Esme hands me a finger of chalk. She says that if you’re going to die, you’d better be prepared to leave evidence that you were on the earth to begin with. To make people acknowledge your life. To make yourself unforgettable, unerasable. I look at the chalk, then at her again. I tell her I’m a terrible artist.
Esme presses her lips together into a thin line. Esme is the type of person who knows what type of person she is. Esme went to UCLA and got a minor in gender studies and uses words like subaltern and biopower and positionality. I don’t know any of these words. I don’t even know if I’m a morning person or not. I don’t know a thing about myself except that I really want to know what it would be like to touch Esme’s back, clean and smooth.
She looks at me with an accusation in her face, and I wonder if I’ve said that out loud. Then she points to my shoes.
“Can you run in those?”
I tell her I can. She scrunches her nose and marks something off on the clipboard she’s carrying.
“You’re wearing long pants. Smart. Do you have goggles?”
“Get someone to lend you a pair. A bandana, too, you might need that. Is your phone charged?”
I smile in apology.
“Well, if you can’t record anything, I guess you can write it down somewhere.”
She checks her watch. “Okay. We’re almost set up. We think the cops’ll get here in a few, but the ACLU has some legal observers waiting out front, so don’t panic.”
“Cops? You asked them about doing this, right?”
“We informed them,” she says tersely. “Let’s find a place for you to be.”
I haven’t talked to Esme since the tenth grade, a time when we embarked on a friendship so brief and intense that my face gets hot whenever I think about it. Then she graduated early, and I didn’t hear from her until a couple of weeks ago when she found me on Facebook. I can’t tell if she still wants to know me or not, but I’m having a hell of a time trying to puzzle it out.
I follow her brisk stride along the sidewalk past the creek. Dead yellow trees wave at me as we turn the corner to the city hall and I, transfixed by the back of Esme’s head, almost brain some unsuspecting guy with the sole of my sneaker.
He jerks out of my way and I mutter a mea culpa. The entrance to City Hall is crowded with people like this guy. Young and old, dressed in black and draped over the steps and the sidewalk, even over the sides of the fountain in the middle of the pavilion. The stream of supine demonstrators leads all the way out into the street. I’m reminded of those pictures of beached whales.
Everyone’s bodies are outlined in white chalk. They’re still talking in their immobilized state, turning their heads slightly to babble about what they ate for breakfast or whatever to their fellow corpses. Something about this freaks me out. I don’t know if it’s the fact that they’re all play-acting as cadavers, or the fact that we’re all collectively pretending that this is something normal, reasonable, to do. What the actual fuck.
Three or four women draped in bright blue jerseys, the kind we used to wear in phys ed, chat as amiably with each other as if they were on a brunch date. Esme waves at them as she leads me to the steps, bookended by piss-stained statues of soporific lions, and points out that some people are wearing blinding white polos. These are the voluntary paramedics, she says. Best to memorize their faces now.
“Wait. Wait,” I say.
Esme whips her head around. I struggle to figure out what I’m asking, then produce some kind of mangled question from my mouth.
“So we…we just lie here?”
Again with the knitted eyebrows, with the two lips becoming one. She says, in clipped syllables:
“Sam. We are not just lying here. This is a die-in. This is a confrontation with the city to force them to recognize how many of us they are allowing to be killed, every day. If things continue the way they have been, we are as good as dead.”
“But we’re still just…lying down, right?”
“There’s no more space for you here,” she says. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
We tiptoe over everyone until we reach the edge of the sidewalk. She indicates an empty spot in the middle of the street. I shake my head.
“Dude, this is in the middle of the fucking road. I’m gonna get run over.”
“You’re not--the purpose is to obstruct incoming traffic. Here, give me your chalk and I’ll trace you.”
After a few silent seconds, she sighs.
“Sam, come on. Trust me a little.”
I lower myself to the ground. Esme politely presses a hand to my knees to flatten them, rendering me spread-eagle. She takes my stick of chalk and leans in to draw my outline. Her hair dangles in my face and brushes my nose. I pray to whatever god is up there to suppress any urge I have to sneeze.
“You smell good,” I say.
“Sandalwood. Move your arm.” Then, “You’re done. I’ll be back later.”
She leaves me there, all alone on a black shore with whoever else was brought in with the tide.
I forgot sunglasses. The sun, the petty, vile winter sun, assaults my eyes. I feel like an egg. Just lying there and frying on the ground. The heat blurs my vision and nauseates. I forgot water. My throat is dry and my stomach is churning. I see a car approach out of the corner of my eye and the voice in my head caterwauls, poliiiice???? and the churning intensifies. I should be working. I should be at my job. I should get a job. I should get a boyfriend. I should get a boyfriend and make myself love him and then maybe I wouldn’t be doing stupid pointless shit like this, to try to…what? Why am I here? I think about Esme’s long, slender neck.
The woman next to me nudges my arm. I roll my head over to face her, careful not to move any other appendage, or I’ll smear my chalk prison.
“You afraid?” Her eyes crinkle at the corners. “I’m sorry to tell you, the fear never goes away. It gets easier to deal with, but it never gets less scary.”
“Well, for one thing, the cops keep upgrading. First, it was just batons. Now, it’s tear-gas grenades and full-on fucking missiles.” A note of concern enters her voice. “You don’t have a bandana.”
Tear-gas? I change the subject.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“Why are you?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to figure that out.” I prop myself up on my elbows and squint at the end of the street, where a flock of police officers are perched on top of their Camaros and Camrys. They look more prepared for a zombie apocalypse than for…whatever this is. Maybe they don’t get what this is about, either, and they think that a die-in means someone’s actually getting murdered today.
“What’s your name?”
“Sam,” I say.
“Look, Isa, do you really think this is gonna change anything?” I gesture toward the other protestors.
“Did you know her?” she asks.
It’s the truth, so why do I feel guilty as soon as I say it? I really didn’t know Maya. She was a year below me in high school. I didn’t know about her love of music, the same music that’s gently pumping out of a broken speaker from somewhere right now. I didn’t know that she left a mother behind, a mother like my own, one who has arms like tree trunks and who threatens you with the same rolling pin she uses to fill you to the brim with food. Esme’s Twitter page had to tell me that, and maybe it would have told me more, but I deleted the app before it could. Knife attack on the subway steps. “Racially motivated.” She lived a block south of me. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me. I didn’t know her.
“Bullshit. Yes, you did know her. We all knew her. Because she is me. And she is you. And we could be her one day, too.” Isa purses her lips.
“I know people like you,” she says. “You think you’re the only normal one here. You think the rest of us are killjoys, but we’re the normal ones. We’re the ones with feeling still left in our bones. You’re dead to it all, aren’t you? But it’s the world that’s made you numb, not us.”
I didn’t cry when I found out what happened to Maya. Or when my neighbor’s face popped up in the obit section of the paper that I use to pick up my dog’s shit, or when one of my classmates rang me up to tell me that our old Spanish teacher got capped while mowing his own lawn. Or when I read about what happened in Wisconsin and Charleston and Pittsburgh. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. What would be the use when the same thing will happen tomorrow, maybe to me? Does everyone else think about it? Do normal people think about it? Are they like Isa and Esme? Or are they like me, pushing it down and just trying to live their fucking life even though they know that someday this sickness will come for them, too?
I didn’t cry when I found out what happened to Maya. A buzzing white noise in my head, like radio static, and then nothing. Is that what being dead is like?
“You’re full of shit,” I say, looking at no one in particular. It’s hard to breathe and I don’t know why. Isa laughs and leans forward.
“Glass houses, Sam. You’re afraid of what you’ll feel if you allow yourself to grieve. You’re afraid of what you’ll do. You’re afraid of what will happen if you become like us. You’re afraid--”
“Maybe I am,” I blurt. Sweat blooms on my scalp. “Maybe I am afraid.”
If I open my heart the way she wants me to, who’s to say that it won’t kill me just the same?
“But does any of this stop it?” I sweep my hand over the graveyard we’ve found ourselves in, over the gargoyle-faced police officers. I know my voice has risen but I don’t know how to make it go down again. “It won’t change anyone’s minds. It won’t stop what’s happening to us. It sure won’t stop the boys in blue from doing what they’re gonna do to us today.”
“You’re an asshole,” she says. “And you’re grumpy. Hold my hand.”
She clasps my fingers in hers and we press our spines into the ground. Her palms are lined and rough. My eyes water from the sun. Someone’s voice--Esme’s voice--blares through a loudspeaker. It’s time, she’s saying. It’s time to die.
And a match lights or a switch flicks and now the only sound is the rustling of trees. Everyone is down, everyone is grasping onto each other’s hands and arms and legs, black-shrouded soul cases staring up at the sky the same way I am. A shiver runs down my back. I can’t even hear anyone breathe.
One of the police officers pulls out his own loudspeaker. His words wash over me but don’t sink in. Something about traffic. Something about consequences.
Esme materializes in front of me. I shift my body as she drops down and stretches out next to me. Not butterflies, more like hornets, flit around in my gut. She brings out another stick of chalk and I watch her painstakingly trace her ghost onto the road. The police start to move like jungle cats down the street, lithe and dangerous.
“What are you trying to show them?” I ask. Isa flicks me on the arm.
“Esme, this girl is hopeless,” she whispers. Esme shoots her a death glare and turns to me.
“It’s not for them, Sam. I know I said it’s to show the city what we’re made of, but it’s not really about that, either.” Her face is so close to mine. “This is not about showing anyone that we’re stronger than them. This is about us showing each other that we are together, like always. That we can heal together, one more time. This is an act of remembrance. Again and again and again.”
“That’s the corniest shit I’ve ever heard,” I almost say. But I don’t. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s harder to tell her this when there’s only a centimeter of separation between us. Maybe it’s because the eerie quiet makes me feel that saying that, that saying anything, would rupture something sacred.
A cop stops in front of us. Her belt bears the unholy trinity of a handgun, a big-ass billy club, and a canister of something ominous. I have major déjà vu, even though I’ve never been here before. Like I’m reliving someone else’s memory. My breath emerges in shuttered gasps.
She sighs. “Get up.”
“I’m good right here, actually,” Isa says with a grin.
The cop pinches the bridge of her nose. “If you could,” she says to Esme, “please get up.”
Esme grips my hand so tight that her nails dig into my palms. I tilt my face upwards. The cop’s scowl and grim warnings are drowned out by the sun and by the deafening sound of my own heart beating, struggling to jump out of my throat. I could run. I could get up and go, I could get out of here before...Come on, I urge myself. Let’s go. I don’t want to follow Maya, which is what, I realize, it’s what I’m really afraid of. I don’t want to be another goddamn martyr.
But no one has gotten up, no one has run. And now I’m looking down past my feet, past Esme’s delicate ankles and I see a sea of people just like us, bodies intertwined. Solemn, pious faces, like fasting saints. And my legs don’t move. Something’s locking me down here. We are prostrate in the eye of the hurricane, waiting for the inevitable.
The cop sighs again, world-weary when she has no reason to be. You don’t have the right, I want to tell her. I’m tired, too. Maybe that’s why I’m really here, not in a bed or a pew. Not because I’m angry but because I’m so damn tired. Not because I’m not religious but because maybe this is another form of prayer.
The cop shrugs. “Your funeral.”
I close my eyes.
"Sunny Day" and "An Uneventful Eclipse" were originally published in the 2020 print issue of R2.