Wendy Xu

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“I don’t want to live that long anyway,” Todd says, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke into the misty morning air. It curls around his neck like geisha fingers and dissipates. Mimi watches those fingers tap the end of the orange paper and ash flakes off and drifts to the ground, those fingers which not twenty minutes ago had traced her against the counter against the sink and then she’d grabbed his t-shirt so hard it felt like she was going to disappear into atoms of nicotine, carbon monoxide, rat poison, formaldehyde. “Hey,” he says, pointing at the plexiglass that covers the basement lounge like an aquarium.

In the pale red light she sees the two sides of their U-shaped dormitory reflected, and then the outline of a third building, unassuming, brown, and almost flatly rectangular. “Yeah?”

“Tell me where that building is.”

At first it’s almost painfully obvious; there are brown-bricked green windowed buildings all around after all, so that any one of them—but wait. “Uh,” Mimi says. Business school kids are tricky like this. Her mind flicks.

“So there are fifty pirates,” Mitch began. “And none of them wants to die, but they have a hundred dollars to split among them, and they can vote to see who gets more money, and there’s an old pirate and a young pirate…” She was lost after that. She turned her attention to the bubble tea in her glass and let the taste of tapioca replace any errant thoughts about pirates and let their other friend handle the issue.

“Is this another one of those logic problems?” she asks, and leans against the railing.

“Maybe,” Todd replies. “Oh come on. If you can’t even figure this one out I can’t be seen in public with you ever again.”

You never were, anyway, she wants to say. We’re not even dating. We’re just having an affair. She kind of likes the sound of that. Her eyes stray to the glass again. She thinks about what she learned in high school physics not one year ago and the terms “trajectory” and “angle of reflection” come to mind and she’s fairly sure there’s some kind of big mathematical algorithm that one needs for piecing such things together. Right now all she can think about was how dangerously close they got that morning and how she can’t, she can’t, she can’t let him go there. Especially if this was just going to end in four weeks as abrupt as a summer thunderstorm. That’s how it’s been for the past few months anyway. “Dunno,” she says, and shrugs her blue hooded shoulders. She was the psych student, the mindfucker.

“You’re in psych? Does that make you telepathic?” Tom had asked her.

“It’s actually a prerequisite.”

Oh, if only.

“Hey,” Todd says, “don’t pick your nails.”

“Nervous habit.” Once they got so bad, so torn and raw and red, her mother had smacked the back of her hand with a brush and told her she had beautiful hands, beautiful fingers—such hideous nails.

“So what’d you do this weekend?” He blows another cloud of smoke.

Mimi glances up from the hangnail she’s pondering. “I went out for ice cream with my friend. I watched Disney movies in my room and it was really lovely because I hadn’t seen Hercules in a really long time.”

“That’s so sad! Seriously?”

“Well… Yeah.” It does sound kind of sad, Friday night solitude. She doesn’t mention how she had to stop Beauty and the Beast halfway to go sit in the stairwell and read because her roommate and her boyfriend came in and watching a love story with a love story playing in the background was a bit much and she didn’t want to be part of a love story sandwich with emptiness in-between. “Just because it’s not your idea of fun doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun for me.”

“I guess.” Todd’s scrutinizing her. She can see something hum and click like a clockwork cicada behind his glasses and his narrow dark eyes, clear and sharp and shrewd. She can almost see neuronal synapses firing off.

According to the “Grandmother neuron” theory, if one cuts out the neuron that responds to one’s grandmother, one no longer recognizes his own grandmother, including the letters of her name when it is spelled out. This hypothesis was tested on patients going into brain surgery because specific neurons in their brains reacted ONLY to Jennifer Aniston and not anything else, including Harrison Ford, Bill Clinton or the Sydney Opera House. An opposing theory holds that neurons of recognition fire off in a pattern like a barcode, in millions and trillions of different combinations. “If that’s the case, we’re screwed,” said her psych professor.

She stares stolidly back. Cut out the Mimi neuron from Todd’s cerebellum and he won’t ever look at her again.

“Did you feel pressured to impress me when you told me what you did this weekend?” he asks.

“No.” Mimi snorts. Where did he get that impression? Because they almost got that close? What the hell does it mean to impress him anyway, was she supposed to tell a drunk anecdote or something? “Why would I?” Yeah, why would she? It wasn’t like the time she wanted so desperately to win James’s approval so she could show up her ex by being Facebook official, bam, verified, signed, sealed, “in-a-relationship-with ___”, those tantalizing words. It wasn’t like that at all. “I could care less about what people think,” she says. Least of all you, she wants to add, but refrains. Too bitter. Her eyes hurt from staying up too late.

Mimi glances back at the plexiglass. One frame has a crack in it from the time someone threw a can out the window. The reflection of the mystery building stares back, taunting her about the leap of logic she cannot and has never been able to make. Todd takes another drag off his cigarette. Mimi’s uncle offered her a cigarette last summer. She’d coughed then. “I drunk-smoked once,” she says. “I didn’t inhale, though.”

Todd laughs. “That doesn’t count, then!”

“Marlboro Reds enhance every buzz you have!” Natasha laughed.

They tripped around, shoes scuffing the pavement. The whole Village was drunk that night. Lucy had taken her phone. Mimi wasn’t allowed a phone when she was tipsy. She wasn’t allowed because she would call Todd and all hell would break loose then because when Mimi was drunk all she could say was, “I want to fuck Todd right now.” “I don’t care about him anyway, fuckin’ asshole,” she said, feeling badass (oh, if only mother could see her now!) as she blew a smoky trail into the orange lit evening.

“He-y-all yeah!”

She can only shrug now.

“So where’s the building?”

“That one?” She blushes. She doesn’t even know where she’s pointing.

“Think of the angle.” Where else had she heard that one? So dangerously close. Everything her mom has ever yelled at her about AIDS and teen pregnancy flicks through her mind and though she knows deep down, as the helpful counselor will reaffirm on the phone later that morning, that the probability of such events happening are infinitesimally small, almost zero (everything she has ever Googled in a hypochondriatic fit also flicks through her mind), logic was never her strong suit anyway. Todd stubs out his cigarette and tosses it.

“Aren’t you scared of death?” asks Mimi, chewing on a nail. “Don’t you worry about it?”

“Do you worry about if you’re gonna eat tomorrow?”

“No.”

“Then why worry about something that’s inevitably going to happen?”

Mimi’s mother forbade all talk about death. She was so superstitious that one night she called Mimi to tell her she had bought a lottery ticket because the previous night her dreams had been filled with goldfish. So when little Mimi brought up the prospect of death, her mother had snapped, “Don’t talk about such dao-mei things!” Dao-mei was the word she used when the family optometrist pronounced Mimi myopic in the second grade and had her fitted with her first pair of glasses. “You keep playing those video games, you go blind, then dao-mei will be you!” Dao-mei was pronounced in a piercing shriek when Mimi was scammed out of fifteen hundred dollars over a potential tutoring job. “Ai-ya! You never tell me anything! See what happen when you no tell me anything! Dao-mei will be you!” Dao-mei was regretfully spoken when she recounted a story she had read in the Chinese Readers’ Digest after Mimi had brought up the subject of a date. “This woman, she marry Italian man she no know so well, then he leave, run to Italy, and now she have AIDS and she wanting to die. You want get AIDS and die too? You be a good girl, or dao-mei will be you, and Mama suffers too, Mama will be so ashame and cry.”

It’s in this way that she finds Todd fascinating. Afraid of life’s trials, afraid of commitment, but not afraid of death. She scrutinizes him now. He’s impassive, staring sideways, unreadable expression. Mimi likes to think she has a strong sense of empathy. She’s told Todd about the time her grandmother started chemo and how she felt sick at that precise moment in time on that same day the doctors started giving her grandmother the meds. Then again, Mimi is also hopelessly romantic. Every time she sits on the stairwell she wishes that Todd would come find her in that secret hiding place. Just once. She wants to laugh. He’s the farthest thing from the tall, long-haired pale-eyed poetry writing guitar playing singing acting sensitive Prince Charming she envisions that she’ll some day meet at a reading, a book signing, a live music event at a café.

Once, when she was five years old, Mimi saw a fairy, a tiny ball of blue sitting near the creek where she and her best friend Leon played. It looked at her all spindly-limbed and liquid-eyes. Its iridescent dragonfly wings twitched once, twice, a third time in the golden peachy summer sunlight and then it disappeared. Leon, who was not above seeing supernatural entities and who could see the future with astonishing clarity, told Mimi he had seen it before, too, along with the spirit of a Native American woman.

She called Leon when she was waiting for the results of her college applications after she had been rejected Early Decision from Columbia and Early Action from the University of Chicago. At the dinner table that night her mother had another outburst. “If you cannot get into good school, dao-mei is you! I told you you should have studied harder, picked better classes! Now it is too late!” Leon, the sage, reassured her that it would be all right.

“You’re going to get into NYU,” he said. “You’ll be happy there. And in your third year something’s going to happen, you’re going to meet someone who’s going to make you really happy.” Mimi, covered by her cotton teddy bear quilt, felt a sense of relief mixed with anxiety and a twinge of anger. And regarding Todd, of course, she’s asked about him too. “Just remember,” Leon said, “that you can’t change him.”

Mimi brushes her fingers against Todd’s and they twine their hands, making a Jacob’s ladder of phalanges. “Still haven’t figured it out yet?” he asks, and grins.

“Can’t you just tell me?”

“No, I’ll leave that one up to you.”

The sun’s in her eyes now, the red glow turned to gold. Her fingers and toes are chilly. She’s been up since six and on a Sunday morning that’s an ungodly hour for her. She shivers and Todd tugs playfully on the hood of her sweatshirt, pulling it over her head and covering her hair. Mimi stares off into space. Somewhere behind the courtyard a fire engine wails. It rises and falls in pitch as it goes down the street. She’s heard fire engines and police sirens go by a thousand times a day at all hours from the minute she rolls out of bed and gets ready for class to the moment she falls asleep, the fading shriek the last thing she hears before she falls into her dreams. So many more things can kill her than the things she worries about. She could walk into the street and get hit by a wayward taxi. She could become the victim of a freak construction site accident. Or she could choose right now to go to the fifteenth floor, an enormous crisis hotline poster taped to the door, and walk off that balcony and into the courtyard below. Why worry about something that’s inevitable.

If Mom knew about Todd and how he grew up in a funeral home she would probably send him to be exorcised and forbid Mimi from ever speaking to him again.

She realizes she’s been clasping his hand for longer than she should have. She’s given it away from the way her little digits are curled around his larger ones. She feels his callused palms against her own, soft and smooth, the rough patch of his thumb rubbing against her torn and bitten fingernail. She knows Todd’s hands. She told him once that he was torn between being completely logical and completely romantic because of the way his heart line broke in half in the upper left section of his hand. She’d never seen anything like it before. Most people’s heart lines were whole, running smoothly across their upper palm. Hers is curved. His is half-curved. “You scare me,” she says. Todd looks at her and raises an eyebrow.

“You scare me too,” he replies.

“How?”

“Will you answer as candidly as I do?”

“Yeah.” He’s weird like that. Thirty minutes ago he told her if he was fucking her she would be screaming and now he’s being all SAT vocab and besides, she doesn’t need incentive to be honest. She’s always honest.

“You scare me because I like you, but I don’t want a relationship right now, and I don’t want to hurt you.”

She chews a fingernail. “You scare me because you’re reckless and you’re not afraid to die,” she says. “I think too much.” At his expression she laughs. “You think I’m crazy?”

“A little bit.” His words don’t really hurt her, which comes as something of a surprise. He really is the furthest thing from Prince Charming. He’s not out to sweep me off my feet or to impress me or anything. Hell, he doesn’t even want a girlfriend right now. I guess he just wants me to accept him and accept his terms and conditions and desires and bad habits. Todd is the sort of person the old me would have blanched at. Mimi rolls her shoulders back and stares up nineteen stories at the pale blue sky streaked with cirrus clouds, clouds that could be seen through layers of New York City. She touches Todd’s hand again, the open palm of his writing hand. She traces the break in the line. She cups his face in her hands and kisses him and he tastes like nicotine and ash and poison and confusion and she doesn’t care. The sun bounces off the plexiglass; it’s behind the brown mystery building, it’s reflected there in the glass—she glances up and traces the sun to its real hiding place. “I found it.”

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