n: a universal remedy; panacea
No one ever noticed Joe, except his girlfriend, who planned to break up with him.
Joe possessed no incredibly odd or strange characteristics to make him conspicuous. He befell the unfortunate fate of a forgettable face—the kind of face you can look at a million times, study, draw, paint, write about, and still forget the moment you divert your eyes. Friends learn to identify the unfortunate owners of such faces by other characteristics—body shape, hairstyle, clothing. Then they get a haircut, and all their friends walk right past them in the supermarket, unable to recognize their one, immutable quality—that ill-fated, forgettable face.
* * * * *
Joe sat on an airplane next to his girlfriend. The back of the chair in front of him slammed against Joe’s too-long-for-airplane-seats legs for the fifth time in a row. The child in front of him bounced up and down in her seat, pushing buttons and laughing loud enough for the entire airplane to hear. Joe rubbed his knee, felt the onset of a bruise, and rolled his eyes loud enough for the child’s father to realize not everyone thought his daughter’s cuteness made up for her rudeness. “Stop that, honey,” the father said.
On cue, the little angel started crying.
Joe’s girlfriend, Yves snored next to him. She could sleep through a bomb. Everyone else turned around, and Joe felt dignified in his annoyance as the little girl attempted to simultaneously wear out every last bit of her vocal chords and break all of the crack-proof windows on the airplane. The flight attendant’s heels dented the carpet as she thumped toward the howling, and just in time, the father swooped his baby girl in his arms and rubbed her back until she ceased her death cry.
Joe slid his sleep mask over his eyes, pulled his headphones over his ears, curled up his legs, and attempted to drift into unconsciousness as the plane took them to their new home in Miami, Florida. He stole a glance at Yves. Her dirty blonde hair, the color of sand, covered her eyes, and her frail figure slumped in the chair. His stature looked extra large next to her, like a Brobdingnang next to Gulliver. I can’t believe she’s moving to America with me, he thought. He loved her with every hair follicle on his shaggy, bearded head.
They had a long trip back from Cambodia—a 30-hour flight—to Florida. They flew from Siem Reap, but they had lived six hours away, in the Cardamom Mountains, or Chuor Phnom Krâvanh, when in Cambodia. They had lived there for a year before deciding to move to Florida.
* * * * *
“Let’s go to Cambodia,” Yves said.
They sat at their breakfast table in France, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. Joe looked up. “Why?”
“Have you ever been?”
“No,” he said. “Have you?”
“No, so let’s go!”
“Why not America?”
“I told you. I’m not ready to move to America. But Cambodia,” she pointed a finger in the air, “I could get behind that plan.”
She smiled. He smiled. “Okay,” he said, “Cambodia it is.”
“But we’ll have to find jobs,” she said.
“Yes, and a place to live.”
“Let’s find some mountains and farm or something.”
“I’ll start my research this afternoon.”
They both resumed their coffee sipping and paper reading.
* * * * *
Joe met Yves when he worked in France as an English teacher. She never quite learned much, but she knew how to flirt in any language. “How do you ask someone out for drinks?” she asked in their first class.
He blushed and told her. She repeated after him. “So now you say ‘Oui’” she instructed, and everyone in the class laughed.
Joe cleared his throat and resumed the lesson. At the end of the class, the students stood up to leave. Joe waited until the room emptied and made sure Yves left last. He touched her arm. She looked back. “Oui,” he said.
She smiled. “Eight o’clock. Tonight. Meet me outside this building. I’ll take you to a nice bar,” she said in French.
* * * * *
They took a bus from Siem Reap halfway to the mountains. When the bus dropped them off, black cloaked everything. All the stars shone above them, yet nothing seemed bright enough to light their way. They had made hotel reservations at a tiny bed and breakfast with mosquito nets around mattresses on the concrete floor. It couldn’t have been less romantic. Yves, however, didn’t care. She slowly removed Joe’s clothes and kissed him everywhere until they made love all night. They got about three hours of sleep before the sun came up and they hitchhiked their way to the mountains.
It only took two hours before a van packed to the brim pulled over and squeezed them in. To the mountains they went.
* * * * *
“Fuck it, I’m done brushing my hair,” Yves said to Joe one night in their flat in France after they had decided to move to Cambodia.
“Oh yeah? And how will you manage that?”
Yves loved her hair almost as much as Joe did. “It’ll turn into natural dread locks. It’s the way it was meant to be.”
“Okay,” Joe laughed.
“I’m not going to shave anything either.”
“You barely shave anyway,” Joe said.
“Exactly,” said Yves. “I’m done shaving everything…my legs, my armpits, my—”
“Yes. Got a problem with it?”
“No, but what if I do the same?”
“Oh, you’re going to stop shaving your vagina too?”
They both laughed, and Yves jumped into bed next to Joe. “No, everything. My beard…my hair…everything…how about that?”
“I think it’s brilliant!”
“Yeah! We’ll be all hairy and natural. It’ll be beautiful. We’ll be in the mountains, which are overgrown, and we’ll be overgrown. We’ll finally fit in.”
“I guess it wouldn’t be so bad,” Joe mused.
“Nope. It’ll be perfect,” Yves smiled.
Yves’s smile lit up the room with diamonds and stars and rays of sun.
It sounds cliché, but smiles can do such a thing when you’re in love, and Yves’s smile swallowed Joe’s face with charm.
* * * * *
Joe built a house in the mountains of Cambodia. It wasn’t exactly a house, per se, but they lived in it. It was a canopy, with dirt for the carpeting and trees for the roofing. He made sure vines and greenery covered them on all sides. During the day, Joe hunted for food while Yves washed their clothes in the river. Some might say they lived a traditional, American life in Cambodia, but nothing seemed traditional from the inside. Especially the hairy sex they had. Hair got in mouths and many orifices that hair didn’t belong, but they loved it.
Until one day, Yves got bored. “I’m sick of washing your clothes, Joe,” she said.
He returned home from a day of hunting with nothing to show for it. Her smile had gone missing. “You didn’t even bring home dinner! And listen to me. Somehow, in the middle of Cambodia, covered in fur, I sound like a 1950s American housewife. This is disgusting.”
The world got a bit darker. The stars didn’t shine. Joe couldn’t see in the dark anymore. Love changes with place and time and people, and Yves stopped smiling as much in Cambodia. She hated how much Joe loved the life they created. He loved going into the woods at sunrise with his bow and arrow, and hunting the mountains for wildlife to eat. He loved making a fire out of wood and stone, skinning a wild animal freshly caught, and roasting it on the fire. He loved being rugged and shaggy and manly and having hairy sex like monkeys. She saw 1950s nuclear family; he saw Bonobos living alone off the meat of the earth.
His hair grew longer than his chest, and his beard grew to his shoulders. He stroked it as Yves smiled less and less and yelled more and more about her unhappiness. He wondered where he would find a flashlight to replace the light that had gone out of Yves’s smile.
* * * * *
“Obnoxious? What’s obnoxious?” Yves stared at Joe when she woke up on the airplane.
Joe tried to tell Yves about the baby’s behavior while she slept, but they kept hitting a language barrier. Yves furrowed her eyebrows in the way she always did when he used a word she did not understand.
“Really, really, really annoying.”
“Ah, je comprends—ob-nok-shus.”
“Oui,” he said.
Her French accent and sporadic use of her native tongue bothered him far more than he knew it should, so instead of voicing his frustration, he mocked her with her own language.
“They probably didn’t see that you were trying to sleep,” she said. “Let’s play the couples game; I’m bored.”
“Okay, five points for me for that married couple holding hands,” Joe said.
Yves looked at him as if he had answered unfairly. Joe smiled. “I’ve had a lot of time to watch people so good luck.”
“Oh! See that couple waiting for the bathroom? A whopping fifteen points for me. His hand’s totally in her back pocket.”
“Gross,” said Joe.
Yves nodded. “Okay, five to fifteen your lead, but behind you there are two men holding hands. That’s ten points for me. We’re tied.”
Yves looked behind her and sighed. “This isn’t a fair one. I’m not playing anymore,” she said.
Joe laughed. They played this game everywhere they went, and lately, Yves quit before they got very far because “it wasn’t fair.” She always used to smile after they finished playing, but now she quit and frowned.
* * * * *
One night, after about a month of living in their new apartment in Miami, Florida, Joe couldn’t sleep. He got up and walked to the bathroom. He stood in front of the mirror. He stared at his brown, spiky hair—overgrown, though it gave his face the shaggy look of experience and knowledge. He used to shave his head so close to the skull his scalp sunburned, until that year in Cambodia, where he and Yves swore off all razors, haircuts, hair brushes, blow dryers, and the like.
His hair grew faster than he thought humanly possible, and when Joe and Yves returned to the States, she told him that he looked better with long hair. When they moved into a tiny apartment in Miami, they purchased a parrot named Smithie who started off saying “I love you, Yves,” and “I love you, Joe,” but eventually began to say “Well, what did you expect me to do?” and “Why are you always so miserable?” and “You drive me crazy sometimes!”
Joe left his hair long, not because Yves liked it that way, but because he believed his hair held everything from Cambodia—the beginning: the happiness, the heaven; the middle: the questions, the emotional strife; the end: the knowing, the denial.
* * * * *
In front of the mirror, Joe watched himself. He stared endlessly into his deep blue eyes—set a little too close to one another, in his opinion. Yves used to stare into them and describe all of the sea life that inhabited his unsuspecting irises. Her smile shone brighter than the heavens then. Now, however, her dull teeth lacked enough sparkle to light a candle, let alone parallel the sun. “I can see a stingray sitting at the bottom of your eye ball,” she’d say.
In France, she’d sit on his lap and stare into his eyes in the evenings. She’d always look in from above, but never dive in. “I’ll go check it out,” he’d say. “What else do you see?
“Golden specs like rainbow fish floating throughout your entire eye.”
He’d swim among the fish and brush against the stingray. He never wanted her to stop. He lost himself in the underwater microcosms she created, even though most of the time she refused to get her hair wet with him. It felt safer down there, even if he swam alone.
* * * * *
Joe’s nose proved harder to describe. At some angles it looked round and round and round like a button or an inner tube or the curves of Yves’s waist. But at other angles, it appeared more pointed than a sword or a knife or a sharpened pencil. Square in the front with curves here and sharp edges there, his anomaly of a nose provided endless ammo for high school humiliation.
As a teenager, he dreaded walking down the halls of high school and preferred to sit on the bench by the sidewalk with his bagged lunch in one hand and a Walkman playing The Smiths in the other. He escaped what he lovingly referred to as “the torture chambers of high school social life” that way.
* * * * *
Maybe the unassuming, barely-there size of his lips created some confusion in the synapses of the brain that record faces for later recollection. The top one formed a pale slit across his face. The bottom one sunk emotionlessly into his skull, leaving just a hint of pink below his teeth when he smiled. In contrast to his lifeless lips, his teeth shone perfectly straight and white, which caused him to over-smile in compensation for his lips. Joe’s chin jutted out from his face as if it hadn’t gotten enough love as a child, and he swore his ears had been shrinking since birth.
* * * * *
Joe had not slept much the night before Yves dumped him. After looking at his face for far too long in the mirror, he crept out of bed and wandered onto the beach to watch the sun rise and the seagulls hunt. He thought about the day he met Yves—how he stood in front of the class and lost all use of language; how he could not understand her when she pronounced her name but just nodded and smiled anyway; how her French accent and innocent smile turned his mind to clouds, and he could not seem to remember anything about himself or his country or anything she asked him.
Their first few dates proved awkward. She would ask about his life, about English, about America, about Florida, and he would stare at her as if he did not even realize he lived in America. He felt stupid, but she kept smiling at him. He knew after their first date that as long as she kept smiling, everything would be okay.
* * * * *
He closed his eyes and stared at her face behind his eyelids. The wind picked up the sand and carried it around the beach. It stung his face. He’d known it would end. He’d always known it would end. He’d known it would end when it began, but he’d hoped things would change. When they met, she had only planned to stay in France for a year. Then, they went to Cambodia, and she said she intended to return to France when their trip ended. Then, she moved to Florida and they rented a one-bedroom apartment, but even at that point, he knew one day she would have to return to France because she never belonged in America. She did not fit. She was too anachronistic, too avant-garde, too something-he-could-never-quite-put-his-finger-on, to live in this country. They both knew she did not belong, but they hoped their love would cover up the problem like a fire blanket, suffocating it long enough to make it disappear.
Instead, her smile kept fading. Every day, her smile looked a little bit smaller and shone a little bit less. Her eyes stopped crinkling up in the corners, and eventually her cheeks barely moved when she did smile. Her smile served as an hourglass for their relationship, and only a few grains of sand remained in the top. He dreamed of flipping the hourglass, of flying to France with her and starting a new life there. But they both knew it would never work. If she did not belong in America, he definitely did not belong in France.
* * * * *
He opened his eyes and watched two seagulls fight over a tiny fish. He had two choices—he could get up and walk back across the beach to their apartment where tomorrow he knew he would find Yves packing her things and preparing to say goodbye. She would be crying and mumbling in French, and she would try to smile when he walked in the door. He would stand there and stare at her silently until she finished packing. She would stand up with her two small duffle bags, kiss him on the cheek and stain his face with her salty tears, and walk out of the room, leaving him standing alone with Smithie’s taunting chatter echoing in their one-bedroom apartment. “You were never good enough,” Smithie would repeat. “You’re not enough,” and “You never even smile anymore,” and “It’s like you’re talking to me from a million miles away.”
* * * *
Or he could stand up and walk straight into the horizon. He could never stop walking. He could let the salt take over his body until his flesh became water. He would not die. He would grow gills and swim around the ocean. His face would always be stained with salt water, and he would never be able to distinguish the ocean from Yves’s tears. He would roam the bottom of the ocean disturbing the stingrays with his incessant wailing.
He closed his eyes.
He focused on the sand beneath his feet until he could not feel it anymore. Then the waves thrashed his body left and right until he could not tell up from down. As his body toppled over itself and he began to breathe underwater, he saw Yves’s figure running towards him, splashing in the water. He saw her mouth open wide in what looked like a frozen scream. He saw her eyes bulge as she realized it was too late, and he watched her beat up the ocean, abusing it for his decision.
He wanted to tell her the ocean had nothing to do with it. He wanted to tell her he could not live without her smile, and this was the only way everything would be okay. Instead, he watched her cry, and he opened his mouth and swallowed every tear she dropped into the ocean. He watched her stumble away as he finally found his own way to the bottom of the sea.
Emily Calvin is a 24-year-old cat lady, a wannabe mother, and an aspiring rapper, working on her masters in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She currently broods and writes in a hermit crab’s hole in Portland, Oregon with one foot on the East Coast and another in California. Her writing’s been called experimental, fantastical, fabulistic, disjointed, inaccessible, exceptional, and “interesting….” Her work has been or is scheduled to be published in Salt, Exclusive Uvula, Circus of the Damned, WordPlaySound, Medulla Times, Rods and Cones, Pale House, and The Fast-Forward Festival. She is just grateful she has fingers to write, a brain to think, and people to read her work.
Louie Crew is an emeritus professor at Rutgers. Editors have published 2,191 of his manuscripts, including four poetry volumes. Follow his work at: http://rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/pubs.html
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louie_Crew.
The University of Michigan collects Crew’s papers.