San Clemente, CA
Orange County School of the Arts
It’s Sunday and Sundays are hot. The kind of hot laden with decay, the I’m-sinking-into-Earth’s-core-and-condensing kind of hot, the heavy exhale of an unwanted stranger kind of hot. I think cold thoughts, praying for some kind of equilibrium… but osmosis takes over and the heat penetrates my skin.
I’m in Virginia’s room and I don’t know why. Heat does things to your brain, people say, makes the body languid and the mind dumb; so my body entered, and my mind, with some delay, followed it into the room. But it’s different. There’s a rigidity I hadn’t remembered, something more definite about the walls that wilted in my memory and deteriorated. I want to crawl into her bed, to claw my way back into whatever pushed my limp body out, to curl up in the fetal position— but I won’t. That riverbed has dried and there’s no more milk.
A whistle comes from downstairs, and for a fleeting moment I imagine the boiling water in the tea kettle, hissing, waiting to be released from the flame by our vacant mother. She can’t take her eyes off the screen, too busy tethered to reality TV, a reality greater than her own. But water is volatile (even when lukewarm). Perhaps the kettle is boiling over now, spilling over the edges and thickening the air with vapor.
I’m walking around the perimeter of the room. My hands want to touch everything, to allow myself the tactile pleasures of memory; I’m reaching for something tangible but the walls feel hollow and so do I.
Everything in Virginia’s room is yellow. I don’t remember how it happened, or even questioning it, I just remember walking in one day and everything was yellow. Yellow-fever, I called it, because there was something infectious about it, something noxious about the gases that radiated from the cheap paint and dampened emotions. Virginia was not devotional, and yet her obsession with the color was something of piety. Looking at the flood of yellow now, I can’t help but feel inundated by artificial warmth, somehow both separate and a part of the room.
Perhaps there was something democratic about the pervading color, and perhaps Virginia saw it too. To her, the room was poetic, but to the objective eye it was flamboyant, abrasive to visual leisure. There was a cyclical nature to the color, one that permeated into the air, evaporated from the furniture and rained down in a heavy deluge upon the space. On hot Sundays like these it crescendoed in warmth and pulsed like sticky heat. I close my eyes to reset, a black respite from yellow, but the room’s fluorescence stains the inner dwellings of my eye and I am deprived of the simple pleasure of darkness.
I wonder how Virginia lived before I was born, how she anticipated my becoming in that inky-black time where there was no I-consciousness. I imagine she dreaded it, stubbornly deciding that she and I were separate. I wish I could enter into that space and time, just for a moment, and reclaim those unknown moments.
The Virginia I knew was kind. If I am to separate her from my current knowing, I would say she was tender and unassuming. Sensitive, yes, but there was a zeal in her that could never be extinguished, a fiery agent that was unpleasant to some, but endearing to me. And she was pretty, the went-unnoticed kind of pretty, which sharpened and yellowed with time.
When she was young, and I slightly younger, we lived in Westerly, Rhode Island and sat on dull beaches at dawn and engaged in provincial activity. Life was flat, but Virginia liked flat. We’d spend the late summer watching the sky animate at sunrise, and then the nighttime stillness became tormented by daytime breezes and the sea water would ripple endlessly. I suppose there was a satisfaction in this, watching the undulations of the ocean and its serpentine movements from dusk to dawn to dusk; but mom said small towns had few job opportunities in today’s climate.
Virginia had always loved these beach sunrises and the eden they created. Something about all the sunlight wasted on the water coaxed her—a pleasure that the city couldn’t offer. Moving to Philadelphia devastated her.
She was like, “This is bullshit” and I was like, “I know”, but I didn’t know because the crushing nothingness of this town would have made me implode. I wanted to hug her then, wrap my arms around her, tell her that there was still a sun in Philadelphia -- just maybe not the same sun.
I was wrong; that Philadelphia winter was sunless. The year died, devoid of any sunlight, and became enveloped in splintering coldness and snow. And so the world became bitter and its players cruel, and we navigated the labyrinthine streets with urgency as not to freeze in its harshness. I still don’t remember when Virginia’s room became yellow, but I imagine it was in that Philadelphia winter, the dullness attracting her to the warmth it provided.
I’m staring at her yellow bed now. Yes, it was in this chrysalis where she hibernated, this very mattress that the leathery wings of metamorphosis were ripped and she stayed suffocating in the cocoon.
I’m filling up the bathtub. The waters are rising and I don’t want them to stop, I want them to spill over the edges and pour down in torrents to the downstairs, and then overflow the streets until pedestrians are inundated with the burden of water and intercepted by the current. I turn off the water.
The lights are off and the water lukewarm. I’m feeling the porcelain with the soles of my feet, feeling it lubricated with water and obscured by darkness. And then I’m moving my hands throughout the wet interior, touching it with my whole body so I know how slippery it must have been. And then I’m imagining the impact of the human body upon porcelain, the sheer force of flesh and bones fracturing in the bathtub. I’m imagining Virginia, still intoxicated, “rough night out”, falling in the shallow water and splitting into pieces upon the floor, her body now fragmented, broken, she’s grabbing for the edges but she can’t move and she’s stuck beneath the bloody water and she’s screaming but there’s no sound just bubbles.
I wonder what those final moments felt like. I want to assume the pain, shoulder the burden of those final seconds of desperation. I want to know that transition from thrashing to stillness, to let time stop and the amorphous shape of myself dissolve into the bathwater. But I know that’s not what happened; I know that it wasn’t beautiful, it was bloody, and my mom had to break open the door to find her body there.
I’m sculpting the water with my hands now, creating form out of formless, thinking of the waves that Virginia and I used to watch back on the coast. The lukewarm bathwater has gone cold, and it feels like the Rhode Island ocean all over again, only heavier, every atom of my blood frozen, with the penetrating feeling that I will never feel warmth again: no matter the heat, no matter the day.
Assuming a fetal position, I cannot help but desire to reclaim the womb, to climb back through that maternal canal and melt into source, the genesis. Here, I could reside for eternity, bathed in amniotic fluid, germinating in the comfort of my mother’s fertile garden, nursed by the murmurs of oblivion. But this tub is not a womb, and this body, raw and knowing, is no longer blank. You tore your pulse from mine, pushed my bloody body out. You slashed my umbilical cord, coaxed me with milk then pulled your breast from my mouth.
The sweet caress of silence is shattered, the bathwater stagnant, and time shattered. I’m pulling the plug, re-animating the water into whirlpools swallowed by the drain. There’s tears in the bathwater, tears and sweat and saliva and vodka and Virginia’s blood, imbibed by the pipe into the filth of the sewer. The bathtub is empty now, and my naked body is left shivering, wishing for the same fate as the waters drained into nothingness.
The array of motifs in "Virginia's Room" is stunning. Most notably, the wet womb, the profuse yellow, sunny, then sallow, the elegic overflow of water, vapor, and body, even the daring use of the word "animate", which compresses all of life into a one-and-done automatic process. In fact, Jonathan Truong's use of words is evolutionary. The prose glides, seemingly impulsively, and although it appears at first either strange, unsophisticated, or excessive, it is undeniably a special style: inventive and slightly, eerily alien. Still, the most impressive thing about "Virginia's Room" is how Jonathan Truong handles death, depression, and maybe, eventually, rebirth—obvious, unwieldy topics that the author subtly, convincingly, and almost unrecognizably reshapes.
Jonathan Truong is a creative writing student at Orange County School of the Arts. He is a 2020 Foyle Commended Poet, and an alumnus of the Adroit Summer Mentorship for fiction. Outside of writing, he teaches vinyasa yoga.
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