Raccoon Eyes and Russet Lips

You never told me you were dying.
After they announced your passing at school, Mary Abbott and her gang shed fake tears before diagnosing you with four potential causes of death:
  1. You snorted one too many thin white lines
  2. You carved a thousand bloody roses into the length of your forearm
  3. You took your mom’s old BMW for a joyride and never came back
  4. You spread your legs and got a knife instead
By 8:30am, the Mary Abbotts had opened your death up for betting.
By 10:00am, nearly everyone in the school had placed their bets on your cause of death.
By 12:00pm, nearly everyone lost their money because, as it turned out, the correct answer choice was option E) None of the above—
Cancer had stolen your breath and never bothered to give it back.
By 3:01pm, your laughter faded from the empty classrooms.
By 3:02pm, your artwork slipped from the walls of the winding hallways.
By 3:03pm, your name faded from the minds of our “mourning” classmates.
By 3:04pm, I stand in our dimly lit darkroom, struggling to preserve your existence with teardrops and memories—
They are all I have left of you.

***

The first time I met you, you made me cry.
I was the new kid in school, yet you showed me no mercy when I got lost and barged in on you in the school’s ramshackle darkroom.
“What the fuck are you doing in here?” You didn’t miss a beat. (You never did.)
I did. (I always did.)
“I asked you a question.” This time, a pair of golden eyes stared out of the darkness. “Would you like me to repeat it again?”
No, I wouldn’t.
I fled the room.
I found a bathroom.
I locked the stall door.
I cried.

***

I let my clothes drop to the floor of the darkroom.
The girl in the mirror stands in a dry puddle of clothes.
I wonder whether you would’ve liked to be here, to see me naked for you, to see me heave up my heart for you.
The girl in the mirror doesn’t wonder. She only watches and cries and watches some more.
Then, she speaks: “You never told me you were dying.”

***

The day you made me cry, you also made me smile.
A few minutes after the lunch bell rang, you found me in the lunchroom. I was sitting by myself in that corner seat next to the window.
“You took my seat” was your “hello”.
My heart jumped to my throat as I looked up to find you towering over me.
“Oh, relax,” you said, taking a seat opposite me, “you can sit with me…if you’re cool enough.”
“Um, thanks, I guess.”
You stared at me.
I felt like a bug slowly roasting under the sun.
“You look familiar,” you finally declared.
“Yeah, I walked in on you accidentally today, in the darkroom.”
“Oh, right, right. Sorry about that. You’re not supposed to let any light in the room when you’re processing photos, so I was worried they’d come out shitty, so I was projecting, so…sorry.”
“That’s alright.” (I didn’t tell you I spent the entire period crying.)
“What’s your name?”
“Jane.”
You swirled my name around with your tongue, tasted it, felt it, before you returned it to me. “That’s a nice name, Jane. I’m Rebecca. Not Becky, not Reba—Rebecca.”
I nodded.
You stared at me.
I was a bug again.
“Sit with me from now on, Jane.” (Was it an invitation or a command?)
“Does that mean I’m cool?” I ventured.
Then, you laughed. And it wasn’t the eyes-narrowing, finger-pointing, you’re-such-a-loser kind of laugh; it was the eyes-glowing, jaw-hurting, hey-you’re-pretty-funny kind of laugh.
So, I forgot all about your menacing scowl and my red-hot tears, your scathing words and my ice-cold fears.
So, I smiled.

***

The girl in the mirror wears a short black dress. She looks like a ghost, with tan skin made pale by the darkness and long, unruly strands that dangle like so many wild vines.
“But I’m not the one who’s dead.”
No response.
“You never told me you were dying.”
I don’t expect a response.
“Why?”
It’s not as if the dead can speak.
I take a step closer to the mirror, and another, and another, until I am standing swollen-eye-to-swollen-eye with the girl in the mirror.
Then, I raise a tube of charcoal-black eyeliner and begin drawing.

***

They used to call you “Raccoon Eyes” because you would outline your golden eyes with sooty rings of jet.
But I thought your eyes were beautiful—twin suns glowing in a solar system devoid of shooting stars and pirouetting planets.
I thought you were beautiful—my angel in the blessed twilight.
And I wanted to be beautiful for you.
You took me to the ramshackle dark room after school one day. With one hand, you held a candle up next to my cheek; with the other, you painted my face like a long-forgotten queen of Egypt. Around and around your hand went, tracing the edges of one eye, then the other with obsidian bands. Back and forth your hand went, staining my lips a—neither scarlet nor rouge, neither crimson nor maroon—russet red that sang of autumn leaves and lovers’ eve.
“There, all done,” you declared, carefully placing the lipstick and candle on a nearby table. The light of the candle set your normally wispy blonde hair on fire and your normally waxen skin alight with an ethereal glow.
(Was I as beautiful then as I found you always?) “Thanks.”
“On second thought, you’re missing something.”
“What is—?”
And then I felt something soft and warm push firmly against my lips.
It took me a moment to realize that “something” was your lips.
When you finally untangled your fingers from my hair, when you finally unlatched your mouth from mine, I stared at the mirror over your shoulder. My raccoon eyes were still intact, but my lips had become a bloody mess. The paint you used on my lips had fled its confines; the skin around my mouth was now stained a russet red that sang of the painstakingly brief moment when afternoon bleeds into evening and the sky sheds its final golden tears.
“There,” you said, licking away the russet on your lips, “I fixed it.”
That was the first time you kissed me.
That was the first time I had kissed anyone.

***

I slide my tongue along my lips, trying desperately to taste yours.
But I only taste the bland nothingness of russet wax infused with the salty tang of dried tears.
The girl in the mirror opens her red-smeared mouth to let out a silent, anguished howl, like a wolf lamenting her isolation.
The howl forms words in my ears: “You never told me you were dying.”
“You never cared enough to tell me.” The words leave the girl’s lips in a strangled whisper.
Did you even love me? I don’t dare speak the words aloud.
The girl in the mirror clutches a pair of scissors. She raises it with a steady hand and captures a handful of ebony locks between the stainless twin shears.
Maybe you just liked the done-up version of me, the me with sultry black eyes and sanguine lips…
Thick vines fall in a dark pool around my feet. They come to life as they hit the ground, snaking around my legs, my torso, my arms, my head, until I see only darkness—a darkness interrupted by a pair of golden eyes.
…or maybe I should’ve known you were dying.

***

After two weeks of radio silence from your end, you came back to school with all your hair buzzed off.
The Mary Abbotts stopped calling you “Raccoon Eyes” upon your return—
They started calling you “Mole Rat” instead.
I spent the entire day running my hands through the few frayed hairs you still possessed, kissing your chapped lips and paper-thin skin, and telling you “you’re still the most beautiful girl in the whole wide universe”.
What I should’ve done was ask you: “Are you okay?”
But I was too busy asking why.
“I wanted a new look.”
I was too busy mistaking the hollow sadness in your golden eyes for quiet embarrassment.
“I don’t care what they think.”
I was too busy reassuring you that you were still beautiful, when all you really needed was for me to ask:
“Are you okay?”
(And, perhaps the truth would’ve come out then.)

***

Smoke billows across the mirror’s surface, obscuring the girl who resides within from view.
“You never told me you were dying.”
At the sound of my voice, the gray tendrils slowly dissipate into thin air, leaving behind a figure who looks more ghost than girl. She clutches a thick, creamy-white candle with one hand. The candlewick remains untouched, dreaming of the day it will finally taste sweet flames upon its braided tongue. In her other hand lies a plastic cigarette lighter. It waits patiently for her to call upon the inferno that slumbers within.
“Were you trying to save me?”
A flickering flame springs from the gaping mouth of the lighter. It winks at me with a single golden eye.
“Or were you trying to destroy me?”

***

On the day of my seventeenth birthday, you convinced me to sneak out of the house after dinner and into the school’s abandoned darkroom.
“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t show up.” Your husky voice echoed from the shadows just as several candles sprang to life on the far side of the darkroom, wrapping you in a golden shroud.
I couldn’t keep a smile off my lips, as I walked towards your wavering silhouette. “You didn’t have to do all this for me.”
A playful grin made your eyes gleam in the dim light. “Close your eyes.”
I let out a shaky chuckle, but I did as you asked. “What are you doing?”
“You’ll see” came the cryptic response from somewhere beyond the twilight.
And so, I waited. A lifetime passed before my very eyes, an eternity that turned out to have lasted minutes rather than eons, before you laced your fingers between mine and instructed me to open my eyes.
The scene that met my eager gaze rendered me speechless. You were standing before me, papery skin glowing with an ethereal light, raccoon eyes dancing with a galaxy of golden stars, russet lips slowly curling like a rose petal beneath the afternoon sun. You were standing before me, lank arms outstretched like the branches of a deciduous tree caught in the midst of an unforgiving winter, spindly fingers cupped around a single vanilla cupcake topped with creamy frosting and a red birthday candle that burned with an effulgent glow.
You were standing before me, and I couldn’t remember a time when you had been more beautiful.
“Make a wish, Jane.” Your voice was so soft, so delicate I was afraid it would shatter upon meeting thin air.
I closed my eyes for a moment, opened them, and blew out the miniscule flame with a single sighing breath.
Still smiling, you slid the candle out from within the cupcake and placed it on the table. “Happy birthday,” you said.
And before I could say anything in return, you squashed the cupcake against my lips.
“Rebecca—!”
You easily cut off my feeble protest with a thrilling smooch that left my legs weak, my heart soaring, and my lips with the strange aftertaste of sweet buttercream and briny dewdrops.
(I still don’t know who the tears belonged to.)

***

Your mud brown box lies upon the palms of my hands. I run my thumb against the keyhole, slowly, half-expecting the lid to spring open at my gentle touch.
The lid does no such thing.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, Rebecca,” I whisper, “I didn’t make a wish that day; I believed my one wish had been granted already…”
…You were my dream come true: You, with your raccoon eyes that glowed so brilliantly from the depths of the darkroom; you, with your russet lips that melded so perfectly against my own…
…You were my dream come true and I thought you would last forever.
“If I had known you were dying, I would’ve made a wish for you.” My words leave my lips in a breathless murmur. “I would’ve made a wish for the both of us.”
But now it’s too late, too late for words and kisses, tears and wishes.
“Because you never told me you were dying.” The words hang in the air, volcanic fires that threaten to devour everything in their path upon descent.
“Did I mean anything to you!?”
A sudden movement within the depths of the mirror forces my gaze upward.
The girl in the mirror has her arm raised and drawn back, a mud brown box trapped between her fingers. I watch, numbly, as the girl’s arm comes forward in a graceful arc, as the box leaves her fingers without so much as a hasty farewell—
Thousands of thin cracks race across the mirror’s surface, traveling ever outwards from the crater that started it all. The mirror makes a heroic effort to hold together its wounded appendages before crystals begin raining down upon the ground, shattering into even smaller fragments upon impact.
But glass isn’t the only thing that litters the ground—
Your mud brown box lies on its side, photographs spilling out among the dusty diamonds that paint the ground.
Slowly, I kneel beside the broken glass and gather up the pictures in my trembling hands.
In the first photo, I stand alone, a candle cupped between my hands. I’m looking down at the camera (down at you) with raccoon eyes the size of dinner plates and russet lips parted in nervous laughter. The second after you took the photo, I proceeded to cover my face with my hands, nearly dropping the candle in the process (to my dismay and to your irritation). When you first found me, I was camera shy, but I slowly learned to cherish camera flash.
My heart lurches painfully within its bony confines, as if it’s straining to reach out and steal the photo out of my rigid grasp. (I don’t let it.)
I turn to the second photo. In it, we stand side-by-side. Your not-yet-cropped blonde hair entwines itself with my black strands and your golden eyes revel in the spotlight with my brown ones. When we first found each other, we were as different as could be, but I slowly learned to love your fearlessness and your recklessness, and you slowly learned to love my gentleness and my plainness.
My vision blurs as tears threaten to burst from the dam I had so painfully constructed to keep the raindrops at bay. (I don’t let them.)
I carefully place all but the last of the photos back inside your mud brown box. In the picture, you’re bent over a fully developed photograph. Your pale eyebrows are furrowed in concentration, as your golden eyes inspect each and every inch of your latest piece of artwork. One side of your face is suffused in the luminous glow of candlelight, while the other is hidden in chimerical darkness. When I first found you, twilight was your sole companion, but you slowly learned to find light in our tender embraces, warmth in our vernal kisses.
I wistfully run my finger along the edges of the photo. Perhaps a part of you will always remain untouched by the candle’s divulging light; perhaps I will never truly understand you the way I thought I had. But I know this much is true:
Your passing doesn’t make what we had between us any less real.
Nothing in the world can erase the joy we shared together and the pain we endured together, the love we experienced together and the memories we made together; nothing in the world can erase the everlasting imprint you’ve made on my life.
“And nothing will ever change that.”
My fingers loosen their hold around the photograph as it struggles to fly free. (I let it.)
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