On Their SkinAaron is unquestionably astute.
His hair, brown and curly when wet, but fluffy when dry. His eyes, almond shaped with no particular sparkle.
In sixth grade, Aaron had to take D.A.R.E classes. He asked, "Is an alcoholic always an alcoholic, even if he's on a deserted island without a corner store in sight, for years with lips as bone dry as the rocks under the midday sun?" This teacher said yes. That day, Aaron embraced his mother's lack of hope.
When Aaron was fourteen, his mother used entire rolls of film taking pictures of Aaron and his father. Then she left his father and moved them to California because his father could never finish anything but a case of beer. Aaron wondered how long he would have to wait for love, if he would even understand it at his father’s age.
He used to have acne but took medicine that causes depression in some. He tells people he feels the same without pimples.
Aaron had kissed three girls by the time he was seventeen. Well, one was more like CPR, that summer night he was swept under the current. And one was a "double dog dare," but Leslie, she really kissed him by the dumpsters behind Burger King. Her hair smelled like fries and his fingers were greasy from all-beef patties. After that, the only words she spoke to him were orders.
During high school, his counselor asked him to join the yearbook staff because he was good behind a camera, but he said, "No, I don't want to make a book of memories about this place."
She furrowed her brow and said, "That's terrible," like he had told her his grandma just died.
"No, it's a lie," he said as he looked out the window at some classmates sneaking to their cars for cigarettes.
She sighed and said, "Oh good."
"No, that book is a lie,” Aaron paused to look her in the eye then continued, “Because if it were filled with real memories, people wouldn't read it. They would want to forget.”
After a long silence, she finally said, "Oh, never mind."
So, he graduated high school without having joined a single club, without having played a single sport, without dancing or holding hands.
Aaron went to college for one year in San Francisco, and then moved to Brooklyn. His favorite bar stories are about his roommate, Evan, who had dusty blond hair and a laugh that scared everyone. It was heavy and terrible, like his cricked teeth shredded it to pieces. It annoyed Aaron how Evan collected things that came from the sea, but they often stayed up late making lists of their favorites. Evan’s favorite food is anything his sister, Gwen, makes and Aaron's is hot pockets. Every time he burns his mouth he can't wait to relieve the pain with the frozen center. He thinks, "I burnt the top of my mouth today, now I can feel myself growing back."
At twenty-two, he began taking pictures again and drinking whiskey. When he told his mother about getting a bartending job, she said to make sure he could always feel the future on his skin. He worried about his bad breath and his virginity often. His fingertips were always raisins and cold from washing pint and shot glasses. The only other use for them was holding a camera, but he wanted to hold a woman.
One day, he waited for a bus under the B.Q.E and focused the lens of his camera while squinting from the glare of the sun. Suddenly, a shadow was falling and he clicked. Shame came over him as he heard her hit the ground. Real as...real.
Cars stopped and cars honked. People cried and he wanted to hear her soft voice. She finally took a breath, and took his away.
Gwen is desperately guarded.
She was born with hair so blonde that she looked bald on white backgrounds. That never changed, even as she grew into her adult skin. Her breasts are too large for her bird-like frame; her eyes have enough yellow in them that people tell her they look like sunflowers.
She was raised in Iowa, in a little house that wasn't broken. Her father never hit her mother but she always wanted to fly. As a little girl she begged her brother, Evan, "Higher, higher," on the trampoline and when Gwen jumped from swings, for moments at a time, she felt like she had wings. Once, she landed too hard and knocked the wind out of her lungs. She gasped and looked into the wide faces of those circling her. Gwen's smile crept over her whole body and she got right up and back on the swing.
At eighteen, Gwen moved to New York because her parents felt there was too much open sky for her in Iowa. She learned to run for subways and watch strangers cry. She would do nothing except scream inside, then make eye contact and smile.
As often as possible, Gwen walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and sat on the courthouse steps in downtown Brooklyn. There is the most captivating wind tunnel to watch. She envies any newspaper stand owner who dares to take post near by. Their papers take flight and swirl around like ballerinas caught in an invisible tornado. The newspaper peddlers scurry for the "Arts" and "Economy" sections and Gwen leans back and sucks on her blue lollipop.
To say she is lonely is an understatement. She goes to bars and sips whiskey, alone. Her voice is soft and unclear, so it takes the bartenders six or seven, “What, darling?” to finally get her order. Once, a fluffy haired guy leaned in so close that she could smell his cheap dinner.
He looked at her with his almond eyes and grinned when she nearly growled, “Jack, please.”
Gwen let the television distract her when he said, “My name’s Aaron and your JD is on the house.”
Maybe she was lonely because she had intense and unsatisfying crushes her whole life. She already wanted to touch his raisin fingertips, but every time she looks in a mirror she is not the same. Men absorb her beauty wherever she goes but none pursue. She always thinks, "I'm much, much better off."
Gwen often begged Evan to visit from California and sit on the Brooklyn Bridge with her. The last time she asked he said, "I'll have no sea."
She held the phone tighter and said, "You'll have to see?"
Evan said without irritation in his voice, "No, I'll need the sea."
As she looked out the window at birds in flight, she said, "Oh, you need the sea the way I need the wind."
And he said, "Yes."
Gwen said, "You're lucky you can put your feet in it."
"But the wind is every where," he said and she could tell he didn’t understand why her needs weren’t satisfied.
Finally, she said, "Someday, I will fly."
Gwen understood Evan because she felt weight like the sea when she walked down streets and stood in coffee shops. She just wanted open space. Open and fierce like the wind. She wanted to sail through the sky and feel silence on her skin.
One sunny winter day when Gwen woke up, the sun shone through her window and the tops of the skeleton trees cast shadows across her bed. Gwen is obsessed with windows and loves how skylights do nothing but serve their own purpose. She dressed slowly, even matching her socks.
She got in a cab and told the driver to go until she said stop. Somewhere on the B.Q.E. between downtown Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy she said stop and he actually did. She stood on the edge of the overpass until her nose and toes were numb. She let the bright sun glow orange behind her lids and then she jumped.
Time passed and sometimes she could feel her childhood sitting next to her bed in the hospital room. Evan finally made it to NY, only after she jumped. He put his sea art in galleries and sat by her every day. He told her about colors, vivid and dull. Time passed and sometimes she could feel her future next to her and this voice told her about all the things she was missing out in the world and all the things that made people sorry they aren't.
More time passed and sometimes she could feel the nutrients in her body. Finally, she felt the urge to be grounded—but not in a grave. On the nightstand next to her bed was a black and white photograph of a shadow falling. Her body flying.
Aaron stood at the nurse’s station; his palms left sweat blotches on the counter. The faux red-haired nurse said, “She’s awake and she won’t stop asking about the photograph.”