We Are All Snowflakes and Cities
Today, everything I need is in the city. There’s a dive bar and a falafel window and a bodega selling glass-bottled milk from Lancaster County all within one block of me. And when I need to get away, I can borrow a car and drive across the blue bridge towards the beach. The engine revs up over the peak and then goes quiet, and I can see tall spires flashing like lighthouses above the estuary. Down the other side, I hit New Jersey without losing speed.
Coming home at night, if the sky is not too heavy, a glittering curtain will snap into view at the height of the span. The rough wind across the river and the tires clipping the jointed surface will ripple through my body, so that it’s either me or the city that shudders in the darkness.
I live now so smashed up against the river that coming down off the bridge, I have to brake hard onto the ramp at 5th street and double back towards the city’s eastern edge. The way the halos of streetlamps clatter against the ridges of polished brick always strikes me.
South Street is a mess of moonstruck tourists, punk rock kids, aggressive bass, and my apartment is only three flights above it. Some nights, I hear them shouting in my sleep.
And some nights, the sound of the street is as good as silence. Some nights, I can close my eyes and listen as a taxi rattles around the bend, then accelerates. I can lie on my soft mattress and picture the scene below as I’ve always pictured it. The gravel drive, narrow with gnarly pines. Night breezing in through the screen.
Some winter mornings, the city can look pristine. When the sun is lying low, I can stand up on the roof and stare for miles above the neighborhoods without blinking. I can see how some things resist the snowy coating, the smokestacks and the steeples and the tall, tall buildings. And I can see snow settling between rows of three and four story houses. Snow so deep that the furrows lose all definition. Streets disappear entirely.
“What the hell were you thinking?” my Dean had asked, incredulously, peeling off his glasses and massaging his temples as I sat there in silence. I wasn’t thinking of getting ahead in Anatomy. I wasn’t counting on surveillance cameras or security. What I was really thinking, what I really couldn’t say, was that maybe I’d made a huge mistake.
At the beginning of the semester, they asked us to consider the sacrifices of our cadavers. The only sound in the cavernous lab was the rattle of an air conditioner.
By the end of Anatomy, we were using hacksaws to decapitate the bodies. Sometimes, the ligaments would fray and catch in the blades, and we’d have to use our hands the rest of the way.
One night, I had let myself in late. I’d soaped my hands in the scrub sink and slipped them into clear plastic gloves, the kind used for handling meat. I dragged a rusty lamp beside one body and, leaning in, listened for the organs. The liver, brown and winged, like a stingray. The hard, yellow stones that were her kidneys. Slick, spongy lungs, clogged with ash and honey.
There was quiet in the cadaver lab, which had nothing to do with silence. Like shells containing the voices of waves, they weren’t exactly silent. And I wasn’t exactly stranded. And the sound was like a blanket.
Most days I’m good at pretending, for my parents’ sake, that med school is every bit as thrilling as it’s meant to be. Making absurd claims in emails to my extended family. Analogies between pathways and poetry. The sanctity of bodies. Bromides about finding my place.
Now that I’m on break, I half step, half slide down the stairs and across the street into the warm, Pink Rose Café. “Eggs over easy with wheat, and coffee,” I say to the waitress before she even has a chance to ask me. I do my best smile and make sure to add in a “Please.”
I sit there slurping my two dollar eggs and fifty cent coffee without having to do any talking. I watch pairs of uniformed officers fall in and out like they’re part of some slow motion relay. I squint out the window and pretend not to listen to calls coming over their two-ways.
In the glare, last night’s revelry seems remote. I remember, early, how the music in my headphones and the light in the streets had seemed in synch. I remember flurries swimming in liquid darkness, the air charged with possibility. I remember crowded bars and songs that everyone could sing. I remember a need to buy another round, to feel the warm breath of bodies, to cling to friends before the scatter of the holidays.
I remember being alone in the end. Some corner dive with a halo of smoke and the staleness of empty cans. A cigar store Indian nodding in the corner. His face of driftwood, his steady hand. The feeling that somehow I knew him.
And in the warm glow of recognition, the audacity of 4:00 a.m., I felt a pang to dial Kate. A shock of light, flickering, before morning crashed in.
Another pair of officers finishes their coffees and goes off to walk their beat. I decide to miss my train, texting, “Can’t make it today. Home later this week,” which I have no hope of being.
The truth is, a girl, actually. This girl that I’d found accidentally as I wandered, one afternoon, around the Museum of Archeology. Ever since Brandywine, I had been going at least once a week.
In grade school, on half days, we used to board the train at the very last station and glide into the city. We’d lean against each other in the window seat, grasping at blurry trees, train cars foundering on gravelly beaches, and bridges flashed with shiny paint, while mom sat upright and inside, reading.
Inside the museum, we’d go straight for the cavern of mummies. We’d press our hands against the glass, towards artifacts and royalty. A knife to cut the diaphragm. A hook to snare the brain. A princess with wide, obsidian eyes. Blue diamonds on her face.
The first time I saw this girl kneeling in a shallow, roped-off space, I thought instantly of Kate. Something about her intensity, how it seemed like nothing existed beyond her working. The field reminded me of surgery. Abrupt cuts in the floor’s smooth surface. Disorder underneath.
“Are you part of the exhibit?” I remember saying, shakily.
“Yep,” she said, smiling, a bit breathless and not exactly looking up. “Just part of the scenery.”
“What are you working on?”
“Just some Lenape artifacts. Pottery. Arrowheads. It’s all right there,” she said, pointing her brush at the placard in front of me.
It had seemed a clear signal to move on, but my legs wouldn’t carry me.
“I like your dragon,” I added, nodding towards the dark green engraving on her arm. Its squinting eyes, jaws wide open.
She stopped what she was doing, but didn’t say anything at first. Just stayed down, considering.
“I like him too. He’s a crocodile. I’m Marion.”
I felt a warm wave wash across the room.
“Jake,” I answered, extending my hand.
She put her brush aside and leaned back on one knee and pushed her bangs across her face. Her skin was ivory underneath the lights.
Only that, and Marion started growing deep down in my gut like a weed. Like dandelion.
That first night, I chose a place where we could use our hands, to cut the tension. Inside was a clutter of beaded curtains, red lights, hookah, tinny music. Tray after tray kept dripping with oil and lemon. Marinated eggplants, coriander carrots, chicken with cinnamon, lamb with raisins, mint tea, oranges. By the time we had finished and stepped back into the alley, the old redbrick houses had locked up and turned down their lights.
“One more drink?” I had asked hopefully, not wanting it to end.
Marion frowned, puffed out her cheeks and put her hands across her belly.
“Ok, let’s get you a cab then,” I said, nodding towards a wider street while Marion stayed in place.
“That’s ok, Big Jake. No worries. I’ve got you to walk with me.”
“Change of plans… decided to stay,” I text her, and she texts back a smiley.
The bus lets me off in front of the old brick coliseum across from the museum, and I brush quickly through a curtain of thick flakes and into the entryway.
Marion is leaning casually against the information desk, chatting with a matronly docent with a harsh Philly accent.
“I keep telling Frank – that’s my husband – to ask one of his brothers. They’re probably dying to go and, God knows, they’d enjoy it more than me. But Frank thinks he’s being romantic, asking me to the game.”
“So why not just go along with it?”
“Honestly, hon, cause I don’t want to freeze. This is that outdoor game they’re doing once a year now, down where the Phillies play.”
“Wait, aren’t all hockey games played out doors?”
“No, no, hon. Flyers play down at the Spectrum, or Core-States, or whatever it’s called these days. Inside.” The lady pauses, confused for a second, then asks, “Hey, where are you from anyway?”
I decide it’s time to intervene, and start walking towards the two of them. “I’m sorry mam,” I say to the docent. “Is this lady bothering you?”
“Better late than never,” Marion says to her, shooting a glance at me.
“I’ll tell you what, hon. You could do a lot worse. A lot worse. I know it.”
“Have fun at the game,” says Marion, smiling and turning to walk with me.
Marion, who is from Southern California, dresses in a way that suggests it is always summer in her mind. Aside from a long, downy parka, her panacea for all sorts of foul weather, I have never seen her in long sleeves. Today, it’s a thin tee with a boat neck collar, and jeans with holes below each knee.
“What’s the plan, boss? How should we celebrate your freedom?” she asks, shouldering her gym bag in a way that projects confidence and athleticism, as if to show she’s up for anything.
“It’s snowing, surfer girl,” I say, gently grazing a shoulder blade. “If you’d put your coat on, we can go get something to eat.”
We bus back towards the central market that expands in a portion of an old train shed. Tight aisles are jammed with customers, melt water sliding from their snow-packed gear.
We wait at a counter for broth steaming in a giant wok and carry tall, plastic containers to a table in the corner. An old man taps the keys of an upright piano while slush puddles at our feet. Under the table, our knees rub comfortably. We slurp our soup from shallow spoons and neither of us speaks.
I think about how easy it is with Marion, and also, how strange. I think about other girls I’ve dated, and how she is nothing like them. I swallow the rest of my broth, and twist the last few noodles in my chopsticks, and smile back at Marion. She asks about my hospice patient.
Parts of the city recede like dust-covered memories. The alphabet soup of Kensington, the badlands of Southwest Philly.
Out there, on the ragged fringe, I work hard to follow directions. There is a man who looks directionless, who is dying, whom I visit. There is a chair beside his low bed where I sit and listen through the static. There is a sister, who is like a mother, who always fixes me a sandwich. There are windowed cabinets, and rusty appliances, and there is sweet tea in plastic glasses. There are children and grandchildren and neighborhood children, a constant stream of traffic.
There is black skin, which is dry and cracked, and there is my skin, which is neither. There is a taste like honey in the sandwiches, some sort of secret ingredient. There is a feeling about the shabby house that has nothing to do with money. There is the way the sandwiches feel on my tongue and in my belly. A feeling like family.
I think about the final leg of every journey. How the EL slides clean through silver sky, its skin embellished by the slightest scales of colored light. How I always aim my camera through the ground glass window of the train. How the scales never shine through the screen.
We’ll have to take it out for a spin one of these days,” I say, expecting Marion to pick up the thread. “The camera, I mean.”
Walking back to Marion’s tiny studio on the bank of the lesser river, a cold mist condenses and snow falls out again. Inside, we flop on the couch and click through to an old, familiar movie. Grey lights flicker and we sit together closely, like siblings. We are practicing a ritual celibacy, each of us suspecting that the other is damaged in some way.
When it’s fall, and you’ve just moved into the city, and your parents come down for dinner, unannounced, you assume they must be worried. When the three of you walk down towards the water to see the tall ships resting in the harbor, all you can think of is somewhere to eat. But when your mom does all the talking for a change, and your dad drags behind hopelessly, you begin to get a feeling. You realize everything you’ve lost already wasn’t everything. You realize that now, they’re coming for the memories.
I come back from brushing my teeth and find Marion sprawled out in my space.
“Mar. Mar. Marion, do you want to get in bed?”
“I’m not sleeping,” she says in a whisper.
I lay a blanket over her and curl up, dog-like, at her feet.
In the middle of the night, Marion’s hand on my shoulder, and the question, “Who’s Kate?” before going back to sleep.
In the morning, we go out walking. We walk across a bridge and eat croissants and sip strong coffee. It’s Saturday morning, and vendors are lining the streets. A blond bohemian does a clumsy Dylan. Kids tangle in the basin of a snow-packed fountain. A few flakes twist overhead. Her mouth full of butter and almonds, Marion leans in for a kiss. For an instant, everything feels solid.
Marion, who is so very new, is drawn to everything old. We walk around town, and she tells me that nothing is broken, only changed. That nothing is missing, only buried. It is very cold, and I am sure she sees clear through me.
We walk through sinking cemeteries, over crooked streets, down alleys choked with ivy. We walk until the naked trees give way to towers overlooking a highway. We walk to the end of a pier and look out over the river which is high and rushing madly. Then, we turn around, and go back another way.
“The hospice lady says Peter’s time is coming. That I need to decide if I want another case.”
“Time is coming like he’s dying?”
“Well. He’s always been dying. That’s kind of the point. Now, I guess he could die any day.”
Marion needs calories, so we’re waiting at a food truck for her soft pretzel to finish warming. She pushes a button and the little box tucked into her jeans spits out another reading.
“Can I get a hot chocolate too, please?” she says, smiling playfully at the young Sikh under the shiny aluminum awning.
“So, do you?” she asks, leaning in and pushing her shoulder into my chest.
“Do I what?” I push back.
“Want another patient.”
“I don’t know,” I say, stepping back. “I’m not really doing anything for Peter. I just sit there watching him disappear while his sister fixes me dinner.”
“Sounds good to me,” says Marion, only half listening. She bites down on one of her mittens and sets her hand free with her teeth. I carry her hot chocolate while she works on her pretzel, which she says is too good to share.
“There’s something you need to know about me first,” Marion says. She’s sitting on the edge of my bed with one leg folded underneath her, ready to begin, but nervous. “Not all of these lines are ink.”
Marion takes my hand and guides my fingers under the thin skin of her dress. She stares straight ahead as she moves my hand, insisting on this examination.
“There?” I say, my fingers rolling over a long, smooth ridge that makes an angle under one of her breasts.
She takes my other hand and presses it against the matching one. “Two of them,” she says, then goes quiet to let it sink in.
“Don’t dance around them,” she says after a while. “And don’t act like I’m breakable. I won’t be able to stand it.”
I try to act like I understand.
“Three weeks on the respirator at the end, waiting for new lungs to come in.” Her voice trailing off leaves me in suspense.
And when I don’t ask, she answers, “Car accident. I got lucky, they said.”
For a while, I say nothing. Just sit there, facing her and running my fingers along the full length of these scars that extend halfway around her body. These scars that might have been wings. Then I close my eyes and slide down slowly, steadily, picking my spots like I’m climbing down rocks towards a stream. When I reach the water, I keep going. I try to swallow everything.
After, the tone arm sticks, and we lie awake listening to the static that lingers after the record has ended.
In the morning, Marion scans my music collection and my bookcase while I make eggs in the kitchen. When I come to get her, she’s holding the one from graduation. Mom and dad flanking me and smiling brightly at the lens. And in the center, my arms and my heart holding Kate.
Every day, there is another bombing in Damascus. Every day, more ancient buildings crumbling.
We go out walking with the camera while the snow stays fresh and clean. Chasing each other from river to river, I will not appreciate until much later, until prints, how Marion is able to overtake spaces, or else give into them. Her edges blur with garage door graffiti. On a hill overlooking the river, she obliterates tall buildings.
We drink real Cokes and squeeze fat limes onto tacos made under a highway. A square of sunlight is stamped on our table, and my feet feel tired and ache in a good way. I ask Marion to tell me more about her family.
“All I remember about being a kid is not being able to breathe. Not keeping up with my brothers. Not being able to swim through rough surf. Always having to leave the party early.” Marion takes another bite of her taco, and the juice runs off her face.
“My mom stayed home to take care of me. Every few hours I’d have to stop for breathing treatments and CPT. She’d spend all day massaging me and keeping track of everything. And then at night I’d run to the door and cling to daddy.”
I reach across the table and use my napkin to dab her chin. Marion grins widely, to show the food still in her teeth.
“I remember when I first got listed, how the doctors all said that transplant is another disease. That I needed to think of it as a trade.”
The waitress, a thin woman with stylish bangs cuts in and asks to take our plates.
Marion dries off with a napkin and swallows before she finishes. “They said I’d get to keep parts of my life, but not everything.”
Peter’s sister calls but I don’t answer because I don’t have her number saved. I listen to the voicemail over the hiss of the shower as steam fills Marion’s apartment. Behind the thick, glass blocks, Marion’s body blurs like an ink blot. I see a Monarch. I see a honey bee. I feel a dark purple bruise spreading somewhere deep.
Peter’s sister says I shouldn’t bother about this week. She has family coming to town and the place will be a mad house. She promises to put something aside for me. And that’s when I realize, I won’t be around when it happens. After all these months, I won’t be there to see it.
I want to tell Marion everything about the last time I saw my sister, but it doesn’t exactly translate. I mostly remember the white stone building, the bright copper roof, the weathervane. I remember waiting with my parents in the gazebo overlooking the Brandywine. I remember the aide guiding her towards us, a slight, older woman. Still, twice as thick as Kate.
I remember understanding then that there was no way to stop her disappearing. That I wouldn’t be with her on the razor’s edge between breathing and no longer breathing. That sooner or later, it would happen anyway.
I see Marion step out from behind the glass and lean to one side to wring her dark, red hair like laundry. Above there is frost on the window, and steam swirling towards the ceiling.
There is the best part of the day, late afternoon, when we lie like seals on a beach. There is shabby plastic taped across the window, and sunlight warming the sheets. There are so many lines in Marion’s skin that she makes me feel dizzy and weak.
I ask her to tell me again about the dragon. About the crocodile, I mean.
Marion tells me about traditional Hawaiian tattooing. An old man tapping stone against stylus. Very quiet. Almost painless. “Dad’s idea of consolation, after my mom left.”
She flips over onto her back and points to a rare, unclaimed patch.
“My mom used to call me her bee because I was always making honey,” she says, feigning a hacking sound to show me what she means. “We got the same one in the same place on the day I turned sixteen.”
There are no parts of bee left, but the skin there looks uneven. Sun-damaged. Like memory.
“I sat through fourteen half-hour sessions with the laser tearing me apart until I realized it was pointless. You can’t erase these things.”
There is a day stuck in my memory. Chasing Kate, no more than ten and already wiry, down a path paved with matted leaves. The dirt had been pressed hard into clay, so that my feet made slapping sounds as I gathered speed. I caught her kneeling at the base of a tree, her canteen slung around her back so that her hands were free. The tiny skeleton she’d uncovered was complete, bright white, picked clean.
I watched her lean in and send a quick draft downwards. Flecks of earth took off like dandelion seeds.
We borrow a car and drive to Atlantic City. I want spaghetti and she wants the beach and also, dancing. We order mussels in red sauce. Clams and linguine. The gravy is old-fashioned, predictable, in a good way. Afterwards, she takes my hand and leads me through the maze of hallways with low, yellow ceilings. Augmented women in tight dresses, their asses showing. Old gamblers leaning hard against table games. Palm trees glistening with fake, plastic leaves.
While I fumble for the cover, Marion rushes past the bouncer and dives headlong into waves of light and sound. Inside, there is music crashing all around us. There is fog and rain and thunder. There are pills and pillows and liquor. There is the way Marion’s wet skin shimmers like a mirror. There is a need to hold on tight, or risk losing her forever.
After, we walk for blocks just listening to the surf. We walk the darkened boardwalk until one of us feels sober. There is a fog horn sounding in the distance, and lights off the end of a pier. There is no moon, nor any stars to light the water, but we feel certain that it’s there.
On Christmas Eve, I take her to see the lights in South Philly. Blue collar blocks of Smedley and Cleveland Streets draped in colored sheets. The bulbs hanging tight, all running width-wise, so that the threads mingle in a solid canopy of light.
While the taxi waits we swim beneath the incandescent waves until the colors paint our faces and the houses fall away. And Marion asks if it’s how I remembered, and I’m not sure I answer. And we just stand there looking skyward like we’re staring at a fire, and the meter keeps on running and neither of us cares.
On Christmas Day, we hike northeast through the River Wards, and cross into a dead space. Wide swaths of earth reemerging, glass scratching under our feet.
Here, in this graveyard of buildings, cold smokestacks mark the bodies, and we drift into a clearing. A few grey mares are leaning on a split rail fence, unaware of their surroundings.
Out here, on the pale, grey margin, there is sand where the sidewalk had been.
And in the neighboring pasture are earthmovers sleeping. Bulldozers. Dump trucks. A crawler crane. Turning home again we can almost smell the diesel burning, and hear the engines roar.
A million years exploding. A million layers of sediment. Sand and glass, glass and sand. Our feet in the sand in the ocean. Lost at sea. Lost in translation. Transplantation. Living in a transplant nation. Chasing the fossil record. The fossil is a broken record. The unchained melody of static. Horses, smokestacks, horses, smokestacks. Fish sky. Honey sandwiches. Eyelids glittering like fishes. Pupils dark as death is. A gallery of princes. A wind in the window in the desert. The earth is here to visit. Then everything is skin. The lighthouses are smoking again. Imagine lungs reopening, and lungs will reopen, just in case. It could happen again. Just in case. Breathe out. Breathe in. Deep breath. Breathe in.
She is the only person I have ever known who could say, “Our bodies are a palimpsest,” without irony, as I lie awake interpreting the fine etchings on her skin.
The day after, we embark on a quest for soup dumplings, falling into a dingy, dimly lit space just past the Chinatown Gate. The dumplings splash open in our mouths, and we smile at each other with bulging cheeks.
“Tonight,” she says, “We get some ink.”
In a famous shop, my landlord’s place, she slips her coat onto a rack and slithers out of her shirt. The bright colors and dark lines are disorienting, and I realize for the first time that, nearly naked, it’s hard to see her body.
Even Eddie, working with another customer, takes a long pause to make sense of her. The long twin scars turn purple when she shivers.
I take off my shirt too, slide into the chair next to her and hear myself say, “Kate was the name of my sister.” And the needle hurts like a motherfucker. And in a way, it doesn’t even hurt. And we both cry a little afterwards. And Marion says she already knew, and that I can trust her.
And we put our clothes back on, and I reach over her shoulder and press our bodies together against the murky glass, and back into the slipstream.
Above the river, stars that tangle with the sky’s heavy cables will seem to quiver. The night will feel raw and clear and new in a way that I will always remember. And we will stop somewhere, mid-block, to adjust my bandage, and Marion will kiss me and whisper, “We are all snowflakes and cities,” and I will actually believe her.
BIO: Gaetan Sgro is a writer and a physician who went into medicine for the stories. He blogs at wardstories.org.