Editor’s Note: This is one of my favorite short stories I’ve ever written.
There was a bite to the air, as there often was late at night. The area was desolate, as if mourning the gloomy weather. The waves lapping against the shore were the only sound to be heard, other than an occasional rumble in the distance. There were faint streaks of cerise cutting through the swaths of blackness in the night sky, but they were nearly impossible to spot with the naked eye. The moon glimmered from behind a small cluster of clouds, affording minimal light to anyone intrepid enough to venture out. The beach was deserted, properly so, as it would be unwise for anyone to stumble upon the sands in the dead of night.
There was one brave soul, looking impossibly small as she stood on the cliff high above the ocean. Even though the night was chilly, she was wearing only a thin carnelian dress that could more rightfully be labeled a slip. She didn’t seem to be affected by the cold as she twirled in the dark, her hands extended exultantly to the sky. Her burgundy-painted lips stretched into a generous smile as she soaked up the frigid atmosphere. There was condensation in the air—signaling an imminent rainfall. She squared her shoulder and straightened her spine as she took her first step forward.
San Francisco. She looked around her tiny crackerjack box studio in Bernal Heights. She thought her studio in Minneapolis had been small; it was palatial compared to this prison cell. She could stretch out her arms and touch the wall on either side of her. Slight exaggeration, but not much of one—and the place cost her twice what her studio in Minneapolis had. The walls were an ugly salmon pink, and the paint was crumbling in the corners. She hated pink. She hated crumbling paint. She hated corners. She hated hills. She flopped down on the futon and stared at the stucco ceiling instead so she wouldn’t have to deal with the glaring defects of her new home.
The next few weeks passed in a haze. No job, no school, no friends, no life, no prospects. Each day bled into the next. She’d wake up and lie on her futon, staring at the ceiling for hours. Many minutes would pass before she’d remember to blink. By then, her eyes would be dried out, and shutting them would literally hurt. The stucco swirled before her eyes as she stared and stared. Like a Dali painting, shapes began to emerge when she softened her gaze but didn’t actually close her eyes. Voluptuous nude female figures recumbent, standing erect, doubled over, flirting, making love with each other. When she’d found the last hidden figure for the day, only then would she drag herself out of bed and throw herself into the shower in order to eat up some of the interminable time that suffocated her days. Sure, she could have done something useful like paint the walls a different color – a bright coral would have been nice – but that would have taken energy she just couldn’t spare.
After the shower, she’d fly out the door like she had something to do, somewhere pressing to be. I am important, her attitude shouted to an uncaring world. I have no time to dawdle. No matter if she was only going to the coffee shop down the street for the third time that day or to the grocery store on the corner. Heaven forbid she looked like she had time on her hands, that she wasn’t one of the people on the move. She never walked when she could jog, and once in awhile, she would break out in a quick sprint to demonstrate just how strapped for time she was.
She became obsessed with the color red. The woman with a crimson scarf wrapped stylishly around her neck. The flaming hair of the Irish boy licking a melting strawberry ice cream cone as he stood underneath the weak afternoon sun. The winking ruby, set garishly, on the thin finger of an emaciated model-type. The maroon fire truck blaring its siren as it rushed down the street, presumably towards a cherry blaze. The magenta ribbons of the sunset, and the scarlet slashes of the sunrise. She even followed one guy for three blocks because of his carmine sweater—only to stop suddenly when she ran into his back. She stuttered an apology before running away. Her face still burned in shame when she thought of it, and yet, she marked her time in red. Sometimes, she took the Richmond to Daly City/Colma train back and forth and back again just because of that little square of red on the side of the train.
After a full day of chasing red, she returned to her bare apartment. Nothing unpacked, nothing to unpack. She hadn’t shipped anything from home, wanting the proverbial “fresh start”. She hadn’t even brought any clothes with her; she just picked up desultory pieces from local consignment shops. Late in the evening, she would eat her one daily meal consisting of rice and scrambled eggs with a can of generic cola to wash it down, then she’d stare at the ceiling for a couple more hours until she drifted off to sleep. Her mind would be blank except for the snapshots of all the different reds she had seen that day; she needed the reds to help her fall asleep.
Deep, laborious sleep. Heavy, dreamless, weighty. Slowly, wisps and fragments of smoky dreams filtered into her numbed brain. Fast-forwarded film playing over and over again. The laughing lips bathed in vermilion, hovered over her face, daring her to kiss them, to claim them as her own. Luscious lips, swollen with promise. Taste me, they said, all your dreams will be fulfilled. Treacherous lips, how dare they make such promises?
Things were supposed to be magically different because of San Francisco, the enchanted land. The people more diverse, the arts more intense, the souls more tortured. A way to step out of her skin and become the other, the one she envied so. To be someone who counted, someone who was going somewhere, someone moving up in the world. Tired, so tired. Hours of staring at the ceiling sapped her. Eyelids struggling to stay open. Languor creeping into her soul. Each step, a monumental effort of lifting and placing the foot just so. Each smile sparingly given to unsuspecting strangers on the street, but only to the ones with a touch of red; she wouldn’t waste her time on any other color.
How many sob stories and broken hearts exist in the city of glitter and the Golden Gate Bridge? How many shattered dreams litter the sidewalks of downtown San Francisco like the homeless, thrown out like trash? How much bitterness can a city swallow before it slowly, completely sours? How many people can be chewed up, spit out and dropped into the middle of the Pacific Ocean? A million? A thousand? Too many? Not enough? She laughs, does the city of San Francisco. Not cruelly, not with vindictiveness, but without mercy. Not entirely without compassion, but with a fierce tenacity. No support for the malcontent, the disenfranchised, the overlooked, and the forgotten. She looks away from the many nobodies who crowd her overflowing parks. She may ache somewhere deep inside her heart, but wisely doesn’t let her pain show. Instead, she remains silent as the troubled continue to weep anonymously in the big city. They call out for someone, anyone to care.
Weeks dragged into months. She could have looked for a job, any job, even a temp job or a barista in a grubby coffee shop, but then she’d have to stop staring at her ceiling for hours a day. Then she couldn’t chase after reds any more—chase them until she literally dropped from exhaustion. One time, a man had given her a quarter as she lay in a crumpled heap on the side of the street because he had mistaken her for a homeless person. She had thanked him politely before struggling to her feet again to continue her pursuit. She had to chase the reds until they consumed her soul. Until she was able to block out every other thought that entered her mind. Until the terrible, peaceful calm stole over her, drugging her into believing that all was right in her world. The heaviness of all that red weighted down her shoulders until she screamed in pain. Stopped in the middle of yet another street, opened her mouth, and screamed. Nobody gave her a second glance, sealing her in her isolation. She shut her mouth and trudged home.
Flopping onto the futon, which night was this? Sixty-seven? Sixty-eight? How many nude women had she espied in that magical ceiling? I could die, she thought to herself. I could die and no one in this city would know. Or care. The thought circled her mind in repetition until she clamped her hands over her ears to block out the voice. Useless, really, when the voice came from within. No one would know. No one would care. No one would know. No one would care. Like a mantra, like a drum beat, it wouldn’t leave her alone. Her pillow over her head could not block out the insinuation. Her fist stuffed in her mouth did not satiate the nebulous hunger in her soul. It’s not enough; it’s never enough. Different thoughts, same thread. Mindless hammering at her fragile inner balance.
Each day, it became increasingly difficult to get up and leave her apartment. The urge to remain supine in bed and watch the picture show on her ceiling grew by quantum leaps. Even the lure of counting how many different shades of red she could chase that day paled. Even the fireball sun glowing high in the sky did little to mitigate the hollow in her chest, the one which expanded daily. Even the anticipation of her solitary meal in the evening couldn’t draw her into the new day. The hustle of the streets no longer appealed to her.
She stayed in bed for longer each day. From two hours to five to seven to ten. It reached the point where even when she did get out of bed, she ventured no further than her kitchen. Days went by, weeks, when she wouldn’t step foot outside of her apartment. Nobody came to check up on her, to drag her ass out of bed, because nobody knew she was there. She was just another anonymous person in the city who wouldn’t be missed if she were gone, anyway. She was allowed to pass her life dreaming up shadows on her stucco ceiling while outside her window, day turned into night turned into day and back into night again. No longer did it matter what time she got up or went to sleep as she had nowhere to go and no one to be.
One night, maybe her hundredth – she had lost count some time ago – she hauled herself out of bed after a mere hour of watching the ceiling. One look outside told her it was night. For the first time in two weeks, she stepped in the shower and washed her matted hair. Afterwards, she sat in front of the bathroom mirror and applied her lipstick with extra care. Blooming Burgundy, it was called. She threw on a dress a couple of shades lighter than her lipstick and was out the door, purse in hand. She left without regret.
She doesn’t do it on purpose. San Francisco, that is. It’s not like she wants to maim her children – no mother really wants that. However, like any other mother, her mothering is not without flaw. She is of the “You’re old enough to take care of yourself” school. No warm sympathy or kissing of bloodied wounds or mollycoddling from her. She knows if you want to survive, you have to develop the skills to do it yourself. Survival of the fittest, baby; that’s how it works in the real world.
She was radiant in her wild beauty. Black tresses tumbling down her back, laughter pouring out of her opaque eyes. Her serenity—loud, exuberant, joyful. The ocean, her spiritual home, sang its siren song. For too long, she’d been resisting the lure. For too long, she’d been fighting the good fight. For too long, she’d been trying desperately to forget from whence she came. She was like a modern-day Aphrodite as she had sprung up from the briny foams. For too long, she’d turn her back on her heritage. No more. Her soul danced in an almost manic glee as she moved purposefully along the cliff, creeping nearer and nearer to the epitome of annihilation. She seemed to grow in stature as she stopped for a minute, contemplating the abyss below her. She stood still for a long minute, letting the emerging moon swaddle her with its expansive beauty. She hugs the warmth close to her heart, and, still smiling her bright lipstick smile, she stepped off the edge into nothingness.
As her body hurtled towards the water, her soul flew to the moon. No longer bound by the parameters of the world, it soared. Unfettered and unchained, echoing Martin Luther King Jr., it was free at last, free at last, and finally at peace. Free from the dead weight of her own mind. Free from being chained to watching the ceiling. Free from the emptiness that had invaded her soul, rendering movement impossible. Free from the unrelenting desire that consumed her daily. Free from chasing reds.
The image of the red sky scene in your “Chasing Red” post is gorgeous, to say the least – thanks for putting that up 🙂 I wish I had the photographic skill for scenes like that ;D
Thanks for reading it, Marc! I’m glad you enjoyed it.