Short Story Clarity
Clarity knows how to turn your pain into an apology, but Nid Jeuniper has trained me a way out of this scenario.
I don’t mean to pick up the call.
When it comes, we have been bathing for at least an hour, with plans for at least one more. In the program we’re in, we cleanse symbolically and intensely, which Alanis says is an embodiment of our life intentions. We bathe together, some of us with our eyes closed and some humming low in the frequency of the energy for the evening. We keep four feet of distance between us so when our arms move in synchronized movements, we never touch. We are close in other ways, like the fact that all of us came to Nid Jeuniper with no money or families, though some of us brought pets. They bathe with us too, little dog bodies swaddled in towels underwater. Then there’s Madge, who wraps her snake around her head like a towel before getting in. Leeta bathes with an urn of her grandmother’s ashes, the benevolent matriarch who required her parents to keep her in the family, roof over her head, until her untimely death. We all suspect she was poisoned. In fact, we each have similar stories, Nid Jeuniper found me, not the other way around.
I go to the border of consciousness each night as I lose myself to the group’s humming. At the edge, I am not sure if my eyes are open or if there are bath bubbles beneath my eyelids. Every journey metabolizes in my body distinctly, and today I am starting to feel my stomach’s lining loosen. I am latching to the ceiling. I pop my lips like bubbles and see them form again at the bottom of the tub. When the call comes, I am on the precipice. But then my screen lights up, and I see my hometown’s area code flash and I panic. I try to decline but instead pound the screen so hard that my wet finger slips and accepts the call.
I step out of the bathroom without a towel, dripping pearls of water along the concrete as I walk along the hall. I am braced for confrontation. For tears. I know where the button is to call for Alanis if I am pulled into Self-Rejection, but I want to give my mother a chance. I press the phone to my sopping ear and a voice tears into it, distinctly not my mother’s but Clarity’s. I am as relieved as I am astonished. Though I sit on the concrete tailbone-first, I am not cold. All of time sits in the hall with me: trickling down my back, sponging into my hair, and bursting out of my phone’s speakers.
“I can’t do this without you,” Clarity says by way of invitation.
She is asking if I can attend her wedding, which will take place in two days’ time.
“I sent the invite months ago,” she continues. “But the address bounced. I only found out last week.”
It’s been two years, but Clarity talks like we are still roommates and she is asking me to grab some milk on my way home after class. The frisson of her voice crackles, and I am transported to the sun-facing slope of an ice-covered mountain, smoother than natural from all the times I have fallen down this same side.
It’s true. In the past I would have jumped at any chance to be with her. Clarity has always been treacherously magnetic, like a Chihuly chandelier crashing onto your head. Her face is idiosyncratic, aligned with the intention to keep you staring. Her skin is translucent, and back when I knew her, I couldn’t help but to round on the veins in her cheeks. They are a kind of thermometer for the stasis of her heartbeat. No one is immune to her. Her charms are uncommon enough to linger, and she knows this enough to hound herself with confidence. She calls her freckles glitter . Her front teeth cross and she calls it character . People look to the heavens when she sneezes because it sounds like the first raindrop of summer. I spent my life outfitting her in an array of “b” words because no synonym of beautiful suited her. She needed a word that is iridescent, that could shift meaning on her. To me, she is balustrade, bellicose, buxom, balletic.
However, with the armor of years stacked between us, her charms are mesh. I can feel the air blowing through.
“I don’t think I can afford it,” I deflect.
“I just bought your hotel room,” she counters.
As ever, Clarity is a peanut shell of perfection. Her voice is level, insistent without insisting, but I know her well enough to sense an undercurrent of frenetics. I wonder if she knows I’m naked.
I try to pin the blame on her.
“Bear,” I use my old name for her. “This is way too short notice.”
“I know! It’s ludicrous ,” she says, as if she is equally inconvenienced.
Clarity knows how to turn your pain into an apology, but Nid Jeuniper has trained me a way out of this scenario. As Alanis says, the most peaceful dagger is Deception .
I inhale slowly and audibly, to give my next words the air of a confession.
“I can’t come because I’m in rehab.”
The air between us is grave. Her breath goes shallow; it’s fogging up my cheek. When she speaks, I can hear the tears congealing in her throat. I want to suck them up with a straw. Instead, I offer her sparse comfort.
“It’s a good thing, Bear. But I am supposed to be setting boundaries.”
“It’s a dry wedding, Navi! Please,” she pants. “You promised.”
She wields it like a trump card, this promise I made six years ago. If I had more backbone, I would tell her that the me who made it no longer exists. But Clarity has never hurt me intentionally, and even now, she’s not asking as an ultimatum. It’s not the way she asks, but the history of it that brings me to my knees. But I hear the question, the real one, simmering underneath: Will I break my promise, or will it break me?
“Are you still there?” Clarity asks, and I startle. She is no longer crying.
“Fine,” I sigh. “I’ll ask.”
Clarity emails me the details that night, though I have not yet confirmed my attendance. I scroll through her wedding website, and it’s just as she storyboarded when she first met her groom. Every detail is a hat tip to the events that spurred her life. It’s the crystallization of her story, an ode to the love she holds for her life. It’s singing in the specifics of her dress: an off-the-shoulder ball gown in a shade so white it looks blue, adamant of its purity. And the symbolism of the date: November 28, the zenith of her and her groom’s birthdays. An exalted date, worthy of getting tattooed on her pelvis after they consummated, she told me. There’s one detail that catches in my chest like a fishhook. The venue is the church where she had her first kiss. Me and her and the confession booth. She told me later, it’s a place you go to absolve yourself, like the kiss never counted. We had our first kiss there so many times. Clarity has always been a ringmaster of nostalgia, using her endearment of the past to weave the fabric of the future. From her I learned that is what people with agreeable pasts do. They perpetually try to relive it.
Even though I am in the program because of the sequelae of my relationship with Clarity, my desire to fulfill her desire comes from instinct. I buy train tickets before I go visit Alanis at the front desk for permission. I think this is how Manifesting works.
Alanis sits at the desk all day and even after our baths. The first few days I was here, she would wait for me to come out and then engulf my body, still damp and naked, into a blanket. My skin felt downy in there. She said during Detox, swathing was the healthiest way to prepare for sleep. To incubate through rest. Alanis compared us to professional runners: They stay off their feet as much as possible if they’re not at a race or practicing. They look like the laziest people in the world to others, but don’t get it wrong. Their time off is part of the work. After that I understood that even rest had to be conducted with purpose. Preparation for the labor of emotional molting.
I walk up to Alanis in a robe, cocooned but still mobile. I am not nervous, though I am interrupting protocol. Alanis says the rules are there for our protection, but she’s not here to police us. As long as we don’t use any profanity or double negatives, her focus is on Detox: helping us preserve whatever good is left in our character by repeating Desired Actions. She says with enough repetition, positive actions can become consolidated into permanent personality traits. Remind yourself to give, and give often. It should be an active process. Remind yourself and do it until it gains the Momentum of Longevity , she encourages. Eventually, the good acts get preserved like a stag beetle set in the resin of your soul.
I explain my situation to her.
“Honestly, I’d rather not go,” I say. “But I promised.”
“It’s a ‘D’ word,” she says.
“ Disaster ?”
“ Disruption .”
We learned the word earlier that week. Disruption is a two-sided coin. One side is the controlled and articulated work of Internal Cleansing. We at Nid Jeuniper arrived because the edges of our hearts were singed by those we loved, and we must heal in safety. The other side is distraction. Heart-singers and their kith pull dangerously at the stitches of our community. Alanis is focused on healthy Disruption. She interrupts our past habits with lifestyle changes to build us in the direction of who we aim to be. Clarity’s distraction feels perilous by contrast.
“Past life distractions are a natural condition of life,” Alanis assures me. “Once you are strong enough, you can strengthen your internal bonds here by exploring Boundary Violations from the real world.”
She uses air quotes around real world .
She continues, “What is true for all is also true for you. Eventually, the path forward with us is untenable unless you can heal your emotional wounds. It sounds like Clarity is a wound you must manage.”
Alanis signs my permission slip. With little resistance, she has not only approved of this digression but also blessed it by dotting the i in her name with a halo. I ponder her statement that Clarity is a wound, tasting it along the ridges of my tongue until Alanis speaks again.
“Weddings are a minefield of temptation. What’s your plan to resist?”
I smile, because Alanis doesn’t know the half of it. I’ve been resisting Clarity for a very long time, and this is just a detour. I clear my throat and repeat the words she taught me. I assure her: “I am dedicated to The Sanctum within my body. I will keep it pristine.”
Then I nod encouragingly and take the slip.
“Weddings are a minefield of temptation. What’s your plan to resist?”
The next morning, I take the early morning train down to Penn Station. Baltimore, not New York. Even though I come in miles from the water, the air still tastes halogenated here. I take in the salt and step onto the platform. From there, I call an Uber to take me to the hotel in Locust Point. The wedding will take place across the water, downtown. As the car drives me, I map out the turns before they occur and even show the driver a shortcut over the highway bypass.
Neither Clarity nor I call Baltimore home anymore, though she had always planned to leave. I thought she would go back to her family in the heartland of Dutch Pennsylvania, but she and the groom trailed off to Arkansas after graduation. Me, though. I lost my tether. It started with a confession. A doomed bird in my chest that would perish if I did not set it free. Clarity and I had planned to do it together, to each tell our parents that we were gay.
I thought that Clarity’s confession was more perilous, since she had a boyfriend the whole time we were together. In fact, that was how it had started. How my whole sexuality awakened. Our kisses were just practice. Her tongue in my throat to perfect her technique. She was meticulous about her plans for the future, and I was the first match struck in the dark. I was meant to flame out. Unfortunately for us, I caught fire when I should have been discarded on the floor. And we kept it up the whole time they were together, ignoring the threat for our relationship to spill over into reality.
Clarity was the one to suggest we tell our families. To get ahead of the rumors and come clean. I would feel better about it, and we could make it official , she said to convince me.
When I told mine, I was naive enough to think the fact that I was their only child might be enough to save me. Instead, my mother gently packed my belongings, vacuum sealed my clothing so everything would fit. When she sent me away, there was no anger in her voice. She kissed my forehead as I left, just a peck, like I was made of cotton candy and lingering would melt me. She even gave me the same Hanuman idol she had handed me when I went to boarding school, and she said, Chant the Chalisa for your peace.
I had been more afraid for Clarity to come out to her family. They were of old money, and there were enough of them to fill up a church. They probably could have bought one, if they wanted. They were new age conservative, with each sibling’s spouse a different card on the flesh-tone Pantone range, but I knew they held on to atavistic beliefs. Harmless ones, like a fear of Halloween. Out of twelve siblings, I thought losing Clarity to a God-mancer like me might be acceptable to them. The rest were fine (except for her younger sister Grace, who lost her spot in our boarding school after she was caught cheating, and her older brother Jeb, who had a sexual harassment case raised and dropped against him), but they could cut their losses, could they not?
Yet Clarity’s confession to her family had dominoed on a different track than mine. While my family left me to the wind like an errant feather, hers had blamed Modern Spiritual Warfare for corrupting us. We were good girls worth saving. It was the advent of the internet that spoiled us. Keep your boyfriend , they advised her. He’s part of God’s Prophecy for You . They had cupped her, coaxed her into Recanting her Demons. They had even offered me an exorcism, they were just so worried about the Eternal Wellness of my soul. I thought Clarity could see this was madness, but when they offered to pay for the wedding, to increase her trust fund, if she would just make them proud, Clarity tried to release me from her gravity.
Sometimes during our baths at Nid Jeuniper, I wondered what I would have chosen to do if Clarity had come out to her family before me. When my lips bubble as we hum and I teeter again at the precipice, I let a phantom rheumatism creak into my nubile wrists and imagine a life where she made her choice with her groom before I came out to my family. What would I have done then? Would I have let that doomed bird shrivel in my chest? Or would Nid Jeuniper still have found me?
I have frayed this question so many times that it has left a hole in me, rust-rimmed and raw. I would have taken the slightest sign that presented itself as an answer, and it came from Alanis. Buckets , she had called us. Buckets full of holes. I couldn’t believe she had used the same word I had in my head. The good news , she had continued, is that a leaking bucket can still be filled. It just takes a more continual effort. I let my awe, once askant, emerge resplendent.
When I get to my hotel room, the first thing I do is wash my face. On the train, people got on and off, waxing and waning at each stop, but I spent the day collecting grime. When I lift my head from my towel, my features look blurred. Abluted. I should tell Clarity I checked in, but I am in no rush to see her. Instead I go to the hotel’s continental breakfast. It’s late morning, and the room is completely empty, barring stray waitstaff. I grab fruit and a coffee and scurry back to my room, afraid to run into the wedding party.
Upstairs I pace, thinking on the promise. Since she met her boyfriend, now her groom, Clarity had me recite the promise every day, like she was reinventing the Suzuki method. It was the last thing she heard before bed every night, my way of tucking her in.
Even if I’m stuck in the belly of a whale in the pit of the sea, I promise I’ll come to your wedding and deliver the speech.
I had made the promise even before we dated, when she first met the groom. In their first year of dating, the three of us would do everything together. She had confided in me that her groom was not her family’s first choice for her, but she said her family trusted my opinion. If you say he’s great at the wedding, they’ll believe you. All of them , she said. But you need to make it genuine . She assigned me to be the coconspirator in their acceptance of him. She needed me to be her filter, to tint the relationship into the aperture of her choice. She needed me to tell the story she composed.
Even if I’m stuck in the belly of a whale in the pit of the sea, I promise I’ll come to your wedding and deliver the speech.
She would point out moments and ask me to capture them like a medical scribe. She would say, Navi, take a picture of us with your mind’s eye. Remember my red shirt; put it in the speech. That’s how you bring it to life, the little details. I obeyed, taking in every node of her relationship like I was a human Pinterest board. She would reward me later with her purring. She would take me back to that church, where I would worship at the shrine of her chest, neck, and lips. Anyone would want you around all the time , she would say, so close to me that she breathed in my exhales. How lucky I am, that I will get to see myself anew through you .
The rest of the afternoon, time splays out before me like a bowl, vast and empty. I want to draft the speech, but my memories of the city are marbled together like a mudslide. I need to drift through the city, recollect memories like pollen for the speech. Then I will plant them throughout the prose. I take the water taxi downtown.
I land in Fells Point, close to our school grounds. Clarity and I had first met as roommates in high school, and we boarded all four years together. We had been as hard to untangle as wet Saran Wrap stuck on itself, not because of my crush on her, but because first, she had been my best friend. I couldn’t believe someone like her would want me in her circle, and I was intoxicated by the things I could approximate around her. For example, I had never been pretty, but with her I knew how it would have felt, had I better skin or a smaller nose. And it wasn’t just that. It was the lifestyle. The big family. The wardrobe. The way she was loose with her money. For the four years we lived together, I was a version of myself that only existed with her. Then, when she left me, I had to go find myself.
Now the memories come back; they dovetail on every block. In front of a wooden arch, there is a church door glued to a brick facade. I remember the time her groom told us we were going to “The Horse You Came In On.” We thought it was a themed night, so we went to the party store and got boots and ten-gallon hats. It turned out to be the name of the bar, and we got kicked out within two minutes, with our glow-in-the-dark outfits and fake IDs. Her groom had gone inside, afraid to miss the live band that night, so we had toured the late-night food spots, dripping ketchup on our button-downs. We landed in the incensed bedroom of a fortune teller. She had done a reading for us, drawn the Hermit and the Seven of Swords. Her face in shadow, she wouldn’t tell us which was for who. I remembered now, she too had used a “D” word that night. DELINQUENTS!!! she screamed when we ran from her salon, hand in hand, without paying.
I walk another block, to the drugstore. I used to pass by it every day but only went in once during an October snowstorm. All the news stations said it was historic, but Clarity had been set on having wine night with her groom. As snowflakes pelted onto our windows, I tied tennis rackets to our feet. The bottle shattered on the walk over, likely from the sheer cold. I had floated to the drug store when the storm softened, stiff from a night of pulling glass from Clarity’s hands and mittens. The next day, I had bandaged each wound and kissed them over the tender dressings.
Like this, I visit sites like memorials, sifting through my emotions. I am surprised by how little the city has changed. The same cobbled streets nearly twist my ankles, and on a street corner are lines of families from the county splayed over curbsides like tentacles, in line for dollar oysters. I watch a man pry one open, the oyster gasping as it feels cold air for the first time. Clarity and I used to order ten or twelve oysters and suck them out of their shells one by one. We would teach each other new techniques for slurping, looking each other in the eyes the whole time. I would taste the oyster in my mouth, feel it tickling in my underwear. In my mind, I see her looking at me over a shell, and now, once again, I feel it too.
It was thanks to Clarity, I suppose, that I found my way to Nid Jeuniper. When my family first disowned me, I had been a maelstrom of anger. I had convinced myself it was righteous. I told myself that I was not a dyke before Clarity, at least not as far as I knew. Before her, I had a crush on my male math teacher, turned all my 3 ’s into hearts when I handed in my homework. I didn’t notice the girls in the locker room. Didn’t try to peek up anyone’s skirt. I was angry enough to blame Clarity for everything that had been ripped away from me, but beneath the muck of my anger, I knew that I, too, had been ripped away from her. How could I blame another queer woman for choosing protection, for choosing security? I had joined Nid to iron out my anger, to unmoor myself from it. And, of course, to put a roof over my head. In the process, I discovered, I could become my own home.
Back in my hotel room, after dark, I finish writing the speech. I niggle lies into our memories, replace myself with the groom. I say how I always knew they were right for each other, how he made her smile, how he pulled shards from her mittens. It tastes like rotting orange rind as I practice it, and I peel off bits that are especially unsavory. I nearly have it complete when the landline rings. I pick up.
“Navi, you’re here! Thank god.” Clarity’s voice is peppery. There is a hitch in it. A hiccuping quality that releases when she is nervous.
I apologize for not contacting her and tell her about my trip to town. Everything but the oysters. She is quiet on the other end, and I think maybe she has walked away from the line until she interrupts me.
“Listen, tomorrow is going to be insanely busy. You know, fittings, hair, nails, the works.”
She’s being polite. I wait for her to excuse herself and hang up.
“Do you think I can come over? I don’t mean to disrupt your night, but I need to see you.” She hiccups again. “I don’t think I can focus on my own wedding if you’re a fresh sight.”
She takes my silent gaping as consent. A minute later, there’s a knock at my door.
I wipe my palms so I can grip the knob. I open the door, and there she is. I can only take her in sips. My first thought is, Oh my, she looks solid . Over the years, Clarity had become more apparition than person to me. I forgot she was a human, and not just a concept of loss. No, she is calcified. The light in my room is dim, but I can see the details of her porcelain face. Her lips are bursting red, and her eyebrows awry in a way that makes me wonder who touched them.
Over the years, Clarity had become more apparition than person to me. I forgot she was a human, and not just a concept of loss.
“You’re here,” we both say at the same time.
I giggle into my knuckles.
“What?” she asks.
I forget how to arrange my face.
She steps up to me.
“I just had to see you,” she says softly, brushing my hair with her fingers. Everything flashes white in my body. I can’t tell if it’s hot or cold.
“I wrote your speech,” I blurt out.
“Wait, wait,” she waves away my words. “Tell me about rehab.” She has always liked to direct the conversation, breach topics on her own time.
“It’s not what you think.”
“Then tell me.”
“It’s a kind of home. A place where I’m safe.”
She looks relieved, but it’s fleeting. A shadow passes over her face like she might be passing gas.
“I can’t get married.”
Of all the things I expected from Clarity, fear was never on my radar.
“But I already wrote the speech,” I say again dumbly.
Is it not inevitable that Clarity must get married? For girls like us, there were only ever two outcomes. I know now that I was the Hermit and she was the Swords. So let her deceive, and let me usher it in, cement my lonesome life. After all, I had been the one to see Clarity’s relationship sprout and blossom. I was the one with stores of memories to draw from. I was the one who could put her love in the best light, make it shine like it was genuine. I was the one who could tell her what she is doing is right.
“That’s just something stupid I used to make you say,” Clarity says, her jaw slack. “I just wanted you to look at me.”
I hand her the hotel’s notepad anyway, scrawled over with my handwriting. There are salted waterdrops from when I was taking notes by the water. She takes it and reads. Her face is impassive. When she is done, she lays the papers down on my bed. Though her makeup is intact, her face has taken on a grisly look, as if she is composting.
“Do you remember that night about our fortunes?” she asks.
It’s the first thing I remembered , I don’t say.
“I looked up our cards after. Did you know if you turn the Seven of Swords, it still means the same thing?”
“Deception?” I say. I looked them up too.
“That’s who I am meant to be.”
Two fates, but we have the same heartbreak, me and her. I would give her my way out, take her to Nid, but I want her to face the choice she robbed of me. I bring back the doomed bird. What would she have done, if she had a choice once again to set it free? I want to see her play the game, see all the possibilities, every lustrous path spread out before her, some lonelier than others, all freer than the one she’s on. But our stories always narrow into two paths. The Hermit or the Swords.
“This speech is everything the old me would have dreamed of,” Clarity starts. “But I’ve felt empty, full of holes, for the last two years. I had to see you, to know.”
Clarity pulls my hair back, pushing me down onto the bed.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I got married to him.”
She is climbing onto me now, and her body is a flood. I want to know what she chooses, but even more, I want to touch her outside and in. I want the time to come back in the room, huddle in, feel it now, before we play it forward. I want to take her to the edge, let her pop my bubble lips, pull my dark hair off my head and wear it on her own. I want to fall down her slope over and over until I am ready to hit the hard ground running.
“Come back with me,” I say. “Let me disrupt your life.”
She laughs like it’s a joke. Three octaves at once like a wind chime. I forget that some of my vernacular is foreign to her. That there are stacks of years between us.
“I don’t know who I am without you,” she says in between mewling little gasps on my neck.
I want to say, me neither , but when I open my mouth, her voice fills my whole throat.