at the bottom of the sea, a bone here, a gold-filled cavity. You believe you can drink so much that the ocean will drain and the bits of the boy will reassemble; you believe not only in the ability of people to change but of situations to. We believe that the arbitrary nature of things cannot be modified by clever tongues; you say I believe in your ability to change, for example. We are offended, say It’s how you turn the word and It has nothing to do with us. You send the coffee away again and this is why you are the most difficult Emily we’ve known, why sometimes we imagine you tipping over a sharp edge and landing in the blue, your slim arms wailing.
Of the Emilys we’ve known you are the cruelest. We arrive at the terrace and wait for you to join us. We choose the terrace because we remember you pointing out its little lights, the wrought-iron metalwork, the jasmine tree. You like it, and our secret is that we wish to please you endlessly. It annoys you, our catering, and you do things to sink us: arriving late, forgetting, sending your coffee away, having breakfast with grandfathers and dinner with boys your age, eluding our invitations to lunch. You crush us. You have never been afraid of crushing spiders, only of sending them cleanly down a drain. You enjoy messy endings, we think; you need evidence of burial, the brown smear of spider on a wall. You crave such closure. It is your favorite form of punctuation. Tall glasses of water arrive at the table before you do. They sweat onto the napkins, forming round wet periods. Water is incapable of complete sentences, you told us once, and here now we have evidence, although you are never interested in our evidence, or our arguments; you are interested simply in crushing them. We crush our napkin and pocket it. The waiter asks if we would like coffee, his voice hooking with pity.
When the grandfather knocks on the apartment door you are surprised. You peep through the looking-hole. His proportions are distorted, spherical. Your face goes white as linen. You creep to your knees, one cheek to the carpet, one eye looking through the crack at the base. You do not look at us; you pretend we are not here. You pretend you are alone. You are looking at his shoes, brown crocodile loafers. He probably sees you there. Your body blocks the light that is trying to reach through the crack. He probably hears your breath. He probably smells you. He knocks; one, two, three; he is patient, he will wait until the traps are heavy and difficult to pull. You crawl away from the door on all fours and sit in the middle of the living room with your knees hugged up to your chest and he knocks again; one, two, three. He catches the knob and shakes it. You sit with the stoicism of an egg; you are white and balled like a fist. Finally the grandfather leaves. His loafers squelch in the hallway. You expect to meet him sometime on the stairs, even though he lives elsewhere.
You do not expect us to hold you. We can barely understand what has happened. You barely kiss us anymore. Tomorrow we will lunch on the terrace, and you will tell us: It is better to be broken than to be dead.
Arriving at the terrace, you appreciate the jasmine flowers in full bloom. We watch from above and sip water from a gold-rimmed glass. Your cloth napkin waits on the table, folded like a sail.
Of the Emily’s we’ve known, you are the most durable, by which we mean occupying the longest portion of time, the greatest in duration, the most durable Emily we’ve known.
We feel as though maybe we have known you always, although in fact our knowing is marked by two brief lunches: the first in early winter, waiting for bread and tea to come to the table. The second, the end of spring, just a few days after a near-suicide, the girl holding her breath and dropping out a fourth-floor window, the poorly tied sheet unleashing, the girl crashing into pavement. We had watched the white fabric trail after her slowly, shrouding the body. We think she must have died but the news comes around otherwise and we do not know whether to be glad.
You tell us the news has crushed you. You say, It is better to be broken than to be dead. You find crud in the corner of your eye and roll it between your fingers like the body of an insect. You flick it away. The jasmine tree shudders.
We want to ask, Is being broken really better than being dead? because we don’t think so, waiting for bread and tea in early winter, waiting for you to meet us on the terrace for lunch, waiting for the waiters to bring new coffee, black and white rats everywhere underfoot. We know that once lunch is over, the terrace swept and closed, you will cover us with a sheet, you will bleach us white as an egg in your memory and then you will swallow us. You have resigned us to another tense, saying, I’m thinking about a new chapter. We think about the white sheet burning with the smell of bleach; we swallow our question. We have seen you unable to flush spiders in the toilet bowl, and so we have surmised your great secret. You say of the grandfather: Hindsight is twenty-twenty, although our regular vision is twenty-thirteen, and we prefer the present, and the future, and the conditional, and you are still twirling behind us, your eyebrows thick and dark like the legs of a spider, thinking about the drowned-boy-your-brother.
A California native, Ariel Lewis currently lives in Miami, Florida, where she works as an English and creative writing teacher. Her short prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Wildness, Flock, Klipspringer Magazine, and Green Briar Review. She was awarded a scholarship from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.
“Emilys We’ve Known” appears in our issue, Physics (Summer 2017)