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General

I can only be in love with one person at a time. My body is weak, and love is too strong. It requires motors, nuclear facilities, every solar panel in the world to keep burning, energy channeled from every collapsing star in every dying galaxy. I can’t even hold my own back straight or keep my fingers from shaking; how am I to generate the gigawatts for loving everyone? 

It’s easier to love the small things. I listen to the same twenty-five songs over and over. I drink black coffee every morning, grinning and warm when the caffeine dissolves into my blood. I eat sweet things that aren’t good for me, that delight my taste buds and make my teeth hurt and my throat dry. I pick daisies off the side of the road and press them into heavy books so their lovely yellow eyes can please me forever. These things are simple. They expect nothing from me. I, in turn, expect nothing from them but little bite-sized pieces of love. 

If I could, I’d move to the countryside, near some mountains, in a wood-paneled cabin deep in the warm company of heavy pines. I’d bring my coffee machine, buy doughnuts when I go into town once a week. I’d have my books and CDs and my pressed flowers and live off just those morsels of love, like a field mouse scavenging sunflower seeds. But humans are not field mice. Humans cannot sustain themselves on sunflower seeds alone. 

I’d lived in a teeny-tiny town for two years. I thought it would make me happy, best of both worlds. There were only 2,000 people living there, enough to keep me company but not enough to bleed my love dry. But it hurt to live there, more than any other place I’d called home. I wasn’t from there. I didn’t grow up on those maple-lined streets. The dusty smell wafting from every old church, from every yardsale-box, every family-inherited cafe with water stained ceilings -- to me, it was just the smell of decay, the most unglamorous American smell of asbestos finally crumbling and cheap vinyl floors bucking with moisture. To some, it smelled like home. 

Usually, I take my walks at night. It’s more peaceful. But the streets got absolutely empty, totally quiet there at night. I couldn’t stand it. So I walked in the afternoons, when a few people would mill about the cafes, pick up cheese and flowers at the grocery, drive little-kid soccer teams back from practice. The kids were so loud. I wondered how many of them would stay in this town forever, running along well-worn paths all their lives, seeing and smelling and talking about the same things forever. 

I didn’t grow up in a small town. I’d never known anything like it. But it was familiar, painfully so. It broke my heart every day, all of it, the wet leaves that caught fire in the fall, the half-washed chalk drawings on Main Street, the windowsills gathering dust and dead ladybugs. It was the same beautiful and sad tension in the stomach I felt after watching a romantic movie where the protagonists, though horribly in love, decide to part ways. 

I don’t know what it was. Maybe I couldn’t help imagining what life would have been like if I had been from the town myself. It’s the what-ifs that always kill me. If I’d been born there, I would’ve been the same sleepy, melancholy child stumbling through half-hearted friendships, counting crows in the fall and moongazing on sleepless nights. I would also fall in love with one person at a time. That part would be easier, less people to chose from. I’d watch my childhood crushes grow up and get jobs at the diners and gas stations I loved growing up. I would get a job like that too, sighing afternoons away behind the counter, waiting for the cooks to finish up the burgers and milkshakes, watching the trees tremble through the window, my daydreams built on scraps collected from secondhand books and Disney movies on VHS. I would be much gentler, I think, more vulnerable, a baby deer that never quite learned to walk right and still shook with every step. I think I would be lonely. There would be less places to go each time I got rejected. Eventually all my options would dwindle until it was just me with creased eyes behind that counter, watching the leaves outside get darker and darker, dazed and shuddering at the thought of winter. 

What I did know was that I couldn’t stay in that town for much longer. So I left. But where to go then? Nowhere was left but my real home. So that’s where I am now. I haven’t seen the house, the neighborhood in years, not since I legally became an adult. People have come and gone, neighbors upgrading to more bathrooms and bigger lawns in property developments hours outside town. There’s cosmetic changes here and there, a new crack in the pavement, a door painted green. The ice cream place nearby closed. Shame -- that’s where we took high school sweethearts back in the day. 

My sister is starting to grow up too. She’s still a kid to me though. She still sees herself as a kid. She told me herself she doesn’t want to grow up -- I’d stumbled upon her lining her teddy bears up for a fashion show. She seemed embarrassed, but I don’t pass judgement on those things. She relaxed, smiled sheepishly, told me which ones were her favorites. I don’t know the normal age for kids to stop playing with toys. I’d packed my dolls and plastic dinosaurs away for good early on. I was always in a hurry to move on, to get away, to mature, to learn about life and love and the wonderful things all adults seemed aware of in the movies, the things they whispered and giggled about over early cups of coffee, when the children still slept. I spied on them. I wanted to know what they knew. 

Some of those things, I do know about now. I reached some conclusions by myself. Some were handed to me by the old and wise. I want to make it all easier for my sister, tell her what I learned so her own tender heart doesn’t have to shatter bit by bit. But she’s not really interested. I can’t understand that, not wanting to be prepared, but I guess we’re different in that way. She’d be alright growing up in that small town, going to dances and fundraisers and church events, never pausing to look at roadkill or leaf through last week’s abandoned newspapers like her older sister. 

She spends so much time behind the computer. I worry about her eyesight, her back already curving into a question mark. I take her along on my walk through the neighborhood. She’s a good sport about it. We talk, as much as anyone with a nine-year age gap can talk. I ask her if she has a crush on anyone at school. She says no. Good for her. By her age, I was already hopelessly infatuated with some bowlcut boy. 

Around here, there’s train tracks wherever you go. They put new signs up, and trains can’t blow their horns anymore. I suppose there were too many mothers in the area similar to mine, those that awoke at the slightest sound in the night. When I couldn’t sleep as a kid, I’d hear the rumble, then the long woooooo, like a mechanical owl flying overhead, trains coming every hour. What are trains even good for anymore? 

A train comes while me and my sister take our walk. The tracks are downhill from us, behind a chain link fence, surrounded by woods. The trees shake like a dog scared of its owner’s incoming kicks, before the train is even visible to us. The trees know it’s coming. 

We stop to watch. I remember the boy I loved the hardest thus far, or thought I loved. He had danced most tantalizingly in and out my fingers, a needle weaving through a loom but never tightening, never forming anything full and real. I remember Halloween, we were both sixteen, he was high and I was then scared of drugs still. We had been walking along these same train tracks through a yellow and brown evening. He carried a fat marker with him, and tagged electrical unites along the way with graffiti, his signature, an ugly man’s face. When the train came, it wooshed right past our faces, metal screaming on metal, the rust smell heavy, like blood. I could feel the ground shaking, and my skeleton shook with it. He wasn’t phased at all. He picked up pebbles and threw them at the train. We had to duck as they ricocheted off, flying our way with twice the force. I threw a rock myself. It felt stupid, pointless, a dumb expression of dumb teen anger. I wondered when I’d no longer be expected to do things like that, when I would be surrounded by fellow adults who grumbled about trains inside their beds instead of staring them down head-on. But I was glad I threw that rock. 

I want to tell my sister that story, but she looks bored already. She wants to go back home to her computer. I understand. I agree to turn around, head back. There’s not much out here, especially after the train has long gone. It breaks my heart, and it’s familiar. 

July 24, 2020 07:14

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2 comments

Valerie Preston
07:49 Jul 31, 2020

I really enjoyed your story. I could relate to your description of living . in the countryside. You were very descriptive throughout your story, making it easy to conjure up in my mind the scene , place or person. A great read.

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Masha Kurbatova
21:07 Jul 31, 2020

thank you!

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