PARALLELS: THE STARS, OR LACK THEREOF
Wellesley, MA, USA
Philips Academy, Andover
PARALLELS: THE STARS, OR LACK THEREOF
I yawn to a half-asleep time capsule town. 1800s farmers oversee horse-drawn plows, halcyon lakes crust with thatched roofs, invisible cicadas murmur symphonies. Time is noosed along by fishing attempts: placidly, stupidly hanging hooks and fingernails over slurred blue. Jeep rumbles occasionally part the swaying wheat, our expressions varying thicknesses of ennui. He balances a camera; a tourniquet. I try to inconspicuously levitate my thighs off the seat so they look skinnier. We hold phones in delicate poses, fingernails brittle contraptions, taking turns glaring out the shotgun window.
As soon as the sun slinks under our muddy porch, I remember I’m in New York: nightlife fanatic. The sky’s fiery Gaussian slopes slowly sharpen into a navy plaster, so we tell our parents it’s a sunset drive. Latent primordiality slits open millennia of beady eyes, entrapping tourists serendipitously slipping dusk through numbing fingers. Lackluster wallpaper pastures obscure into heady swaths of rustling black. Overhead—a star-freckled pied piper, doming stretches of asphalt farther than the mind can see. Their susurrus beckons—
Sophomore year lisped into eyeshot, and I didn’t have a summer job; not even good enough to scoop ice cream like Evelyn at the yogurt place down the block. Loneliness: commercialized by the Internet, a fatal fulcrum in the pediatrician’s office.
—smothers in blustery black, so I forget who I’m not. He slants the Jeep to a stop next to a swarthy field, fence posts jutting down its border with the road. The wind whips our hair the same chaos despite his sleek dyed locks and my just-washed frizzy mane. My face warms shadowy and stupid, nose ghosting dimly by my iPhone screen: Hey Siri, how fast can cows run? We crane over brush and ferns, trying to spot the boxy shadows move up to 25 mph. Fireflies wink in and out of existence—
I puffed my tiny chest and raised my prepubescent voice to a friend I met in math class for yelling at Evelyn. Because I looked away when Evelyn slit-eyed and connived with her best friend, and only saw her smear tears down hallway tiles.
—so fast that once I look at them they are gone, tantalizing the forest with pinpricks of peripheral light. Hey Siri, how to tell if a fence is electric? And—just as dreaded, my gooseflesh pricks up parallel when held near the braided wires. He says it’s just the wind, even when my careless fingertips press further and elicit static-reminiscent shocks. Rational thought—
I was so sure I was right on the asymptotic map. I argued back and forth in front of Evelyn and seven other classmates, espousing theorems and double negatives as my empty seat silently beckoned. It’s only until later do I realize a step’s deletion shifted my whole string incomprehensible.
—desperately tries to keep up as our lanky limbs and deft bodies slip asunder and fly across open fields blanketed by starlight, towards amorphous outlines of creatures grazing or dying. Hey Siri, do Amish people own shotguns—
I laughed along with the boy dancing on the table; exaggerated shoulders twitching, eyes hooded blind. Until my fifth grade teacher(a former football quarterback) stormed in crying, spittle flying from normally bow-shaped lips. Humility carved my mouth’s cavern even wider.
—but hounding logic (epitaph of ‘mauled by bull’ seems too trite) wrenches back control and seizes spindly feet, sprinting them back towards faraway blinking headlights acquiescing reality. Serrated edges of hedge roots and glutted mosquitos catch my bare legs, bubbling welt patchworks pink (or purple, or green, or gray.) We heave laughter and collapse back into the haphazardly parked car. I’ve been thinking it, but only when he offhandedly invites me do I tentatively shrug into the driver’s seat, shakily touch the now-delegated steering wheel—
My recounted stories raised eyebrows. I could see Evelyn’s shoulders trying not to hinge in second-hand embarrassment while othered lips dripped chapstick: I first drove at eleven, when my uncle made me get coffee for him. I cuddled boys while you lost at Egyptian Rat Screw.
—I feather down my foot, and the car lurches my throat, swallowing. I hold lives in my hands though it’s only an empty lot. I gradually work up to cruising down deserted streets, tires wobbling on either side of yellowed ridges. I dangerously skim the guard rail, barely visible by the veneering moon. Outlandish storytelling and anxious rehashing of keep your knuckles steady whistle through the open top and rolled-down windows. Yet I still pang when he says your braking sucks, disdain illuminating my papery cheekbones—
You have food in your teeth, Evelyn told me, her deer-soft irises curling at the glob of green lodged in my words. I realized she hadn’t been listening to a single note I plucked for her, any semblances of confidence and humor skittering off. Hurrying from the cafeteria to the bathroom, I stared against the dusty mirror, flicking out the morsel. Evelyn’s mild disgust: a brand sinking my flushed contours. I imagined my edges blurring thick. But the steam wiped away, and I was vulnerable again.
—forced into a euphemizing grin, taut yarn sewn on either lip seam. I ask to be recorded on video, for fear of my memory’s tendency to kaleidoscope, to relegate this as wishful thinking. So I drive down a lone road reaching over the horizon—framed by dark country, wind shrieking a syncopated harmony, arms flailing out, tongues sanding smooth. I manage to wick away, (just enough for now.)
I try to gaze wistfully through the fields during the day, unspoken feelings littered with the unnamed, disappearing with the cattail pollen and loam. Perhaps fleeting glances, no more than potluck, pass between my dirtied hands when no one is looking—
For a school speech competition, I wrote about the time I first yelled at Evelyn. I tried to make something out of the banal morals and dialogue, buffeting the contrived drama with scripted quips and ostentatious hand gestures. But my boat shoes clacked tinnitus behind the podium. My two-layered purple mask: curdled with sweat, my tinny voice: muffled by the room full of foreheads boring into mine. Later, when I congratulated others on their speeches, they smiled and said thank you and left out the perfunctory reciprocation.
—of course, more realistically, the mud crescents underneath my fingernails are filler; the images they sluice forth, oversaturated to everyone but me. My father doesn’t even bat an eye when I work up the courage to tell him. I brace for tantrums, instead finding the rustlings of chuckling and oh, so that’s where you went that night—
Beneath plaid sheets, Evelyn and the others were a maelstrom buzzing the corners of my head. I laid awake for months with the curtains undrawn, the sky an upside-down stencil of trees: its negative space was too quick, too loud for me to close my eyes.
—whatever, just be more careful next time.
That first night, my eyelet nightgown too sensitive against my itchy calves, I stare through the ceiling. The stars never really unglove in all their glory; it’s me who turns away, spinning my own doorways and one-way windows. I lay awake, watching the shaky video of me driving again, and again, and again, heart pattering heavy. I zoom in on the location of grainy photos and ignore the fact that we traveled barely a quarter across the field instead of my proclaimed half before we(I) chickened out. Like weaving hyperboles out of the grass in our Jeep, smashing the replay icon at my most undesired moments, desperately whittling a faux-dramatic diary entry in my Notes app—maybe the(se) details are overfilled, limbs proxied, relativity stitched wrong. But I can believe—
I saw a blinking plane in the graying boughs and thought it was a comet. But perhaps it was, roaring its own path, ignoring the misinterpretations of a girl longing to live the same wavelength as the air she breathes, or fly like that firefly—out of sight.
—because what is belief under this already peeling universe; the navy paint above or the cracks in between? All the same, the next night, I head out with him again. My foot barely touches the gas. The negative spaces between burning pinpricks overhead: dust on the windshield.
“Parallels: The Stars, or Lack Thereof” tells a story of risk and insecurity and heartbreak through the framework of two interlocking narratives. The story compares two of the narrator’s important relationships, one in the past and one in the present. Despite the constant passage of time, the narrator’s past is intimately connected with their present, as is evidenced by the interspersion of flashbacks within the present-day narrative. Although the narrator attempts to move on from the fallout of a childhood friendship, their attempt to escape the past only further entrenches its ongoing influence in their present life.
Ava Chen is a writer from Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming with Diode, The Penn Review, and elsewhere, and has been recognized by Columbia College Chicago, The Poetry Society, Ice Lolly Review, and more. In her free time, she enjoys editing for Polyphony Lit and taking very long walks. She hopes you have a wonderful day!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR