When you intentionally hurt the ones you love most, you leave behind a demon you cannot kill.
I know this alley like I know myself; Sarah’s house hangs above us in the dark like a canopy. An old friend. The building is covered in dreamy moss and ancient vines, the wrought iron gates corroded. I fuck with moss, I see it everywhere. Plants can see, hear, and feel everything. Tucked away at the far edge of the city like we’re in a secret pocket on the hottest day on record, we meet again. I come back home after all these years and tell no one. I go see Sarah first, I go see Sarah always.
Sarah looks up like she can see through the roof of the car. X-ray vision. She wants to smoke.
It was over a hundred degrees today, she says. How the fuck is it raining now?
The world is ending.
You said that shit ten years ago too, Sarah says.
I speak the truth.
What the fuck. I miss the way you talk, she says. You’re so fucking stupid.
Our faces mirror each other and we’re both smiling in recognition. Sarah stares at me, not quite in silence, biting her lip. She wants what I want more than I do. Telepathy sounds a lot like heavy rain on old chrome.
I ask, What are you doing later?
I have to meet up with the family.
I say, I hate family reunions.
Look at you now, she says. No family to come home to.
We like each other so much. The car gets so hot. Brain me. Brainy, brainy, brainy. All the blood cells turn to steam, rolling beads of sweat. She grabs my face and bites my face and everything feels like the same breathing, the same pressure, the same single exhale. The denim gets tighter, the skin touches skin. Blinkless, blinkless, eyes wide open. Tongues and thigh muscles, tooth and nail. Her lips on my lips, my lips on her lips, the hottest day on record. She comes first, she comes again. She says, Please, please. Please. My favorite part of the body is the raw voice. Screaming in spurts is a love language too. My only want is to be completely destroyed and to return the favor. The look in her eyes when they roll to the back of her head is home sweet home to me.
After I finally come, Sarah reclines her seat, her summer dress pulled to her waist, and she stares at the roof of the car. She has her arm pressed like a wing behind her head. My hand reaches to touch her elbow. If she weren’t lying down, she would be floating or sinking through the seat and the floor. She looks like she could not move a muscle, perfectly at ease, her pulse humming back down to earth. The breeze flows through the open car window.
Telepathy sounds a lot like heavy rain on old chrome.
Sarah says, I have this memory of my mom. She’s taking me to see this guy for videotapes. We used to go like every other weekend. I remember the trees on the way there. Willow trees. She used to beat the shit out of me all the time but sometimes when she was feeling bad about it, she would take me to see this guy for her videotapes.
This homie had a whole operation. I remember opening the front door. It was like a Blockbuster up in there. Dozens of bookshelves filled with VHS tapes. Everything dubbed in Vietnamese. Dude also had like racks and racks of VCRs, endlessing recording shit, seemingly all day, and everything was always turned on when we got there, but the lights were always off. Binders full of cardboard clippings, movie posters, catalogs and catalogs. All black market, everything dubbed in Vietnamese. For someone like my mom, no English, still living in Vietnam in her head, there was no place like it; where was she going to go to watch her movies? This dude had Vietnamese families coming out to him, renting dozens and dozens of tapes. It was pretty cool looking back on it.
After a pause, she continues. She says, My mom loved watching her movies. Her fucking TV shows. I love movies too. No matter how badly she beat the shit out of me, I always looked forward to watching her shows. It was, like, my favorite part of the day.
Anyway, there was this one show. I always loved watching this one show with her. I don’t remember what it was called, not even the Vietnamese translation. But it was about a boy and a girl, and they were chosen for some reason by some ancient evil, and while they live their lives, for their whole lives, they’re being chased down and hunted down by crazy, possessed animals. Sometimes other animals come to their aid, but mostly, wild animals attack them all the time.
What would the boy and girl do? I ask Sarah.
It was a kung fu show. They would literally fight the animals.
Oh shit, I would fucking watch that, I tell Sarah.
Yeah, she says. I loved it. Whenever I dealt with really heavy shit, my mind would go back to that show. Dubbed in Vietnamese. I’d think about how I would handle a bunch of birds attacking me or something.
Do you still talk to her? Your mom?
You know I don’t, Sarah says.
I say, You know, you’re like my only Asian friend.
Sarah says, I think that’s really sad.
We turn our messy heads of hair to each other. My limbs feel weak and too long. Her eyes are wet and happy and she looks absolutely gorgeous in the moonlight. I scare myself looking.
I say, You know, I want to meet your kid.
Sarah looks at me like half of my face is missing.
I wanna meet your kid.
It’s your baby, she says.
I’m fucking kidding.
Being back together again feels like speaking a dead language; it feels like coming across a familiar, quiet meadow, like nothing ever happened. Vicious little patterns conquer our whole lives and they still lead me back here.
Whatever magic, whatever tension, whatever intensity Sarah and I have between us wears off. The rain is dripping now, barely a mist, and the car is freezing. The fog clears and I can see the power lines, the crows perched in murders. Sarah stares off, contemplative, her pupils never moving. Her pace is my pace, her velocity my velocity. Her face is a little troubled, a thousand clocks moving their hands. The air, the trees, come alive after the rain. I can smell the world from inside the car.
It’s beautiful outside right now.
She says, I have to ask you.
She asks, What were you expecting, coming back home like this? What do you want from me?
I wasn’t expecting anything, I say.
You didn’t plan this?
No, I say. I just wanted to see you.
You didn’t plan this?
Sarah says, What was the last thing you said to me, before you left?
I know exactly what she is talking about. The hairs on the back of my neck stampede. My hands are cold.
I say, I told you.
I say, I told you I thought I was better than you. I told you. You weren’t good enough for me.
Sarah says, I’m the needle in the fucking haystack. And you fucking left me.
Sarah doesn’t even look at me; then she does.
You know, Sarah says. I didn’t fuck you for you. I fucked you because I wanted to fuck you. This is for me.
I know, Sarah.
But it’s okay, she says, it’s okay. Sarah shakes her head, like she’s talking to herself. It feels like ten years ago and I sink in dread and déjà vu.
I did the whole forgiveness thing a long time ago, she says. And now you’re here, back home. In my fucking car. On my fucking street.
I say, I’m really sorry.
I don’t need that, Sarah says. But thank you.
I should have given you a heads-up. I just had a need to see you. So I came to see you.
Sarah punches the side of the steering wheel and starts laughing. Her perfect balled fists.
Yeah, she says. Yeah, this is a mistake.
I didn’t plan on seeing anyone else, I say.
You’re a trip. You didn’t change at all, she says.
Sarah, you don’t know that.
Where’s your hotel?
She starts the car, the engine coming alive quickly. Pebbles shoot up underneath the hood of the car and she’s already accelerating down the alley. Her alley. I can hear the deep tread of the tires and I watch the speedometer. She is the best driver I have ever known.
She says, with anger, Where is your hotel, Kevin?
Vicious little patterns conquer our whole lives and they still lead me back here.
By the time we arrive at the hotel, the sun rises behind us. Four hours of sleep in two days. Colors pop out on the street and I can see all the flowers along the sidewalks. I want to make a joke but Sarah is having none of it. I know her body language. The rock station plays “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse.
Sarah says, How did you fail me?
I failed you and I failed myself.
I know, you said that. But how?
My mouth feels parched and it’s as though I can barely speak. The rosemary turns to roses along the side of the road. Although there are other cars, no one else is in the parking lot. It smells like gasoline and rotten eggs.
Forget it, she says. We’re here.
She doesn’t turn off the engine.
I say, I’m really sorry, Sarah.
I leave the car and close the door gently. I don’t have a bag, but I cocoon myself inside my denim jacket, walking toward the hotel lobby. Lamps line the sidewalk. I see there is a little blood on the pavement. I drag my sneaker on it and it’s a whole lot of red. Bright, perfect red. Fresh.
Kevin, Sarah says. She’s parked the car and is running toward me.
Behind her and the car, I can see something massive standing on its hind legs. It takes less than a second to see that it’s a grizzly bear. But it has no eyes. There is blood on its fur and on its chest and the bear starts to moan. My feet go cold and frozen. I have no jaw.
Kevin, she says.
Sarah runs up next to me, catching her breath. She points to my left, a few paces away from me. There is a trail of bright red and another grizzly bear, walking on its hind legs. Just like the other, no eyes, but a much bigger bear.
Next to the car, there is something else.
Something perfect and dreamy.
Valerie, the hippo, with soft green eyes.
Valerie looks at me and then at the bears.
The bear behind the car continues to moan and then vomits. I don’t recognize what comes out of it, but it’s not blood; the color is more purple than blood. In broad daylight, in the wide-open parking lot, I take a deep breath.
Valerie opens his mouth: four feet wide, razor-sharp incisors.
The bears with no eyes run toward the hippo and more bears appear, as if out of nowhere. I have no will to count them all. The hippo looks ready. My chest clenches; my knees are stone-cold. I breathe too quickly.
Sarah holds my hand and starts to grip. Her love language is touch. I have never made her feel consistently validated.
The blood gets everywhere. Valerie’s face is cut; the bears get punctured.
Watching the gore, memories of heartbreak flood my mind. I have fucked up so much in love.
Sarah says, This is fucked up. You fucked up. I don’t forgive you.
Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person (Sorry House Classics, 2017), and the novel, King of Joy (Soft Skull, 2019), which was long listed for the 2020 PEN Open Book Award. He was named a 2019 Writer to Watch by the Los Angeles Times. He has taught at Hugo House and Catapult. He lives in Seattle.