The Neon Touch

Kelly, whose mother had rolled up the Subaru windows and driven into a lake, took photos of crushed up anti-depressants. Each pill, Kelly said, represented an unanswered question about her mother’s suicide. Sophia, whose parents were corporate lawyers, took photos of her mom getting dressed for work. Her images, she said, were about the struggle to become.

In critique we were supposed to talk about space, composition, lighting—I said I thought the pills looked pretty and Sophia’s mother looked sad. Most people, admissions officers at elite schools especially, thought growing up black and poor meant the same thing as growing up deprived, that a deprived person with high SAT scores might have a unique artistic, cultural, or intellectual perspective to contribute. This was a belief I had more-or-less accidentally exploited to the tune of nearly half a million dollars in free private education, even though in my case it was not exactly true. For my mid-term crit I took photos of the tree outside my dorm on Wriston Quad. When my professor, Hansel, asked me why, I said I thought the meaning was obvious, and when he asked me again, I told him the truth: I thought the leaves looked nice.

For my next assignment, I visited a neighborhood in Providence that looked like the one I’d grown up in, shot the crumbly houses in the black part of town that had been built regal then left to rot, broken up into compartments too small for the families that lived in them. I took pictures of stripped elms that shivered in the March air, and a McDonald’s bag plastered down against a gutter. I snapped a few of a falling-down porch, wild with dead ivy and rusted nails, where three dark-eyed babies played without supervision. Worried about how much one of them reminded me of my little sister, I deleted these last on the way back to my dorm.

In class I talked about White Flight, Oakland in the 1950s, growing up in the Bay Area but going to private school on scholarship in San Leandro. Alienation and Humiliation and the Trauma of Being Different. But without the smells and the dark-eyed children, the houses looked the same as the musty old Victorians draped over College Hill. Everyone thought I was kidding—looked at my photographs like they were hoping to find the realer, better photos underneath.

“It’s like you’re shouting in a language you don’t know how to speak,” said Kelly. Kelly’s mother had gone missing for three days in Quincy before her car got dredged up from the lake bottom, and, every year, Kelly won the school essay contest because of it. That year she was going to win a place in the senior art show too. You could already tell she knew. Why did Kelly get to do all the things that would make her parents proud? Her mother wasn’t even alive.

My mother hadn’t killed herself, but once, when I was seven, I’d read her journal and found a draft of a note.

“Not that I know how to speak the language,” Kelly continued. “Not that any of us do. It’s Photography I. I just—I’m just saying. I love your photos. I think they’re really great. You’re super talented.”

“Thanks!” I said. “So are you.” Hansel let the silence last until even I felt uncomfortable, and then asked if I had any questions. I said I did, actually.

“What’s the point of any of this? Critiquing and talking about authorial method? Who cares about inspiration and artistic intent? Isn’t the author supposed to be dead?”

“Yes, but. If these questions aren’t taken into account at the outset by the artist,” Hansel said, “The public will never have the chance to wonder.”

“You mean no,” I said.

“Come again?”

“Just a minute ago. You said ‘Yes, but.’ But really you meant ‘No. No, not at all.’” Hansel looked at me uncertainly and asked to see me after class.

I waited in front of the List Art Building, pacing in the snow, like a boxer getting ready for a fight. I blew on my hands and danced to keep warm. But Hansel only wanted to talk.

“Here’s the thing,” Hansel said. The words sounded funny in his Dutch accent, this cautious test of casual American.

“Art isn’t a level playing field. Hard work and practice don’t make up for lack of talent and talent doesn’t make up for not having anything to say. You have to work with what you have, and what you have is that you’re—”

“I’m what?” I said.

“Black,” said Hansel. “You have a naturally different perspective. You can take pictures we can’t. Tell the kind of story we don’t know how to. It’s like.” He cocked his head to the side. “Forget about what your photographs are about. What is it you even want? What do you feel when you feel things?”

I felt dehydrated and overwrought. What I wanted was to bang my head against a wall until I died, like a trapped rabbit chewing its own foot off to escape. But because it was cold and because Hansel wasn’t going to let me back inside until I did, I tried to see things from his point of view. “Look.” Hansel was still talking. “I’m not going to tell you I think you’re talented. That you’d be great if you would only just work at it. Because you’re not. But I do want to tell you I think you’re more suited for this stuff than you think. I want you to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I want you to stop giving me what you think I want.

I want you to use what you have. Otherwise, you’re going to fail.”

In all my years of writing papers on Marshall McLuhan and investigating rememory in Beloved, nobody at Brown had ever threatened failure, the whole place a kind of Waldorf school for adults. In my head, I gave a slow clap.

Hansel looked at me. His eye contact, when he spoke again, was too intense. “You Americans grow up thinking you can do anything, but you can’t. Rich people can do anything. The rest of you are lucky if you get to do one thing. You need to do your one thing, Edie. Before the not doing it kills you.”

And just like that, I could feel it, the undone thing, keening, ready to burst though my chest as I died, final proof that my life on this planet had been pointless and without meaning.

All the long walk up College Hill, I thought about Hansel’s words. He had said to work with what I had. What I had was not much. A face that made everyone I met think I was angry when really I was nothing, This weird tiredness that settled over me every afternoon. A sense I woke up every day fighting, that my life was an audition I had stumbled into off the street.

After my shower that night I took a photograph of my face, and after that I kept shooting every inch of every corner of my apartment, every bit of skin, every stray hair, every naked cranny. I twisted my body around, so the camera got me at my skinniest angle. I covered both tits with one hand, like Venus in The Birth of Venus. I stared into the camera lens, daring it to do something to me, saying that it could.

In class I arranged the images on the floor in a square, a giant photo collage of me, nude and wet on the filthy side of my dorm room, my roommate Sara’s nightstand just in view beneath a neat stack of books. Hansel nodded approvingly. Sophia looked at me like my very being was causing her pain. I called the piece “Frustration of Desire,” but Kelly raised her hand and said a better title might be “A Study in Narcissism.” This, for me, was the best part of the whole year. Kelly never said anything mean about anyone.

On my way out after class, Hansel pulled me aside. He handed me an information packet. “It’s a university grant. Reserved for female students who show promise in the visual arts. Comes with a private practice space and room and board in upstate New York.”

The Newton Family Fellowship for Visual Artists Under 30, I read on the brochure’s cover. I had heard of this one. You got to live up on a farm in the Catskills for up to a year, and no one could visit without written permission. The women who had done it had gone on to win MacArthurs, tenure.

“Don’t get too excited,” Hansel said. “The stipend is barely enough to live on for a year, and their dirty little secret is, they make you stretch it over two.”

I didn’t tell Hansel my family had lived on half of what the foundation was offering through plenty of years. Money was money and money was time and money was another few months during which I would not have to go back home. “Do I need to send in prints? Or are digital files okay?” I gathered up the photographs I had set out on the table.

Hansel laughed at me. “A black-and-white picture of a naked black girl is fine for an art show at Brown. But the world isn’t Brown. Tell a new story. Preferably a sad one. When people in this country feel sorry for you, they want to give you things.”

On my walk back to the dorm, I had a thought. Forget Kelly’s mother. Forget Sophia’s mother. Forget my mother. Girls were supposed to be in love with their fathers, and I was going to learn how to be in love with mine. I was going to photograph this learning and this loving and then I was going to use those photographs to win the fellowship, and after that my life was going to change.

It was Friday. Spring break started on Monday, and I had nowhere else to be. Back at my dorm, I searched online for the cheapest plane fare I could find. I charged the five-hundred-dollar ticket to a credit card my mother paid the bill for. When the option came up to rent a car at the airport, I clicked yes. I subtracted the total from the total amount of the fellowship award, and promised myself I would pay her back after I got my first check.

It took me twenty-five minutes to convince the girl at the Hertz Rental counter in Oakland to let me have the car after she checked my ID and discovered by how many years I had lied about my age. She charged me an extra fifty dollars out of spite, and by the time I got on the road, I was so angry, I found myself driving in wider and wider concentric circles around the airport with no clear idea on how to get anywhere. I might have kept driving until I ran out of city, if the phone hadn’t rattled in my cup-holder, making me jump.

“It’s a good thing you landed just before nightfall,” My father said. “My new place is in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. Bloods territory.” My father actually said “nightfall.” He said “Bloods territory” like it was a tourist attraction. “Dangerous neighborhood” like I was a stranger he was trying to impress. I followed his voice away from the airport and out to Las Palmas, which didn’t look dangerous, just small, the front yards the size of thumbprints, each house like a child’s drawing of a house. He guided me past the neighborhood strip mall, with a Chang’s Chicken Wings, a donut shop, and a psychic, Madame Z., hawking five-dollar palm readings in bright pink neon.

I found him standing on the roof against the blue evening, pulling loquats down from the loquat tree that leaned out over the yard. He was 49 but looked years younger, a tall man with a tall man’s sinewy grace. My little sister, Jaela, held a bucket beneath him, catching the fruit as it fell.

“The big boss!” My father shouted down at me as I parked in the narrow driveway. “All the way in from the Ivy League.”

“Why, hello Miss Harvard,” Jaela said. “How’s Cambridge?”

“Brown.” I said, squinting up into the dying sunlight at my father. “Providence. Providence is cold.” I lifted my camera. The autofocus whined. Jaela stuck out her tongue and gave me the finger. In the photo that popped up on my LCD screen, she was a blue shadow cut with orange and silver light.

“Miss Brown, then. Glad you could at least get away from your doctorate to come see us.”

“I’m getting a B.A. in Art Semiotics from Brown, Jae, and stop it, you’re not funny.”

“I’m a little funny.”

“Dad,” I said.

“You’ll get a doctorate eventually.” He smiled into my lens. “One step at a time.”

I waited for Jae to ask what a B.A. in Art Semiotics from Brown was a step in exactly, but she skipped up the driveway looking pleased with herself, stopping at the side of the house to pick up the loquats she had missed.

“You talked to your mom lately? How is she?” My dad whispered when Jae was out of earshot.

“She misses you,” I said from behind the camera. A lie, but it made my father beam. I released the shutter. He blinked twice in the flash and shielded his eyes.

Jae streaked back down the driveway, shoved her bucket into my hands, grabbed a fallen branch and climbed with it up the side of the house. She whacked at the loquat tree with her stick, sending clusters of fruit raining down over our heads and onto the concrete to burst.

“Dad,” I said.

“That’s okay, baby,” my father shouted up at her. “We have to sacrifice some. They all go back to the earth. It’s a simple equation. There’s enough for everybody.” He lit a joint and smoked it baldly, shot a wink in my direction.

When I was little, I’d believed that my dad was so smart his brain had broken, that in college at UC Santa Cruz, he’d studied some level of physics normal people couldn’t even perceive. My sister still believed my father completely when he told us he’d seen the shape of the universe and decided the best thing for him to do was to give up, but now I suspected the science part was an elaborate con, that really he’d sat on the beach and smoked every day, had been one of those who didn’t get away clean.

Madame Z.’s pink neon sign made the houses look strange. Everything the neon touched glowed the same color, so looking down over the road was like hearing a song made up of all the same note, played over and over again. I took pictures of pot smoke blowing over the leaves, of the tangerines bleeding out in the eerie light. I thought about the fellowship money, about Kelly’s face when she found out I had won. Jae sat down in front of me, blocking my view. The neon gathered in her hair and formed a crown.

“Daddy? Can we go see that psychic sometime?”

“Naw, Jae. They get their information from demons, and then they have to give the demons something in return. It’s a bad business. If we want to see into the future we go direct to God.”

Jae rolled her eyes. “I knew he was going to say that.” I laughed. The smile she gave me back was twisted and trying too hard. I remembered what it meant to be fourteen. How all the different versions of yourself existed in one body, and you could not be blamed. My dad stayed on the roof until it got dark, loquats falling, first singles and then in bunches of twos and fours, splitting open on the grass. Jaela picked up their broken bodies to eat in the dark, and it was devastating, how beautiful she was.

After dinner, Jae pulled me into her room to help her with her essay on Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry.

“Wait,” I said. “I want to show you something.” I pulled a red bag out of my suitcase and handed it to her, opening it myself when she didn’t move to take it. “Remember, Jae? Dragon eggs? You used to love these.” The stone was green and made of marble, and I’d picked it up for five dollars at an antique store on Thayer Street before I left town. When we were younger, Jaela had kept a collection of egg-shaped rocks. She hid them under the bedspread and in dark corners so she could make up stories about what would happen when they hatched.

Jaela held the egg uncertainly and dropped it in her sock drawer. She opened her notebook and began to read.

“I can’t remember if either of us came, which I guess means I didn’t. At one point, I remember noticing Miguel eating me out. His tongue went in and out of me like a cat drinking water. He said things like, ‘Do you like that fat cock?’ and I said ‘Yeah,’ like he was asking me how I liked his scarf or the restaurant we’d gone to that night, which was tapas, and expensive.”

She looked at me.

“Tapas are expensive,” I cautioned. “That’s a good detail, Jae. But are you allowed to use “I” in an academic essay? And also I don’t recognize any of that from the book.”

“Duh, it’s not from the book. Did you hear about that girl who published her sex diary on the internet and bought a house?”

“You already have a house.”

And then I saw that Jaela’s stone collection was no longer on the dresser. In fact, nothing was on the dresser. The walls were bare. The crack of closet I could see from the edge of the room made it look empty too.

“What happened to all your things?”

Jaela rolled her eyes at me. When I was in middle school, our dad had been a teacher’s aide, a basketball ref at the Y and a courtesy driver for the Hilton. In the intervals between, when he had been nothing, we had been evicted twice, and moved in for a few days each time with his well-meaning girlfriends. She was long gone now, but I vividly remembered a woman named Frieda letting us eat as many Vienna sausages as we wanted, cold, out of the can.

“Dad’s leaving the adult literacy center. He says the money isn’t worth his time. Who’s going to help me buy my tickets for prom? He told me I should get a job, but he doesn’t understand, there aren’t any. I asked him why he even had kids if he wasn’t going to pay for their lives.”

“What did he say?”

“He said ‘Which one of you should I give back?’”

“You, child,” I said, “are going to have one hell of a college application essay,”

“College.” My sister spat. “I’m not you.” She frowned at her face in the mirror that hung off the back of her closet door, adjusting her breasts underneath her tank top. “Do you even have a boyfriend?”

“Not really.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means not really, Jae. Who’s Miguel?”

Jae spread her fingers out, checked her nail beds, and picked up my camera.

“Just some boy.” She looked at me. “What? What are you laughing at?”

“I’m not,” I said. I reached up and touched a lock of her hair, then smoothed it back behind her ear. “You’re just so young. I forget how young you are. You’re just like me, though, when I was your age.”

“Shut up,” Jaela pulled away from me, and I thought she was kidding, but I looked into her eyes and saw something breaking open there. She pushed her body off the bed and away from me. “I’m not like you. All you ever do is laugh at other people and feel sorry for yourself. You think you’re so much better than everyone, but you’re not. You don’t talk to mom. You don’t talk to dad. You barely talk to me. Since when do you even care about photography? You never took pictures when we were growing up.”

“You just don’t remember. I’ve always been interested in photography. It helps me understand the world.”

“I do remember. You were so embarrassing, even then. You sat in corners and talked to yourself. I used to tell people you were retarded. You’re still a weirdo. I mean, listen to you. What do you even know about the world?”

I was about to remind Jae I wasn’t the one she was supposed to be mad at, when underneath her night shirt, just at the top of her thigh, I saw two red lines cut too straight to be an accident. I recognized them because I had six matching ones, ancient, also self-inflicted and almost invisible, marching down the inside of my arm. I looked up and into the lens of my own camera just as the flash went off.

“You should have seen your face. Oh my God.” Jaela laughed and handed my camera back to me. “Look,” she said. “I guess you can.”

White light, the palm of my hand, my mouth opened black and wide and singing, Jae’s reflection ghostly in the mirror on the door.

In the bathroom I brushed until my teeth felt bruised. I walked back into the room and curled up on the floor in all my clothes. It was early when Jaela turned off the light, and I lay in the dark counting my bones until I fell asleep.

I dreamt I was being shot out of a cannon into space and when I woke up, I was in the kitchen, sleep eating loquats over the sink in the neon glow of Madame Z.’s sign. They were delicious, like all the best parts of an apple and an orange combined. I ate until I couldn’t breathe, and then I opened the fridge and stared hard at the carton of 7-11 eggs and the beers lined tall against the fluorescence. I untabbed a beer and drank it, and then I drank the second one, inhaling the stink of the seedy mess in the sink. Why was it so hard to say exactly what you meant? What I had been trying to tell Jaela was something I had figured out, that life was hard, that it was supposed to be, and the trick to feeling okay about things was maybe not to want, quite so badly, to be happy all the time. Now, buzzy with alcohol and queasy with guilt, I realized I wanted nothing more than to apologize.

Back in the bedroom, I reached down to squeeze Jae’s foot. She wasn’t there. I turned on the light to find sheets on her bed empty, still twisted up into the shape of her body. I heard the quiet click of the front door closing, a car revving up on the street outside. Through the white living room curtains, I caught headlights curving down the block and out of sight. I grabbed my camera and my bag and hurried out after her into the night.

But the street was empty by the time I backed out, and I had no way of knowing which direction she had gone. Madame Z.’s pink light hovered over everything, and the beers I had just chugged turned everything watery and vague, so that I felt less like I was driving through the middle of the night than into the morning on some distant planet.

I was listening to Jae’s outgoing voicemail message on speaker on my cell phone and trying to tap out a text that would force her to call me back, when something heaved itself into my car and sent it spinning out into the street. I had just enough time to watch the tree trunk bounce off the passenger side door before I understood that I was screaming, the airbag deployed, the world suddenly without sound. When the spinning stopped, the camera bag strap in my lap was knotted around one of my elbows, my cell phone screen shattered but glowing.

I stepped out of the car, examining its broken tires, the metal door bent and wrinkled up into itself like a skin. Texting, I had veered off the road, driven up onto the curb and into a giant oak. The tree looked just like the one I had photographed at the center of Wriston quad, only larger, much larger, its limbs still bursting with leaves, black and glossy in the dark.

I untangled the camera bag from my arm. Here was the picture that would most certainly win me the fellowship. I would be able to pay for the damage to the car, with money left over, maybe, to help my sister go to prom. I unzipped the case. The camera’s black plastic body was split neatly in half, the door where the memory card slid in, unopenable.

Here, I thought, is what I will do: I will go into the Shell station across the street. I will ask if I can pee. I will pee. If I keep filling the seconds like this, the future will have to hold itself off until I am better equipped to face it. If I pretend hard enough nothing has happened, for a while it would be like nothing has.

The stall in the gas station didn’t have a lock, but I went inside anyway, let the door hang open and I peed, the sound of it bouncing off the mirrors and balancing over the row of white sinks. I ran my hands under the faucet. The soap dispenser was empty. There weren’t any paper towels. The hand dryer didn’t come on when I pushed the button. The toilet paper I used instead ripped itself into tiny shreds. The shreds clung to my fingers and wouldn’t come off. And suddenly, I was terrified and gasping for air, my brain crumpling up and leaking out through my face, because I hadn’t known before that anything could happen, you could drive into a flagpole or your mother could disappear or you could be having sex with a boy you didn’t like because he took you out for tapas, and there wasn’t any law and nobody would stop it and nobody would give a shit if any of it made you sad.

I fished in my bag for my phone with toilet papery fingers. The sound of the numbers as I dialed was all wrong. My voice came out sordid and warped through my phone’s damaged speakers.

“Yeah, hello? Are you okay?” Maxine said.

“Is that Edie?” I heard someone in the background say, tiredly, “Is she drunk again?” The voice belonged to my roommate, Sara. I’d been aware that she and Max were friends, but not that they were the kind of friends who hung out in each other’s rooms at two in the morning.

“Edie, where are you? We’ve been worried sick—”

I hung up on Max and dialed my mother. Sara was right, I realized now, I was drunk, the second tallboy still swirling around in my head. Knowing this, for some reason, made me feel more confident.

“I put almost $1,000 on your credit card,” I said to my mother’s voicemail. “I’ll pay it back. I’m in California. The weather’s great. It’s beautiful. I’m going to be in an art show maybe. The senior show. I took a picture of myself naked and wet, but don’t worry, it was art. Good art. I’m a good artist. Just like you. I’m at Dad’s. Did I say that? Are you in Houston? How are your shows? Have you had any shows? Listen, mom, I used your credit card to buy a plane ticket and to rent this car and I got into an accident and I don’t know where Jaela is and I’m sorry mom but could you please call me back when you get this? You have my number. Do you need my number? Here’s my number. Oh wait, it must have shown up on the caller ID? Here I’ll give you my number just in case.”

I sat down in the driver’s seat, pushed the deflated airbag out of the way, and turned the key. Around me, darkness stretched up and down the street. I remembered what my father had said about the Bloods, and wondered if maybe he hadn’t been lying after all. I wished for one to appear now, to shoot me and put me out of my misery. As if on cue, a pair of white headlights shone at the end of the block, sweeping up and down the street, letting light fall over what I had done.

The car was a white Jeep with enormous rims. The passenger side door opened to reveal my sister, smiling in a way she hadn’t let herself smile in front of me before. From around the driver’s side came a boy in a black leather jacket with skin the color of blanched almonds, eyes outlined in black eyeliner, and the most perfect face I had ever seen. He gazed up at me like I was somebody’s parent, and held out his hand. His fingernails had been painted a painstaking black.

“Miguel, my sister, Edie. Edie, Miguel.” Jaela said. “Tell her your name.”

“Miguel,” Miguel said in a lilting voice like poured honey. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“No, idiot. Tell her your name. Your DJ name.” “DJ Britney Houston.”

Jaela looked at me. Her face went cold when mine stayed blank. “He’s kind of a big deal around here. You should really look him up on YouTube. Hey. Oh my God, Edie. What the hell did you do to your car?”

I stood up. “Jaela, where did you go? I came out here to look for you. I was worried. Dad didn’t say anything about you being allowed to go out.”

“We were going to a party.”

“So?”

“So. Parties are at night. Thus I had to leave the house at night. Dad wouldn’t have cared. I just forgot to ask. Seriously though, what the fuck did you do to your car?”

“Isn’t it a little early for the DJ to leave the party?” I turned to Miguel. “What’re you, bringing my sister home so you can feed her more tapas?”

“Tapas?” Miguel said. “What?”

“You heard me,” I said. “I know about your little tricks. Take my sister out to a tapas restaurant so you can seduce her—”

Jaela looked at me with an expression of abject despair.

“Seduce?” Miguel said. He turned to Jaela, and the look on his face was friendly but irritated. “We talked about this.”

Standing in the middle of the street, Jae looked suddenly drained of everything, and the emptiness made her look new.

Miguel smiled at me, then sat down on the curb beside me and rolled a joint. He held a lighter against one end, took a hit, and offered it to me. I waved it away, and then I took it. We smoked in silence for a little while. Above us, the moon shone like a hole, light spilling out over everything. I felt tired.

Miguel had never eaten out my sister. Nothing had ever happened between the two of them, and nothing was going to happen, not in the way Jaela wanted it to. This was something they had discussed, I thought now, probably more than once, probably over tapas. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t like him and had allowed him to take advantage of her. It was that she loved him, and he was never going to touch her.

“Jaela,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“We came back here to get you,” Miguel said quietly. “I’m her ride.”

“Mom called me,” Jaela said quietly. “She said you were in trouble.”

“Mom called you?”

“Yeah, duh. She calls me all the time. She’s my mom.”

“Why didn’t she call me?”

“She thinks you hate her. That it’s healthier for you not to have to talk to her. I’m like, whatever. But she’s probably right. You’re such a bitch to everybody.”

Miguel held the joint out to me even though it wasn’t my turn. The look on his face was sympathetic.

“Mom never calls me,” I said, and the words came out little, encased in smoke.

Jaela shrugged. She took the joint. Breathed in and exhaled. Turned to Miguel, and leaned into him. He patted her shoulder delicately, and glanced at me.

“What sound do you think stars make?”

“A sound like burning,” Miguel said. “Like the sound the blunt just made when I lit it.”

“Lighted it,” Jaela said.

“Um, no,” said Miguel.

“You guys,” I said. I began to cry. “I don’t understand.”

“The car doesn’t look that bad,” Miguel said gently, deliberately not looking at the Honda’s bunched up hood. He squeezed my shoulder. “Seriously, it’s nothing. Just, like, a scratch.”

“You should take a picture,” Jaela said. “To understand it better.” She pointed at the camera bag crushed against my hip.

“I wrecked my camera,” I said. The moon shone above us like a hole. Light spilled out over everything. “I wrecked that car. That’s not even my car and I wrecked it. And I don’t even know what that says. About me.”

“It says that . . .” Jaela took the joint from me with two brown fingers. “It says that you’re a good person.”

“What?”

“It says. It’s like. Look. When you make a bad choices, it means somebody, somewhere made a good one. And when something bad happens to you? It means something good happens to somebody else. Your life, and everybody’s life, and like, earth in general, have been happening exactly this way in a cycle for eternity in a delicate, dancing balance. In wrecking that car, you helped something really great take place elsewhere in the world. Even if you didn’t do it consciously. Even if you had no choice.”

“Who told you that?” I asked. “Who do you think?”

“That can’t be right,” I said.

“No.” Jaela exhaled, handed the joint back to Miguel. “Probably not. But wouldn’t it be awesome if it was?”

“Were,” said Miguel. He smoked until the light went out, and stubbed the roach out beneath his feet.

###

TLR Streed Cred front coverSarah LaBrie is the editor of the California Prose Directory 2015 and a writer for Hopscotch, a mobile opera for 24 cars, to be produced in fall 2015 by Pulitzer Prize- nominated opera company The Industry. Her fiction appears in Epoch, Encyclopedia Journal, and Joyland, and she has written for the L.A. Weekly, The Millions, Dossier Journal, and The Verge. She lives in Los Angeles.

“The Neon Touch” was originally published in Street Cred (TLR, 2015)