Their heads already full of some gorgeous gray substance, they crouch and smoke cigarettes, suck from a huge metal thermos, and pass a pink glass pipe. The world is stained bright by another sunrise. It’s Friday — It’s Friday everyday at seven a.m. in the alleyway. It isn’t an alleyway where they crouch, exactly, but a between space; all the yards of two neighboring cul-de-sacs — two fingers of the stretching suburban glove — feeding into its amorphous eight thousandish square feet in some way: there’s leftover concrete bags from a finished porch, three wood gates, the husk of a christmas tree, one shed’s back door, rusty beer cans and a zoo of other small trash.
They don’t know who I am, that I watch — that I am, probably, she thought, sitting quietly and sipping at scalding peppermint tea. She was interchangeably reading the comics section of the newspaper and a book about marathon running for her report. Through her kitchen window, through her chain link, and a slit in the heavy gray willow, she had the only vantage, she guessed, on their secret spot in the alley. She kept the brighter kitchen light off and she watched every morning. It was strange, knowing they smoked weed out there. She thought it was weed. She sipped her tea and read Marmaduke and looked. She read a half-paragraph and sipped her tea and looked. She looked at the clock, nearly seven forty. She imagined them, one by one, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Jin, etc — she didn’t know them all. They were fat and thinner, pants and jackets the color of a late night or unpolished silver. She felt a slight pain at the thought that they would all soon be slipping through the willow to go to their works
She emerged from the scalding shower into the blown-out white of the bathroom’s florescent light. A small frosted window was open, had been open, and the mirror was unsteamed. She carefully dried her body with a soft towel. She brushed her teeth and flossed with a minty wire. She applied stick anti-perspirant slash deodorant and a moisturizing face cream and a low SPF sunscreen. Passively, she inspected her body. She did this automatically. She thought, when she had thought about it directly, that there was nothing abnormal about her body, there was no major — even lesser — deformity. Her doctor, her boyfriend had never mentioned or lingered upon anything. But she never felt that her body was right. Once she had been convinced it was in the shape, the size of her breasts, or once it was in her brownish nipples, the amebic areolas, or once it was the ratio of her facial features, or once that bulge of stomach, once the black density of her pubic hair. She’d thought the wrongness was at, at one time or another, nearly everywhere. She had given up, consciously, on placing it.
She wrapped herself in her towel. She brushed her hair and looked at herself in the mirror. She went to her room and put on panties and purple sweatpants and an oversized, logoed white t‑shirt. She gathered the things she needed to do the calculus her teacher would be by tomorrow to collect. She felt a pang of anxiety, if she failed – I’m ahead in other things, she reminded herself as she selected music on her iPod. She put the white dots, the lonely polka dots, of her earphones in her ears — Oingo Boingo’s “Stay” — and she spread her stuff messily across her blonde desk. She checked her assignment and opened her book to the right page. She laid out a blank piece of paper. She sharpened a pencil in her small manual sharpener. The pencil was a yellow Ticonderoga number 2. She copied the first problem neatly. She rechecked the assignment. She leaned back into her chair. Tea first, she thought. Peppermint. She stuffed her iPod in her pocket and went out and down the stairs. She changed her mind, Earl Gray. And rum. She went into the kitchen and clicked on the electric kettle. She sat. The Oingo Boingo ended, she reached in her pocket restarted it. She got up and walked up the stairs and stood on the landing. She paused and stared out the landing window at her neighbor’s flourishing lawn. In a short brick rectangle by their front window, there was an equally prosperous vegetable garden. She could see the tomatoes, pendulous and brightly red. There was some kind of rough, leafy green, almost like ripped paper. The shades were drawn, an off-white infested with a hundred identical red flowers. She felt like she was staring into a cunning model inside a glass box. An aquarium toy. Would a neighbor swim by? Or, more accurately, fly? I would like that, she decided. She went back down and into the kitchen. She imagined, with a sick glee, her neighbor, pudgy Mrs. Thomas, wearing snorkel gear and one-piece, contentedly breast-stroking through the sky, some pedestrians strolling below her oblivious, a cat staring up from a driveway, then looking away. I want to be that cat, the uncaring cat, she decided.
The electric kettle whistled its one shrill note. She poured the hot water into the cup. “Only a Lad” played. She started to dance through the kitchen as she waited for her tea. She threw her arms in the air and threw around her hair and swung her hips. I don’t give a fuck she thought. She closed her eyes. She sung Oo-oo-oo and Only A Lad and sung the sound a‑cappella. The song finished, another started. She lifted the teabag out of the tea and tossed it in the sink. She poured an inch out of the tea. She opened a cabinet and took from the cabinet many dark bottles an amber bottle of rum. She replaced the inch with rum. She stamped her feet and mixed her tea with a spoon. She took a long drink of the scalding rum and tea and started to sing.
Out of breath, drunker, she was staring up into the living room skylight, the clouds were moving to the beating of drums. Frozen tableaux after frozen tableaux, like a living magazine, filled the window. Mrs. Thomas snorkeling in the sky. A dark eyed fawn in a burning forest. Leathers and chains and inflamed lips gasping ohs. White glowing, an X‑ray of a lung. The Americans and the Japanese eating Mickey D’s in yellow paper and firework bits of sashimi. A man smoking a cigarette against a brick wall. The skull encrusted Broadway with diamonds. A couple kissing beside a blue breathing sea. A pink balloon. A desiccated child being lowered into the dirt. A porno artist at a glowing screen drawing a woman being penetrated by bright green tentacles. Someone writhing, bloody stomached, on a concrete floor. The opera’s red pomp and gold grandness and glittering ornament. The chocolate cookie of a human eye milky with cataracts. She flew mentally through the the entire glassy catalog of the imagined, the catalog of frightful woes, of buoyant pleasure, of delightful strangeness. The weight between them, at the end of her survey, seemed equals.
“Hello?” he said.
She clutched the telephone to her ear. She was uncomfortably warm; she had drunk another inch or two of rum. Am I drunk, she thought.
“Hi,” she said, “is, uh, this, Fred Thomas?”
“This is he,” he said. I am drunk, she thought.
The black address book, riddled with raggedy loose paper, was spread open on the floor. She was spread, belly down, on the floor.
“It’s my birthday,” She said. There was a short silence, “Can I talk to you maybe ten minutes?”
“Who is this?” He asked. I’m nervous she thought.
“I live down the street from you. I’m eighteen,” she said as she brushed hair behind her ear. She repeated, “Can I talk to you for ten minutes?” I’m so so nervous she thought.
“I’m not sure I follow you,” He said, sounding distressed, “but alright.”
“I know what you do inside the willow,” She said, and she suddenly felt like her lungs and stomach were full of slushy ice, “And I want us to understand each other.”
There was a longer silence.
“What do you want.” His voice was like an ice-rink after closing time, all the lights turned off, the ice wrinkled deep by skater’s sharp, silver blades.
“I’m not wearing any panties, ” she said. Oh god, she thought. Silence again. Oh, fuck, she thought. She forced herself to gulp. She was swallowing ice.
Joshua Hebburn is a student living in Los Angeles, and “And Birthdays” is his first published work.