It was in the crude yellow light of the middle school girls’ changing room, when the much-muttered questions were answered in the unified removal of all and every article of clothing. I was thirteen. The others were asking it, or I perceived them to be, and I had been asking too. They were the sane girls. They had their heads on straight. With every waft of Herbal Essence shampoo and Bath & Body Works hand sanitizer, they knew how to act and what was acceptable and how to blend and be happy. But yes, yes, yes, this was a confirmation. Yes, I was attracted to women and crazy and I hated it and sometimes sensed that everyone knew and other times that nobody knew and I was just paranoid. The obviousness of my beet red form with identical shaking hands felt like as much of a confession as any.
For years I had felt the paranoia weighing on me. It had become part of me. But now surely everyone would discover my damp inner sanctum, the truth behind my unnervingly penetrable gaze. I was cursed with the gaze of a male and the shame of a woman. I knew I was a collection of duds and errors but had never been forced to be confront it. In middle school, I didn’t admit it completely to myself. I didn’t want to label it. I didn’t have any representation of it in my peers. There was only one other female who openly liked girls, Ali, but she was infinitely cooler than I was at the time. I just knew that since I was already gross and awkward and unpopular, I couldn’t have this label too. This was a time my peers seemed to forget about, when the simplicity of this particular type of otherness was recognized only by whispers, strained glances, and confusion. It wasn’t something freely admitted, not something people thought of as belonging to this age group, not something people thought of unless confronted with it head on. I knew it wasn’t something I could hide from, because it was so out of my hands. The inexplicable urge to look had never been fought so tenaciously within me. I was holding my breath.
When I briefly surfaced from my perpetual terror, I expected the other girls to make commentary, to acknowledge my sinfulness, the black, invisible curds congealing on my skin, rippling through the freezing middle school gym pool. I could feel my repulsive insides leaking out of me, infecting my peers. All of my thoughts polluted the pool and the other girls’ skin.
It was the showers that spoke. Once the students tumbled out of the blue-black pool and returned to the chasm of the yellow locker room, there was a space left for me. Initially, we all shared the showers. Two or three girls fighting and flocking to the heat like moths to porch lights so they wouldn’t have to wait and shiver. But people were waiting now. Or gathering at different showers. I didn’t really notice at first, enjoying the space, enjoying the length of time I got to wash my sticky chlorine hair. But boycotting of the shower I was using began to feel purposeful. I had never been popular but I hadn’t been a complete pariah until now. I heard remote giggling. Smacking flip-flopped feet crossed unseen behind me, more giggling.
I didn’t know what I had done. I remember the first time I came home after this occasion, and I felt confused, flustered, betrayed. I was certain that my sexuality hadn’t gotten out, it couldn’t have. It wasn’t like I’d told anyone.
Sitting in the high school band room at the end of the day, I saw a swipe of long, shiny black hair whip passed me. It was a girl from my orchestra class, Vanni, who I’d had a crush on for years. We’d ridden the bus together since we were in fourth grade, when she’d moved here. I had sat next to her when she’d first arrived. She had a metal lunch box with two wrestling lions on it. She told me that the lions were her and her crush at the time, Matt who was a very feminine boy that also rode the bus with us. I remember thinking how beautiful she was with the light from the windows dappling her face. She had the longest hair I’d ever seen and a smattering of freckles like stardust across her cheeks. When she smiled, she had deep dimples and she laughed a lot. She was also always demonstrating her strength- competing in no-rules wrestling competitions with her friends or thumb wars or showing how fast she could climb a tree or racing the boys down the street and winning. All of this impressed and fascinated me. We weren’t close friends, but we had a mutual friend named Sydney who also rode the bus with us and who would gather large groups together on nights and weekends. She and I hadn’t talked since Sydney moved away in eighth grade, and we hadn’t really hung out one on one in general.
She messaged me on AIM. I’d had other crushes, but this one I couldn’t escape since we lived so close to each other and rode the same bus to and from school. Sydney had known about my crush on Vanni, but that friend had moved away so I’d hoped everything would’ve been forgotten.
She asked me to come to her house. She lived up the street from me. She demanded that I come over, that we needed to talk. I was petrified. I told my parents where I was going. They were surprised, but didn’t question it too much. It felt like an eternity walking uphill to her house.It was a squat, split level white house that always had its lights on all through the night. My breath caught in my throat as I rang the doorbell. Every moment I had ever seen her welled up within me, building into a tumultuous cacophony. Her mom answered the door. She was a small woman from Vietnam with a heavy accent. She told me she was making dinner if I’d like to have some. I don’t remember replying, just nervously pacing and digging my hands into my pockets. I couldn’t breath. Vanni came downstairs, looking at her phone. I didn’t have a phone at this time so whenever I saw friends of mine using theirs, there was an inherent sense of power or adulthood in that trademark way the blue light would hit them from underneath their chins.
I don’t think she ever really made eye contact with me. She just said, “Let’s go to my room.” I had been in her room before; I think it was her birthday and there was a group of girls in there all doing their nails, singing along to “Teardrops on My Guitar” by Taylor Swift, and talking about the boys in our class they had crushes on.
Now, the room felt like an empty hole in the wall. I shivered. It was a bluish green like photos of earth from satellites and dimly lit. She told me that she wanted to play truth or dare with me. I asked why she hadn’t asked someone else and she said that I just happened to live close by. I nodded. This made sense. There didn’t seem to be any other purpose or ulterior motive in that reply. I was certain that I was both unlikeable by a majority, and improbable to be liked by her. The fact that she was even talking to me one on one was an absolute anomaly.
She went through a list she’d made, daring me to do random dares like put my toe in my mouth and scream something out of her window or even run around the block backwards. She only gave dares to me. I felt powerless in a way I knew she was judging me for. She was toying with me and some part of me liked not having to make decisions for myself and I liked entertaining her, but I could tell she thought less and less of me after every demand she made. Everything was happening too fast.
The last dare was for me to kiss her. I had been following her orders all day, scared shitless that she would beat me up or something. I kissed her. I could see us from outside of myself, her hair rolling forward over the side of my face. She eclipsed me, colliding night dark hair and moonlight skin into me, overlapping. I felt flattened by the force of it. It was very quick but I thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to me up until that point. Her lips were soft and billowy. I remember I wrote a poem about them that night, calling them, “pillowy layers of satin” and “dew-soaked petals.”
It wasn’t my first kiss, but it was the first kiss I’d exchanged with someone who I actually was interested in which made all the difference. I felt like I’d achieved some level of validity, that all of the things I’d desired in life were starting to make sense, that it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought and that other people must be feeling the same things I had been. I felt a little less alone. Then I cuddled with her on her floor beneath a blanket we’d been sitting on. She got one pillow off of her bed, meaning that we’d be sharing it which was a huge deal. I was a rocket landing from the heavens. The come-down was nearly as exhilarating as the come-up.
My heart was the loudest thing in the room besides her ceiling fan. The two noises competed with each other for an hour. We weren’t quite spooning because I was too afraid of her to touch her from behind. I just lay there, stiff as steel, quivering as she took in deep, calm, drowsy breaths. I couldn’t tell if I was happy or not. I looked at the fan whirring and wondered how long I was going to have to lay here and if she’d make any other moves. She didn’t. Her mom knocked on the door and said it was time for dinner and we awkwardly got up. We slowly decendended the white carpeted stairs toward the brightly lit dining room where her family sat, ignorant of our escapades.
We continued to message each other on aim for a few months. She was dating different boys all the time. I kept up with each one, asking about how it was going, wanting them to succeed because I felt like I didn’t deserve to be with her. One day, she brought it up again. “Why do you like me?” She asked. I paused, fearful, pale and squirming like a termite. I listed off my reasons, definitely going overkill, wanting her to exchange the sentiment or dig deeper with the conversation. She only said “Awww thanks!” I was kind of proud of myself that I’d admitted my feelings but still disgusted that I felt them at all. I hoped the next time we saw each other or spoke, her side of things or her feelings toward me would be acknowledged or shared.
A month or so later, she called me on my newly purchased cell phone. I picked up. There was muffled laughter and shuffling of the phone. It sounded like she was with a bunch of people. “Hello?” I repeated several times. She laughed and said in a slurred voice, “I’m talking to her!” She hung up then sent a long text that haunts me to this day.
It said “I see you staring at me all the time, it’s pathetic. All my friends know how disgusting you are. And everybody knows that you’re obsessed with me and you’re a total creep. And you copied Ali’s shoes.”
I looked down at the gray vans loosely laced on my feet. I didn’t think they’d notice I wanted to be cooler so I made my mom buy me the same shoes Ali, the only out person in school, wore.
Vanni was very popular and I knew she meant it when she said everybody. I guess she told her friends about what happened between us, as a sort of confession. But they probably didn’t receive it as she’d expected. Maybe they said something like, “Why her?” Or “Eww oh my god you kissed a girl? That’s so weird! Why did you do it?” So she had to betray make to save face. I don’t think she had feelings for me the way I did for her. I think I was a tool she used to explore her sexuality, someone that wouldn’t tell and that was enough of an outcast that no one would believe me anyway. But I have no way to know, I can only suspect.
From that day forth, I knew why everyone was avoiding me. I had noticed a rift, but now people were side-eyeing me, and pretending to cover themselves up to their necks with their towels and laughing. I had suspected that other people thought I was creepy and gross, but this was the ultimate confirmation.I felt terrible. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and just seeing gray.
Knowing and Believing
Photo Credit | Sabrina Pantal
On weekends, Raymond wears spandex so he can run faster. He likes to run through Prospect Park because it’s big and easy to get lost in. Sometimes, he worries if he runs there too often, it’ll become easier for him to find his way. And that’s not how he wants to spend his days off. If Raymond is in a suit and tie, he has direction and he has distraction because someone is giving it to him. But if Raymond is in his spandex, he wants no direction. He wants to be lost so he has a more present issue brewing within him, an issue that can be solved, and an issue that will bring him home. And maybe someone else will help him if he’s lost. Because if Raymond is lost in Prospect Park, someone will at least believe that he is lost.
He should’ve taken a break on Friday night when he felt the first three toes of his right foot pulsating with sharp stabs. When he felt the sensation of a razor splitting down his big toe, he should have stopped and sat on a bench for a while, or at least investigated the source of his discomfort. And when he felt a thick and warm moisture swallowing his foot at a slow but steady pace, he should not have convinced himself it was just sweat.
But even after peeling off his bloodied white gym sock to reveal three blackened toenails, Raymond went out again on Saturday morning. At first he was enjoying the pain because he saw it as proof of commitment. Much like when he developed a tension headache or the tingling of a pinched nerve after doing too much paperwork. Physical pain was like a badge of honor he kept to himself. But while running through Prospect Park on Saturday morning, Raymond experienced a tearing sensation through his big toe. It reminded him of velcro and he swore he could even hear that shredding sound. He imagined his flesh having that same raised and rough texture. Defeated, and a little proud, he limped over to a bench. Upon pulling off his sock, bloody once again, he saw the exposed red skin of his bare toe, his blackened toenail pulled backward and upright at the base of the nail bed. The skin around his injury was the color of plums.
“Fuck,” he hissed at the wound.
He should have taken a day off. But Raymond could never run out of pride. He shoved his foot with its bare and throbbing toe back into his shoe and hobbled all the way back to his apartment. Once there, he sat on the floor of his bathroom next to the toilet with his elbow resting on the closed lid. His crimson sock and muddy tennis shoe lay next to him as he stared at the toenail that clung to his bruised skin like a lonely autumn leaf. As he inhaled, his breath was stifled by the horror of the sight. He bent his knee and leaned toward the injury. He sunk his teeth into his lower lip, a trick his sister had taught him, and ripped the toenail off in the grip of his two fingers.
Like many, Raymond had never seen what lay beneath any of his nails. The intensity of the pain felt like digging into his skin to rip off a band-aid that had been stuck to bare tissue. He wrapped the exposed toe in gauze as regret seeped into his veins. He shouldn’t have kept running Friday night. He shouldn’t have run that morning. And he knew now that he couldn’t run the next day.
Sunday was his sister’s birthday. She had been missing for seven years. Raymond never knew how to celebrate without her. He never knew if he even should celebrate without her. So instead he’d keep himself busy with work or running. He’d do his best to provide some kind of excuse to substitute the guilt.
Raymond was the last to see her and her final image was a relentless stain in his memory. Her hand was wrapped around the doorknob. Her pale face turned to him after he called out her name in a sharp whisper, “Camille!” She tucked a lock of her red hair behind her ear the way she did when she lied. He knew she wasn’t coming back. And he knew he could’ve stopped her.
Camille had a habit of running away that began when their mother died. Raymond was thirteen. She was sixteen. But she would always return. She would show up wounded, a bruise on her lip, a cut on her cheek, a tear in her pride. Then she’d stay awhile, sleeping for days at a time, drinking late into the night with her little brother, giggling at what a bad influence she was. As she grew older, she’d spend longer periods away. She would always say she was leaving because she wasn’t happy. But she could never be happy for too long.
The last time Camille came home, however, she was happy. Raymond had never seen her like that. For the first time in her life, it seemed, she was taking care of herself. She stopped drinking. She was sleeping at regular hours. She helped around the house. Camille was full of something so pure, it couldn’t be contained within her. Raymond felt it the way he used to feel the warmth of his mother’s presence as the smell of fresh cookies laced through their home. Camille was home and she was finally happy. That’s how Raymond knew she wouldn’t return.
Their father didn’t feel the same sense of urgency. “You know how she does. She’ll be back in however the fuck many months. Just give her some time.” But he wasn’t there. He didn’t see her leave. He didn’t see her eyes fall to the floor as she said, “I’ll come back. I promise.” And unlike Raymond, he would’ve believed her.
It took months to convince his father she was lost and they needed to look for her. And seven years later, everyone assumed her to be dead. But Raymond believed she was still out there, and that one day she would return home.
That night, Raymond’s tornado mind got the best of him. He laid on his side in bed and watched the glowing red numbers on his alarm clock. When 12:00 illuminated before him, signifying the new day, he yanked the clock’s cord from the wall and turned onto his back so he wouldn’t have to look at anything.
Today she is twenty-eight.
Raymond awoke to what sounded like ripping. His eyes searched the room only to see infinite darkness. He felt around for the lamp next to him. Once on, he was startled by the presence of a woman.
“What the fuck?”
She was sitting on the edge of his bed with her back towards him. She was brushing her hair. One pale and delicate hand gripped the brush while the other smoothed it’s downward trail. Her hair was long, red, and familiar. In spite of all the time he believed her to be alive, Raymond had a hard time believing the woman before him was his sister. But he wanted to believe. And he wanted to reach out and grip the sharp-boned shoulder that poked through her cascade of hair. If only to know she, whoever she was, really was there.
Instead he breathed with unknowing hesitance, “Camille?”
She twisted her body around to face him and pushed the thick strands from her face. She didn’t say anything to him, just smiled. And it really was her.
“Camille,” he said. “Where have you been?”
She looked down, still smiling, and continued to brush her hair.
“What are you doing here? Where have you been?”
“Did you believe I was dead?”
“No!” he cried. “I knew you’d come back. I always knew!”
Camille didn’t respond. The sound of the brush raking through her hair echoed through the room. It began to fall out in clumps. Raymond watched as a mess of red hair formed around her like a nest she made for herself.
“Camille, your hair…”
“Raymond,” she interrupted. Her hair kept coming out as bald spots began to grow on her scalp. “What’s the difference between knowing and believing?”
Camille put her hair brush down in the clutter of her hair, a chunk of it still caught in the bristles. She moved towards her brother and leaned forward. Up close, Raymond could see a fog like a thin sheet placed over her deep green eyes. Her lips were dry and cracked like a crumbling eggshell.
“What’s the difference between knowing and believing?” she asked as she reached her hand towards his gaping mouth, and placed two cold fingers just beneath his upper lip. Raymond was so distracted, he didn’t notice when she pulled out one of his teeth with ease until she was holding it before him.
He lifted a shaking hand to his mouth, expecting to feel blood dripping from the empty space in his gums. Camille was laughing.
Who is she?
Raymond was startled and gasping when he woke up that morning. He couldn’t remember falling asleep but noticed his lamp on and alarm clock unplugged.
He shot out of bed and was reminded of his discolored toes as soon as his feet hit the smooth hardwood floor. “Ah, shit,” he cursed, giving himself a moment to allow the beats of pain to subside. He called her name out and listened to the sound of it sink into the air around him. “Camille… Camille? Are you still here?” He cautiously moved through the apartment, keeping as little pressure on his right foot as he could. He was prepared to find her anywhere: on the couch with her scalp exposed between patches of remaining hair, or sitting next to the kitchen sink waiting for him. But she was nowhere in the apartment.
Raymond stopped in his kitchen and sat down. Now that the real absence of his sister was confirmed, he needed to figure out what to do with his day. How could he waste these next hours? He thought about running and how painful it would be on his foot. His mind hovered on how sickly appealing the possibility was. Then he thought about coffee beans and the sound of them being split apart in his grinder. And he thought about the bottle of whiskey residing in the cabinet above his fridge, and how delightful it’d be to spend the day lost in it. It was no Prospect Park, but it would have to do.
He prepared the coffee and pulled the bottle down from its cabinet. As the sharp, mechanical sounds of the grinder whirred through the apartment, Raymond gazed at the golden brown liquor in longing contemplation. He decided he should pace himself and at least wait until his coffee was ready so he could add a splash in his mug. He also told himself that he’s had a very difficult couple of days and he deserves this. Of course, he went with the latter, twisting the cap off and taking a swig. Just a little one, he lied to himself. And once the coffee was in his mug, he added more than a splash of the whiskey.
Raymond tilted the mug against his lips to let the warm liquid stream down his throat. As he pulled the ceramic rim from his mouth, it felt to him like something came loose. When he looked into the mug, he was stunned by a panicked chill. There in the steaming brown liquid, was a floating white tooth. The spilling contents of the mug leaked onto his shaking hand as he set it down on the counter. He reached into his mouth and ran a finger over the teeth beneath his thin upper lip. He paused once he found an empty space and shuffled over to his bathroom.
In the mirror, he lifted his lip to confirm the missing incisor. But he had expected to see blood flowing from the empty gum. Instead the tooth seemed to have slipped out like a feather from a pillow. Raymond kept his lip pulled back so he could poke the vacant gum out of curiosity. The tip of his finger provoked a raw ache at which he winced and pulled his hands away. He rubbed the spot on his upper lip where the tooth once was. He went back to the kitchen and peered down at his tooth on the surface of his coffee. He picked it out of the mug to examine it. The tooth was flat and smooth like the stones he used to skip with his sister. He didn’t know what to do with it. He wasn’t sure if it could be somehow reattached. He didn’t even know how or why it came out. Coffee was dripping from it so he placed it on top of a paper towel.
“Christ,” he muttered while rubbing his temples.
Raymond looked at his mug next to the tooth and was disturbed by the thought of drinking the beverage his tooth was just soaking in. He picked up the bottle of whiskey and took a large swig, not considering how the liquor would feel on his exposed gum. The alcohol burned into the root and the pain of it spread along Raymond’s gum line. He howled and dug his nails into the edge of the sink after swallowing. But he decided to keep going after staggering into his living room and collapsing onto the couch. He wanted to drink more so he wouldn’t feel the pain of absence. And so he wouldn’t have to think about how he was falling apart.
Unsure of what to do next, he turned on the television and began to flip through channels. He passed sitcoms, and game shows, and reruns, and morning news, not knowing what he wanted but knowing he wanted something.
“Hey, stop! I love this!” a voice commanded.
Raymond looked around to see who had spoken. There was no one in the living room and the apartment was now swollen with only the sound of a QVC saleswoman advertising shoes.
“So comfortable! So versatile!”
“Hello?” he called out.
“For the office! For the park!”
“Who said that?”
“Available at today’s special value!”
“Is someone in here?”
“But don’t just take my word for it…”
“C-Camile?” Raymond stuttered his sister’s name, unsure if he wished for her presence or not.
“They sure are versatile, Kathy. I like to think of them like chameleons. They sort of just blend. They adapt…” And there she was. Camille was wearing a white blouse and smiling ear to ear. Her hair was curled and no longer in patches. She was looking right at Raymond and her eyes were now the darkest brown, shocking against the whiteness of her skin. “Can you believe it?”
“I can’t, Camille!” chirped Kathy.
“I know you can’t.”
Raymond couldn’t breathe. He was clutching his chest, wishing he could claw through to his overactive heart. His head and neck were covered with hot pinpricks. It felt like millions of them were pushing into him. He turned off the TV and poured whiskey down his throat with the grip of a trembling hand.
“Hey, I was watching that!”
He looked over and there was Camille. She was sitting cross-legged on the opposite end of the couch with a gray blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a bowl positioned in her lap. She pulled the silver tines of a fork from her lips and made a dense crunching sound as she chewed.
“Camille, how long have you been here?”
She looked at him with her hand covering her mouth as she always did when she ate. With her other hand, she pointed to the bottle of whiskey then turned her hand over and curled her pointer finger toward herself.
He handed her the bottle. “You’re drinking again?”
“Sterilizing,” she said as she splashed whiskey into her bowl.
She handed the bottle back to him and began to vigorously cut into the contents of the bowl. The knife digging into it made a tearing sound like a long zipper. As she leaned into her effort, her hair spilled from her back, covering the bowl.
“Have you thought about it, Raymond?”
“Thought about what?” he asked.
Camille didn’t clarify and the zipping sounds persisted.
“Camille, where have you been?” he demanded.
She stopped sawing and pulled her hair from her face. She stabbed at something with her fork then lifted it to her mouth. On the end of the fork was what looked like a small piece of meat dripping with whiskey. It was two different colors, pink and black. Camille made unsettling sounds as she chewed. Her teeth chomped down on what sounded heavy, and solid. As she ate, blood dripped from her mouth like drool. She wiped it away with the back of her hand and went back to hacking.
Raymond watched her in fascination before asking, “Camille, what are you eating?”
She finished carving and tilted the bowl for her brother to see.
Inside the bowl was a sheet white foot, cut off and bloodied at the ankle. The first two toes were missing and the third was black at the toenail and purple in the skin around it. Raymond was so distracted by the whiskey soaked foot, he didn’t notice what was coming towards him. On her fork, Camille was slowly moving a dark red and purple big toe in the direction of his face. As it got closer, he could see it had no toenail, just raw reddened skin.
Raymond screamed and shoved the fork away. “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”
Camille laughed. “You still haven’t figured it out, have you?” she said before putting the toe in her mouth. The sound of her unrelenting teeth chomping down on flesh and bone seemed louder than before.
Raymond shrieked and stumbled to the closet in his bedroom where he kept what he tried to ignore in a shoebox. In that moment, he needed to look at them because he couldn’t ignore them any longer. The box contained Camille in photos and flyers and newspaper clippings, things he felt obligated to keep in case she came back. He fell to his knees in the closet, surrounded by suit jackets and dress shoes. But when he took off the lid of the box, he discovered all the papers were ruined.
He raked through them, hoping to find at least one shred of his sister. But every last photo and document were water damaged, words smeared and colors running into each other.
“No, no, no, no, please!”
He began to weep as he tried desperately to read through smudges. He continued to dig until at the bottom of the box he touched something strange. It was moist and soft yet firm. He picked up the box and dumped out its contents. On top of the many Camille pages laid a pair of eyeballs, white with red veins and green irises.
He put his hand to his mouth and retched. “Oh, God!”
“Raymond,” a breathy whisper called to him.
He looked up to see Camille with hollowed eye sockets. She reached her hand out and put it on his shoulder. He wrapped his hand around her boney wrist.
“Camille,” he sobbed. “Where are you? Where have you been?”
Camille’s pink lips were parted and streaks were falling down her cheeks, leaving behind trails of shimmering black dust. The streaks grew and began to consume her face and run down her neck. Raymond felt guilty, like he was upsetting her. Or like he was going to chase her away again.
“I’m sorry, Camille.”
She lifted a hand to her face to wipe the streaks away, only for the dust to infect her hand. And when she pushed her hair out of her face, it spread into her hair. Raymond watched as his sister disintegrated and held onto her wrist with the persistent belief of the last seven years.
“Raymond,” she said with dust spilling from her mouth. “What’s the difference between knowing and believing?”
“Please don’t…” he began as he noticed the dust spreading down her forearm and towards the wrist he clasped.
“Knowing is what you ignore. Believing is how you ignore it.”