She opens the door to let me in and asks me to excuse the mess. I've already forgotten about it, I've known her for years. Her hands are black with charcoal and her hair is lank against her face, having been unwashed for days. I know her aquatic eyes, as if she had been a mermaid in a past life and still longed to return to the water. She dumps her daughter into my arms and heads for the paint hidden in the corner, moving like a rat that's just found a way out of its cage. I attempt to console Emily, trying to heal her damaged heart. It's useless though, all she wants is her mother and a little security. There are piles of clothes everywhere, stacks of old books, filled ashtrays, broken glass scattered over the kitchen floor. I ask her what happened and she tells me that she just got angry at this Tele-marketer and decided to throw some plates around to ease her anger.
"On days like these," she used to say, "it's too cold to swim and everything feels like the weather."
I don't know why I'm still doing this. Why I'm allowing pieces of myself blow to the wind. Perhaps it's due to the fact that there isn't a line that separates me from a convict except the reality that I've never committed a crime. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm a slave to my chains.
"What day is it anyway?" she asks me, using one of her palms to push a strand of dark blonde hair away from her face.
"November second," I answer quickly, sitting down on one of the kitchen chairs.
"I can't believe it, you know? It's been another month already. Like I've got any money to pay the bastards downstairs for this place." I know she's been up to something because she's breathing a little deeper, she's unusually fidgety. She tells me she's been off the drugs, honest, but I know there's more to her than truth.
"When's her next check-up?" I interject.
"Next week, Wednesday at four. I know it's your busiest day, with work and all, but it shouldn't take too long. Just an ear ache," she says rapidly, mixing reds and blues together.
Somehow I see myself, ten years from now, still doing this. Walking the five blocks from my house to hers to see how she's doing. Picking her up random things at the grocery store like cans of tuna fish or black cherry yoghurt. I don't know why I do this. Perhaps because she knows me better than I do, because things don't always end after they begin and some things can't. Maybe because I know exactly what would happen if I stopped coming. She'd waste all of her money on boyfriends and Belladonna, sell Emily to anyone who might take her, and collapse on the sidewalks of New York, penniless, eyes dilated, open to the world. As far as I was concerned, she was already gone.
She was painting a mural on her wall of some place in France I'd never been to and where she'd never go. If anything, she could paint. That's how we met in the first place, two emotionally indulgent artists who quoted Sylvia Plath and wanted to change the world. We were placed in the same art class and she smelled of cigarette smoke, her leading trademark, wore dark lipstick, Sin Red. Said she hated drawing portraits too, her silver earrings jiggling against her neck.
"I was named after Alice in Wonderland, can you believe that? Better than Dorothy or something, but still," I can still recall her saying, tossing a stick of gum in her mouth. She wore blouses and corduroys, pretended like she could own the world if she wanted to. It wasn't such a fantastical belief, though. I would have believed her.
Her apartment was fairly small. Cream curtains hung from the window to the outside and everything was dusty. There were breakfast plates on the table in front of the TV topped with toast crust and leftover strawberry jam, with no place to sit down except in the kitchen. She never had enough money to afford furniture, and what little she received in welfare went towards the baby.
"I can't stay long," I told her. "I have a lot of homework. With university applications and everything."
She removed her paintbrush from the wall, frowned and paused. "I thought we had decided this. I thought we decided we were going to team up and form a mural company or something after you graduated."
"It was just an idea, Alice. You're not even close to obtaining your diploma. Besides, how would you have time for work with a baby? You've never had a job in your life."
"Fine, you know what, you just go. Get out of here. You think I can't do things by myself? Think I can't hold down a job? You're wrong, you know that? Just get out of here. I don't want to see you. I don't need your little pity visits and hospital drives. I'll just take a taxi. You might as well just go if you're so busy."
I used to imagine that she would become this infamous artist and have displays up in museums in Europe like she wrote about in her leather-bound journals. I used to think we might find ourselves in our twenties, sitting on a bench somewhere in Germany, feeding pigeons and discussing the latest underground musicians. She'd shake her head at Warhol and pause for van Gogh, as if attempting to visualize him in her mind. Instead, she was off her rocker, kicking me out before I had a chance to breathe. It's too cold to swim and everything feels like the weather.
She lives in a world where graffiti is sprayed on every building and where Mexican children lean over the railings of their tiny balconies, accidentally throwing down clean clothing that was hanging out to dry. They play soccer in the alley and kick over garbage cans filled with fast food containers and half-empty milkshakes. They could be anyone.
"You were at Alice's again, weren't you?" Her stare engraves itself in me and I'm forced to look away. I don't answer her, choosing instead to dodge for the refrigerator and grab the orange juice. I can feel her thoughts against me, as tough as raw meat. "I don't want you over there. You're not going over there anymore."
"Since when is it a crime to visit your friends?" But I lay off because she's giving me this look like I'm not going to come out of the water if I don't nod my head in agreement. She's talking to me like I'm six years old again, wearing dresses covered in daisies, chasing butterflies in my backyard, as silent as the breeze. I had never heard of Alice Elm then. I only knew how many crayons were in my Crayola box, how many drawings of houses I had stashed away in my dresser drawer. It seemed like that was all that would ever matter.
I drank down a glass of juice. Alice always thrived on being the wild child. It empowered her, cradled her. I don't blame her for the way she was because I don't know her. I'm not sure if anyone does or ever has. I went to a local diner for dinner one night with her, she said she had a couple guys waiting for her there. We sat at one of the booths in the farthest corner of the room, feeling like groupies from the seventies in our Lennon sunglasses. One of the guys she met there passed her a sugary white substance packed away tightly in some transparent bag, and she grinned mischievously. She knew what she was getting into. She wasn't stupid. Ostensibly, she was so street smart that no one could ever bring her down, keeping her secrets close to her like guns. Her way of protecting herself was never letting anyone unto her battleground.
"You have to come here," I remember her saying. She called my house while my mother was gone to my grandmothers' overnight. Her voice was raspy and drunken. It was nearly two am and she said to me You have to come here, you have to find a way to find me, I think I'm going to die. I pulled a pair of faded jeans on and walked the five blocks to her apartment, wondering if she'd ever see the sun again. You never knew with her. She wasn't made of steel as much as she pretended to be. Her emotions were as delicate as fish bones and you never knew where she'd break next.
She told me to sit down and handed me her guitar. Her eyes were red and one was discoloured, a temporary flower tattooed over her skin. Her face was flushed and she was drunk and high, but I stayed despite the ardent instinct to leave formulating itself between my heart and my brain. She was sprawled over her bed, poetry books written by Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton stacked next to her worn mattress. Emily was asleep in the other room.
"Play something," she urged, so I strummed Joni Mitchell on her acoustic and she smiled lightly, soaking up the sound of solace. I just sat there and played until the sunlight wedged through the blinds and she had fallen asleep in spite of herself. I still don't know what happened, seems I never do, but I'm not sure if the past is such a great friend to know anyway. If you treat time candidly, it only hits you harder.
I've learned that sometimes evil triumphs and nobody cares, that time is as large as the world and as infinite as the universe. Sometimes the ocean opens and we slip into the mouths of white whales with nothing left but the skin of our selves, enveloped in the madness of our own making. That all that may remain are the breaking and the broken, leaves falling to the ground with effortless grace. And in this instant we know we've got everything in front of us and nothing behind us, unable to grasp what we want from life or what we have. We find ourselves in this bleak darkness, where everything leads to everywhere and no one's quite sure who we really are anymore. No one can predict the future accurately, but eventually, we'll find ourselves skin on sand, dead, and dying, and as no one at all but the grains in our shoes.
My mother's shadow undulated on the wall, back in forth. She was gathering pans and boiling water on the stove, mumbling something about somebody she works with.
"You should look over your notes, you know. Better to be too prepared," my mother advised, turning to look at me.
"It's only five-thirty," I retorted defensively.
"Just a suggestion," she murmured. "Just wondering if that Alice Elm girl is getting to you and your studies. You were always a happy child. You used to get such excellent grades and paint such nice things. Why don't you paint anything nice anymore?"
I rubbed my eyes and shrugged. "Things change."
She pointed at a stack of my paintings that rested over the counter.
"Really, what is all of this? It's dark and depressing. People don't want to see this."
"You mean, you don't want to see this. Most people have no qualms with what I do. It's just another style," I explained.
"Well, stop painting like that." She took the bundle of paintings and ripped them up without blinking. Quickly, rapidly, the ripping noises loud and resonant. She tossed the remnants in the garbage and went back to her cooking as if nothing happened. This was her way of winning the war. She wanted me to be what she predicted I'd be, kidnapped my precarious nature and molded it to fit around something stronger, something definite. I stood still, frozen down to the marrow in my bones.
I didn't even look at her. I should have screamed, but what good would it do anyway. I took my jacket from the sofa and slipped on my running shoes, walked out of the house with five dollars in my pocket. I fell into the pouring rain, ran down the cement stairs and headed to nowhere in particular, with her shouting in the background; you'll thank me for it someday. If only she listened to her words. All she did was abuse language the way she killed art.
I don't know why I walked to Alice's. I'd just been there, and she kicked me out. Declaration of disconnection, independence seething at her heels, she was on one of her off days. I guess I went back because I belonged there with her and she knew it. She saw through the false intellectuality of the State and the superficiality society used to classify. She knew you didn't have to be stupid to fail, that suffering wasn't discriminatory, that poverty wasn't selective. Knew that art was a way of life and not a way to live, but people would try that route anyway. She knew I'd come back, the way I always did, because in so many ways I would have done anything to have an ounce of the nerve she had to choose to live her life.
A couple kids were kicking around a soccer ball, their toes hanging out of the ends of their running shoes. I felt disgusting for wearing name brands bought from child support payments. My mother was convinced they were a better make, but what did it matter. I was only the girl who got everything. It didn't mean anything anywhere else. I should have grown up in a dilapidated building, broken shoes, broken English, struggling just to hope.
I climbed the stairs up to her apartment because the elevator wasn't working. I knocked on the door, but nobody answered. I knocked again and realized that no one would. I tried the handle and opened the door, traipsing in to the sounds of Emily crying fiercely and the buzzing of the television screen. It smelled of grilled cheese and the paint cans were still out. I opened Emily's door and found her inside her crib, picked her up. The room was painted in sunshine yellow and there was a small bookshelf beside the door filled with young adult fiction. Emily was warm and her face was red. I looked down at her and thought she might end up looking more like Alice than I had previously predicted. Her eyes were the same shade of blue.
"Alice?" I shouted. The clock chimed. "Alice?" I repeated.
I rushed to her room. Maybe she was just taking a rest.
The door creaked open and I found her on the floor, her walls scrawled with nonsensical poetry. Her head was leaning against her right arm. I shouted at her, but she didn't move. I put the baby down on the bed. Alice, Alice. She didn't move. The ripping of art, the breaking of pieces. Water was running down my face now, but it couldn't be tears. I wasn't crying. Emily was still screaming at the top of her lungs and the phone was off the hook. I turned Alice over and she still seemed so alive, like she was just in one of those trances of hers where she didn't want to wake up for anything but the promise of paint. In high school, everyone wanted to be beautiful like her, possess all of that kind of pretty, incandescent confidence that seemed to come to her so naturally, as if she was born with it being her second skin. Cocaine was a kind of seven-letter evil, driving mad into the countryside without a single warning of the damage that could be done. And now she was eaten away by something so small, something so insignificant. Departing from Wonderland and slowly succumbing to the cold of the weather.