Aleah Sterman Goldin
It's the stardust that keeps us conscious. Without those dried pinpricks of sleep, yellowed and rolled overnight in the narrows of our eyes, we would be nothing. I know because Gerlee knows because Odnoo knows because you picked the dust out one morning when a group of middle school girls were walking by you, and one of those girls was Odnoo's sister. The sand was swirling behind your head, and the girls were trying to hide from its harsh hands when you reached your finger up, on, and out.
They say they couldn't believe it at first. Ducking behind a gum booth, they snaked their necks and lashed their tongues together, until the sand slowed and only words were left. The words must have spiraled around you because you suddenly knew who they were, and you cried out to them in such terror that their knees quaked, and you dissolved into air.
The girls stood behind the gum booth waiting for you to appear again (until grey-haired Tuvshiin opened her side-street gum booth flap to spit, "whores"). They were your only witnesses, greasy-haired disbelievers at that. Within a few days, they would admit the sand slumped too slow, that they didn't see you run away into the avenue where only the newborn throw-outs go, but the wind couldn't take the sound of your footsteps on cement. (If they couldn't hear your words, how could they hear your footbeat?) Life is tidy around these parts, so no one questioned but me.
I don't like tidiness. I like seams that have gaps the size of teeth and rips longer than my palm. I am not afraid to let skin glare in daylight while wrinkled women mutter low. So why, why didn't you bid me to pick the stardust from the narrows of my eyes with you? I would have held the crook of your elbow, so that the two of us could fade together into the soft streetlight. All you had to do was beckon. I would have come.
Hang low. Hang low.
I used to hear the wing flaps of crows beating to the drip of your sweat. Your sweat trickling down your chin, onto your chest, onto the concrete ground, and they'd flock to it. I pitched millet off my balcony and watch it land on their backs, on your arms. Their flapping wings gave the grain new life. (What doesn't soar isn't free.) Sometimes I'd miss their backs and hit them in the eyes, blinding them from your face. It's only when you bellowed at me, "Who are you?" "What are you doing?" that the wings became a cloud of feathers spiraling higher and higher into the dusk.
The crows were afraid of us, when you bellowed. By ourselves, we were no harm – but sopranos swarming the wind were too much for them to bear. I understand. You, by yourself, were too much for me most evenings. One balcony above, I lacked the courage to straighten to your call. Instead I ducked so only my shoulder blades showed. They were graceful and thin.
The banister blocked my brow of cotton and linen lips, and for that I am grateful. I would only show you those if millet grew in their place. "Eat me. Love me." Skin and bone don't feed millions, thin stalks of grain do.
I have sought you out and retraced your steps and searched for that windowpane you last reflected in. You are who I wish to be if I wish to wish at all.
I used to wish that you would see me through the concrete of balconies when I hung low. My face centimeters from the cigarette stubs. You bellowed and bellowed when you saw me bestowing grain with outstretched arms. You bellowed and bellowed, until my ears grew swollen, and I could hear only tenors and baritones without pinching my hands.
The first evening this happened, I bought three packets of gum from Tuvshiin to pop the imbalance of my ears. She banished me from her booth after I exchanged money for packets. "The whore of all whores." That soprano knew my dreams of you, I fear.
The next time it happened, I swallowed your words as my ears reddened. (I didn't want to be reminded of my dreams, licking the sweat from your shoulder blades.) Your words were short, whole. It took several attempts to keep the words down.
I regurgitate those words when my guard is lost. Words like those aren't easily digested, and they come back up at the most inconvenient times.
Once when I was cleaning with Gerlee, your soprano emerged from my throat. Gerlee and I were dusting the hotel, when your voice erupted. We were talking about the future, and at the time, we'd thought I'd become a prophet. "Who are you?" "What are you doing?" "Who are you?"
Unknowing I was you, thinking it was some type of Moses, Gerlee took the forged wisdom to visit her parents (for who should know her better than they?). Her mother, a side-street gum booth lady, didn't recognize Gerlee even when Gerlee spoke her name. Her father welcomed her back with hefty arms and sold Gerlee's virginity to the neighbor. In exchange, he received two bottles of vodka and one jug of horse milk.
When Gerlee arrived back in the city, she was too late to warn me. By the time she stepped off the train and uniformed, I'd spoken to six souls, using up six bellows, causing six path-changing moments that weren't mine to gift. I blame you for that. You should have kept your words to yourself.
If only you were still here, so I could bellow you this.
I once heard your footbeats on the stairs of my floor, pounding as you checked to see if my concrete balcony matched "apartment twenty-four." You didn't knock, even when I showed you my shoulder blade through the peephole, you museumed yourself to the floorboards until one creaked under too much weight. Then, you shook your head, leaving the way you came.
Another time, I felt your touch. They were pouring cement into sand-stripped alleys because blacktop was too expensive but cement was still cheap. You were late for a meeting, and you sprinted into the drying white. You were wearing black leather shoes that smelled like polish and pastures. They were clean except for the wad of my half-chewed gum on the lower right edge. The laces were tied in bows, and your pants were cuffed up to your calves. I watched your cement footprint harden, made sure no one smoothed you away, and then I stepped into you. I felt your sole, the way you press to the ground with your muscles and forward with your toes. I looked at my pants and noticed I have cuffed them too.
I suppose you could consider our movements in space meetings too. If you overlapped our paths, we connected three times a day. There's you, huffing down the stairs, and me, fifteen minutes later with my hotel uniform on, trailing your steps. Then there's the café, you sipping steaming mugs from during your afternoon break, and me, at the same table when the hour hand shifts. (I must admit I've found evidence of your presence there twice. Your hair trim has a diagonal cut, and the stiff strands you leave behind are the size of my pinky.) But it's only on the stairway of our apartment complex that I almost stumbled into you. I had to pace at each stairwell to give you time to slip ahead.
Even so, I think you might have caught a full glimpse of me when you staggered from the fifth to sixth floor. I noticed your eyes. You had not slept for a long time, and your stardust pinpricks (yellow and rolled) were dry. "Who are you?" There was a bruise on your cheek and stitches on your lips. I'd heard rumors that you'd been mugged the week before because you were searching through newborn throw-outs. Two roughens saw your slumped frame with its polish, pasture smelling shoes. They must have taken your gold filling because the few times you bellowed after that, there was only bone and gums.
Why did you leave me?
I have searched the alleyway for newborn throw-outs that could have been yours and have found none with your sloped chin and narrow ears.
Because you are gone, I have terrible migraines. They leave me cowering. With them, all sounds sound like flapping wings. When they began at work, I dropped the toilet brush and the plunger onto the tiles and crawled behind them. The three of us occupied corners, until guests called hotel managers. The managers asked me what was wrong, and I answered, "You, you, you."
I wasn't asked to leave until a month later when the shrillness of faucets made it impossible to mop and scrub. "Who are you?" I was no use without water, but water had use without me. I blame you. My seams have irreversibly sewn themselves, and the crows no longer flock. I spend my days listening to Tuvshiin caw, "whore of all whores," and Gerlee's father knocking at doors for his daughter. Yellow stardust, pinpricked and rolled overnight, has become large in the corners of my eyes.
If only I'd never seen you that first day when your couch was too wide to fit in the door of your new apartment, and Odnoo had to squeeze underneath it to get to the stairs of the sixth floor. She dragged me out, that first day, so I could see you for myself. We hid in the stairwell. Your hands pocketed, and your collar had flopped to your lower neck. You were beautiful. "Saw off an arm," you commanded the mover who had nothing but arms, and he thought you meant his, not the couch. A fluttering crow landed on your head.
"It's a bird."
"A bird, you say?"
Oh, how I wish you had noticed me then (though my lips were not cotton and my flesh not millet). My shoulders have always been graceful and thin.
"Stardust" happened into being as I became obsessed with sleep dust. The yellow crust that magically appears (after sleep) seemed to be symbolic of one's essence, and I wondered about a world where removing the yellow crust would mean dying.