The pavement sank, and then it swelled back up again to become level. She had her journal with her as well as her novel, which was still 'The Bell Jar.' She was walking to the restaurant.
   When she arrived there, they all sat down on low benches, but, at times, she couldn't recognize the women who were in front of her. There were red and emerald hangings layered over the comfortable purple wall. The shade of the wall was exactly rebecca purple.
   A glass of honey wine awaited her, enthroned, on the shining table. It had a sweet, gloomy, and golden taste that was not new to her, but she couldn't think where she might possibly have tasted honey-wine before. She drank and drank, and as she did the foggy green glass was mysteriously refilled.
   The women exchanged secrets. She - Zara - did not have any to share. None that the others didn't already know. None that were not written on the skin of her face and shoulders for nearly all of them to see.
   Isaiah had been right about her, but unfortunately he knew how to say everything in ways that didn't hurt. He had told her that she was still a child at heart - that she could only ever say - that she could never tell. So that if she ever found herself out of her element, she was almost invariably lost for words. But why was she now thinking of him? Zara reminded herself not to remember Isaiah.
   On her immediate right sat her best friend, who also worked at PureLux. A brassy light blinked above both of their heads from a large, pear-shaped bulb that was exposed. Its curly, hot filament appeared to slither. Her name was Vivian. Vivian was the kind of person who had known from the beginning.
   But what had she known? Zara gazed up at Vivian's laughing profile. The long black lines above her eyes, which she had drawn. The blue-gray weather above that, and far below the blue-white teeth of a movie star. What did she grasp that Zara couldn't?

   Later they had food that was unlike any that Zara had ever tasted. A flat, sour bread with sauces in every color, more than ten. She liked the lichen-green one best. There were also smoked meats, wondrously fragrant, served picturesquely on wooden boards, but Zara was a vegetarian and didn't taste any of those.
   There was no sweetness in anything except for the wine, which Zara found to be a new and delicious contrast. She drank more and more, with the sense that Vivian was taking pity on her as usual, while the chatter crashed against itself like whitecaps around the table.
   When they went out again they discovered that it had rained. Platinum light beamed at angles from the pavements. The plan was to go dancing. Zara had long accepted all of this as having fun without prejudice. In the back of her mind, she knew that her shadow self was living true in another country, or perhaps all over the world.
   What the honey-wine was now doing was having a soporific effect. Its sweetness had not gone away. Zara reflected to herself that the only thing she seemed to know how to do was to forgive. She had this thought in the midst of a playful argument that her friends were having about the efficacy of hunger strikes and the future of organized religion. World peace was on the mind, and social consciences were inflamed, because yet another dissident - a twenty-three year-old vlogger this time - had been murdered in the world's most populous country. One of her own countrymen had injected her with something that was designed for her while she was walking in a park. She had died with her feet under a holly bush and her head among blue larkspur. It was dusk, and she was not alone. Her killer hung around to watch her die, and then, when he was sure of it, he had gone away. A month prior, one of her fellow rebels, a sixty-year-old organizer with a small but resilient anti-corruption, anti-nationalist group, had been thrown out of the window of a twenty-sixth floor apartment two towns away from where he was known to reside.
   Everything was going to hell. What shocked and unnerved Zara was the way in which it was taking place both inside and out. She clearly recollected being in secondary school, feeling still the strength of her life, and deciding that she would be sorry - that she would take in all of the world's pain, assimilate it, eat and digest all of the atrocities, and that there on the other side of her sorrow would be logic, which was real. But she had been in the tunnel now for years, and she almost saw that guilt had caused her to seek refuge where she knew that she mustn't…
   The pin oaks that decorated this particular street were rupturing the pavement. Zara stumbled on one of the dark roots and fell, and then she couldn't see her friends.

   Here, it was gloomier than she had known a real place to be since early childhood, when absolute black was still a recent memory and good consolation. She wondered at the goop that coated the wall, which she could tell was curved and perhaps made of bricks. It managed to hum its blue-green phosphorescence deep into her skull.
   A voice now came from the puddle in which she was standing, and Zara realized that she was not alone in the well. Beside her stood a one-legged, feathered creature with a black-tipped beak. She had heard it's pinkness - the exact shade - and now it spoke confidingly to her in a language that she was not sure she knew.

   Zara had sprained her ankle. Secretly, she was outraged that they didn't let her sleep at the hospital. Though she had begged them not to, her friends had followed the ambulance and then stood in a long-faced, sequined semi circle in the waiting room, like a troupe of after-eight carollers who had grown weary of all of the glitz and glamor. Only Vivian had ridden with her in the taxi home.
   But, during that taxi ride, Zara, too tired to stop herself, had fantasized about Vivian's homeland: the isle of Barbuda. Softest heat, crystalline blues, and living water were part of Vivian's marrow, and so it was no wonder that people tended to relish her. To be relished seemed to Zara to mean unimaginable success as well as unimaginable power. She thought to herself of how she would use that power only for good, and then she thought of Isaiah.
   Zara, ordinarily, lived with her cousin in an apartment on top of a tiny pharmacy. But she hadn't seen her cousin in months. She hadn't wanted to come back to the United States following their grandmother's death and funeral. Zara didn't know what this would mean for their rent, to which her aunt contributed generously.
   Vivian dropped her off there, paying in cash for the taxi. Vivian was a person who always carried cash. And then she helped Zara up to her place - the stairs were challenging with her loaned crutches - and even stayed to put her to bed, which kindness filled Zara with an acrid shame. Just after midnight, Vivian left, and Zara lay staring up at the peeling yellow ceiling of her plain bedroom. Since she had no curtains, the night stood out of her window like a black poster. She avoided looking at it, but she nonetheless imagined that she could feel the silver and white stars puncturing her eyes.
   In spite of that, she slept very well, and when she woke, she found that she had come to a conclusion.

   The girls kindly obtained Zara a tall stool at work, so that she could balance with her hands free and still stand up to do her clients. Vivian, who had looked crestfallen when she came in, was in charge of the playlist on that day, and R&B sages were delivering a silken wisdom that Zara suddenly detested.
   Her first client was a very fair skinned and withdrawn teenager who had never come to the shop before. She wanted ash-blonde knotless braids with long, loose ends for her high school graduation. Her mother, who was with her, commented continuously on the progress while her daughter sunk down in the chair and glowered at herself in the mirror.
   The ceiling fan whirred reliably. Zara whispered to her client to sit up. AC's required too much costly maintenance. The beaded curtain over the doorway clattered and shimmered in rose gold. The air had been smoothed and polished with the sweet, metallic fragrances of gel and hairspray. Isaiah never came in before noon on Fridays, Zara recollected. He had arranged his work week in that way to accommodate his church programs. He was very involved in his ministry and liked to help out with its various initiatives. While at PureLux, he sometimes listened to live-streamed Bible study. Zara was very glad that he was a Christian. It meant that things would be alright. The thing was that all of the knives at home were dull, so dull that it was dangerous to cook with them. But she had a pair of cosmetic scissors that were new.
   And it had been an exquisite morning. Aquamarine daylight had caressed her into consciousness - like being submerged in something. Her dreams had furnished her with knowledge, certainty, as they always did.
   When Isaiah came in to PureLux at noon, her client was closely and coldly examining the finished grid at her roots in the mirror. Zara, whose fingers felt stiff, beamed at him and then picked up her crutches. They went out together into the light, and then crossed the comic book shadows of the alleyway directly beside the salon. Isaiah began to emote, thinking that that was what she wanted. Zara released one of her crutches, allowing it to rest against her flank. She reached into one of the roomy pockets of her stylish cargo trousers. The scissors punctured him. It was the easiest thing in the world.

   Next she did the others. Sunday in a placid, coppery lake just out of town. He, at least, had been in love with her body. Remi in his car, though that one was hard to remember because the fire had touched her as well. Sani and Tiwa with the weight of her love in tons.
   Then there was inner peace and a media storm. By then, and for the first time in her life, Zara was ready for her close-up. She asked the question of her fans, her lovers, her employers, and, above all, the cameras. She said what she had intended, and she said it to the whole world - but it didn't quite have the effect that she wanted.
   "When you get down to it, what's so wrong with getting rid of the people who don't love you back?"

back