Constellations Of Maria: Seattle Chapters
by Sarah Maria Medina
It begins in my flat, inside the old two story house on 12th Avenue. The sun rises as Levi sleeps. I trail my fingertips over her bright sleeved tattoos. I can’t sleep when she stays. Our secrets keep me awake: the ones I turn from and the ones she holds out. I can’t be honest with myself about the river and with each layer of truth Levi speaks, I feel my fingers barely holding onto the wet dock of my childhood. If I breathe, I will breathe in river water. I can’t remember it all—just small broken scenes. I want to be brave like her, I want to spill.
Instead, I swallow pills as a way of dimming the childhood I no longer remember. The tiny pills weigh feathers in my palm. They make the sea warm. Levi places her mouth over mine, touches my thigh like a guitar when she’s playing, then lies her fingers over my chest bone. Her fist wet and shining, she hums “girl” and my face wets from tears I don’t know are my own until I taste them. I can’t point her to the center of my pain—it’s always shifting.
“Say summertime, let it roll in your mouth,” I say. We slide down into the backseat of Trace’s car, windows down. Trace pushes her black framed glasses back up and turns up the bass. Curtis Mayfield and Diamond in the Back. Levi grins and sings soft. Summer heat sticks my thighs to the black leather seat, my pale skin a gold glow. “Say whiskey.” We straddle a motorcycle outside of a warehouse long lost down First Avenue in SODO, tongues arrowed in each other’s mouths. “Say daylight.” We promise to see a matinee then pop a pill that my neighbor gifted me, and spend all day in Levi’s bed, breeze coming in through the long cotton curtains. “Say too much.” In a backyard in the CD, another woman tries to slip her hand into Levi’s mouth.
“My girlfriend will be so jealous,” she says to Levi. “I love your band.” Levi and I take off down the street away from their backyard bonfire, and open the windows to my flat, letting in the summer night.
My belly feels empty when Levi leaves in the morning. I make plates of toast and brew more coffee, but the emptiness grows. Not even when my neighbor, Violet, knocks on my window and climbs through, coffee brewing in the kitchen, does the emptiness subside. It whimpers and howls inside me. Sometimes Violet brings her son, who she calls Little Bird. His sticky finger marks cover the walls. I leave them— little three year old spirit marks, the flat empty of child laughter. I read through stacks of books, poetry and Harlem Renaissance novels, and then walk up a block. I knock on Violet’s apartment door, and trail her to the back, her kitchen a mess of cereal boxes and child crumbs. She tugs on her hot pink curls, pulls it up in a bun. A softness soldiers through the mess. When Little Bird sleeps, I ask Violet for more from her stash of pills, then leave past her stack of half read books on the floor, back down to my flat. When I open the door, the scent of staleness and mouse and unwashed dishes hits me.
Holding the river’s echo, I don’t know how to sing it or call it home or read what is still left there, some lit buoy in the distance. I am a small light, I am a song on repeat, I am a child wearing women’s dresses, sleeping in a corner of a house, living off waitressing wages, and coffee, and pills. When I call Levi, she doesn’t answer, and I spend hours at the kitchen table, watching the downtown sky change from blue to black.
Alone, I lie across my unmade bed until the city quiets. I burn the corner of my lip smoking the nub of a joint and wish I had coffee but it’s already night. Instead I find leftover tea brewed yesterday. I sip it from the Russian flowered coffeepot with the chipped lid. Then roll a joint from some weed I find in an empty matchbox.
Levi flies to San Francisco for the weekend to see her other lover, or drives to Portland for band practice, or holes up in her apartment with her twin, or watches a film with her ex-girlfriend Jean Louise and I am alone. I draw thick wet black lines over my lids, line my lips, curl my bleached hair, and throw on jeans and grey suede boots with heels. I go into the night. I pass by the club on Twelfth and Pine, a joint between my lips. The doorman nods, and I walk down Pike to the War Room, where I stand at the top of the stairs.
An ocean of dancers grinds and flirts below because it’s a Queer night, and the DJ’s spin grimy southern Hip Hop.
“Hey.” I turn to the voice of a man I’d met a few weeks ago, standing behind me. His hair is combed out and his black skin shines.
“What are you doing here? What’s your name again?”
“I saw you. Solace.” And the way he says his name is soft like a swallow inside his mouth. “Do you want to dance?”
I like his formality—we find a space on the floor and catch a beat, his hand light on my hip. When he leaves, I find my way alone back to my apartment, open the kitchen window, light another joint, and watch the light downtown.
In the morning, Trace comes over, pushes her glasses back on her nose, takes her coffee black. Then Solace knocks on my door, and I brew yerba mate. Trace, on the phone with her girlfriend, leans against the rail on the back deck that looks over the alley with broken glass. Solace and I spoon honey into our teacups. Honeycomb sticks to our teeth, and we look across the table in silence.
Then we talk about our fathers. His mother buried, his father on the East Coast. “My father is Puerto Rican,” I say, “born in the Bronx.” My father’s first language inside their tiny apartment was Spanish, his father a white man from Oklahoma and his mother Black, Spanish and Taino. I know at first glance I look white—my skin pale like skim milk. But my features are wide, my nose, my high forehead. I look like my grandmother, but with my mother’s complexion. Growing up, I’d compare myself to the white girls in my small school a few miles from the riverboat. I didn’t know where to find my beauty, until one day I was reading a teen magazine that featured girls from around the world and a girl with my face stared out at me from the pages. When I read the caption it said she was from Puerto Rico. Something inside me started to swell and shift.
“I see that. You look like the Puerto Rican girls I know in Chicago.” When Solace says Chicago his voice slows and softens like it’s some magical place. “Except for the way you talk.”
And my mouth clamps down over my white girl sound.
I try not to count the days until Levi flies back from San Francisco. A friend sleeps over and cups my breasts in her hands while we sleep. Adelae. Her hair pulled back tight in cornrows, her welder hands strong and large for her small frame. Calloused and nicked, her palms anchor me in Levi’s absence. My ex-girlfriend Han’s name is tattooed across Adelae’s arm in black Xicano cursive—so she doesn’t try to slay me, she just cups my breasts.
In the morning, our friend Gigi invites us to hear Angela Davis, and when a young man stands up to speak he says he is half-Black. Gigi whispers, “I hate it when people say half. I’m not half of anything, I’m a whole person.” I nod my head. I feel shamed by the words half and quarter and even mixed—feel like it reduces me to something pieced together or broken. Words that date back to slavery separate me from my family, from my community, and leave me feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. I don’t experience racism in the same way my father does—his brown skin and noble face—what I experience is a form of erasure, along with a privilege that comes with passing—most of the time. My father always instilled in me growing up that I’m Puerto Rican, but my mother spoke of my whiteness, rarely mentioning what Puerto Rican meant except when I got called Hapa on the island— and it was with her I’d lived most of my childhood out on the riverboat, phosphorescence lighting up the black river water at night, like a backward sky.
At the end of the weekend, after Adelae drives off in her truck and leaves my apartment silent, I swallow a pill and fall back asleep. Sunlight streams into my bedroom.Levi stands at the backdoor of my flat. Her newest tattoo healed while she was away. She takes off her cap, runs her fingers through her short light hair. We find my freshly made bed.
“Sometimes I just like kissing,” she says, and we do, until our lips swell and bruise dark pink.
I trace her growing bouquet of tattoos that glow on her pale skin. We road trip to Portland when she goes for band practice. Mos Def fills the truck. “You should remember that I show you more than I can say,” she says, coining the rap. And I think this means something.
We stay at the punk rock motel that is now glam rather than dive—the same motel from back when I danced at the Russian hole-in-the-wall down the street. We drive over Burnside Bridge, and I remember when I leaned over the bridge, not knowing it wasn’t high enough. I’d pulled back, the depression always flirting me, but with Levi the bridge doesn’t tempt me. Her mouth tenders mine swollen. After she goes to band practice, I lose the day in Powell’s, fingers trailing over book spines, too many cups of coffee. When she picks me up, I avert my eyes, knowing the pill I popped while she was at band practice will make her jealous or angry or both. I didn’t offer her one, because she said she wants to slow down. She turns up a mixtape—Hip Hop floods the truck, and she doesn’t speak.
I know Levi senses a danger in me, an instability that could become forest and kindling and spark.
Sunlight falls into Levi’s room, and I slide down between her thin legs, the heat of the day making our skin stick and glow. This time she hands me a pill, sticks it to my tongue with her pinky. Framed horses gallop across her walls, and I ride her, my legs straddling her waist, my chest expanding with light. The open window lets in air that cools our skin. We hear keys jimmy the lock and we whisper and laugh and make our way out to the couch to join her twin. He charms me and makes me laugh. He is a tall thin matchstick to her petiteness. We listen to the recordings Levi made for her new album, and she latches her fingers to mine.
Sometimes a heaviness comes, rolls up to the bones of my chest like clouds approaching a distant city across a thick span of water. Sometimes Levi scowls and pulls me to her, asks me to hold her inside the chaos of her shows and recording studios and women screaming from the sidelines. I kiss her delicate ribs and wrap my arms around her, but not once, even though I love her hard, do I say love. I’m afraid if I tell her she’ll leave, so I wait for her to tell me instead.
“You left again,” she says when I’ve checked out. “You’re intense,” she says, and decides to spend the night at home. I know I have something broken floating inside me. I wreck myself when she notices. I kiss her at the door, then swallow a pill.
Sometimes Levi hangs out with Jean Louise, her ex-girlfriend, who dates my ex-girlfriend, Han. “We made out,” Levi confesses. I know the draw to touch the past— I’m not mad or jealous. Instead I pull her tight. And when she sleeps, careful not to wake her, I walk barefoot to the kitchen table, roll a joint and watch the sky shift from black to light.
Toward the end of summer, Levi and I watch movies side by side on her fifties style emerald couch, her twin asleep in his bedroom. I turn to her, my bare feet tucked under me, and confess my pill addiction, which is growing, which I don’t want to hide. Her eyes widen, and her lip turns down. She’d thought it was just when we popped them together, not when I was alone too, not every night.
Levi pulls away, slides to the far end of the couch.
“I can’t believe you’ve been taking those.”
“Just ask me to stop and I will.”
She turns back to the movie, and when she answers her cell, I dig another pill from my pillbox in her bathroom. I let it sit bitter on my tongue before flushing the toilet. We lie with our fingers touching, but her shoulders turn away. “I’ve always noticed your sadness,” she says. I watch the horses gallop across her walls.
At the café around the corner, we walk below tall Maples that border the sidewalk, then step through the door. We order pink frosted donuts and bitter coffee. She takes the chair across from me and I can tell before she speaks that it’s over. In the pink powder room, I push tears back with my fingertips, trying not to let my mascara smudge.
Levi takes my clenched fist and holds it like a small bird inside her palms. The countertop to our left is piled high with pink jelly sugar donuts, a whole castle of them.
“I know we have a lot going on,” I say, “but I don’t care.”
“Just promise me that you’ll see me again before you leave on tour.”
Our hands still clasped, she kisses my hands, presses her lips to my skin.
Later, my ex-girlfriend Han calls me sobbing that she can’t find Jean Louise, and asks if I think she’s with Levi—it’s a small city. “They hang out sometimes,” I say. “Han, she might be with her. Maybe.” I don’t want to hide things from Han— she was my ride or die once.
Levi leaves on tour without saying goodbye, a note slipped inside an old Clarice Lispector book I’d loaned her, left outside the backdoor. She’s angry I told Han about Jean Louise. The word betrayal is written in tight penmanship. That word guts me.
A sobbing overtakes me. I find the linoleum floor of my kitchen, press my hands to the black and white squares. The smell of mice leaks from the white cupboards. I gasp in salt and desperation. I run out to the back alley in case her tour bus is still parked, but it’s gone and she’s gone too.
I decide to stop taking pills and tell Violet we can’t see each other, since she’s been my go-to for downers. It means I won’t see Little Bird either, but I know I need to let go and can’t face myself for Levi’s absence, until I get clean. I ask myself if I’d been completely clean, would I still have told Han about Jean Louise? Han honors friendship more than anything. A tattoo of friendship in black letters crosses her chest, placed neatly below her collarbone. I probably would have still told her, but maybe it would have turned out differently if I hadn’t confided in her while also swallowing pills.
I sweat in my bed for a week, my body aching from the absence of downers that once made everything feel calm and light. Summer turns into a sick fever with the dying sun. The only thing that pulls me up from my sickbed is Solace’s unexpected knock on my door. We walk through Capitol Hill, past all the mansions with empty porches.
“Why isn’t anyone on their porch?” He nods at the verandas below the drooping flowers. The magnolias and camellias that create all their magnificence now fall to the ground. We climb the water tower in Volunteer Park, all the way to the top.
“I want to leave this city.” I stare down at all the buildings and the water even further out glistening. The bay a giant blue. The snowcapped mountains behind them.
“I never learned to swim,” he says.
I nod, knowing many of my friends who grew up in the city never learned. I didn’t have a choice. It was because of my childhood on the riverboat that I learned to swim, the necessity of not drowning.
Sarah Maria Medina is a poet and a fiction/creative non-fiction writer from the American Northwest. Her writing has been published in Midnight Breakfast, PANK, Split This Rock, Raspa Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She was a finalist in Indiana Review’s 2015 Poetry Prize. She is also the poetry editor at Winter Tangerine. She is at work on several projects. Visit her at www.sarahmariamedina.com or @crushedmagnolia