September 23, 2021

Branching Off in Shadow Heights

by Richard Squires

                      Hana just had to sample the shit before we got to the park, before we’d even gotten out of Newark. “We can bump it off my science book,” she said. “I’ll set it up and you roll the joint.”
                     “What’s the rush?” I asked. “Shit’s gonna bounce all over the place.”
                     “Fine, Sammy. We can snort it out of the bag. Roll me up a bill, would you?”
                     Hana—top of her class, first violin in the school orchestra, a grade ahead of me yet younger because she’d skipped third—was usually so sensible, so wonderfully sane. I just stared at her. “What?” she said.
                     “My hands are clammy and I’m gonna get car sick. You can wait.”
                     Her eyes narrowed with contempt. Hana was Korean, her parents off the boat, and she possessed a natural toughness. Her tongue pushed at her lower lip. She was a sharp little scalpel when she was pissed.
                     I was about to relent, to dig into my pocket for a bill, when Colter said, “Just wait.” Colter had diamond blue eyes and a quiet power. When he said something, we listened. And when he said nothing, we couldn’t help but hear that, too. We were in his Saab. Sharon rode shotgun. I was in back, crammed between Hana and garbage bags of clothing that Colter’s mom wanted to donate. There were more bags in the trunk.
                     Hana turned away from me and stared out the window. The state prison slid by. So did the cherry blossoms. Her lips moved as she spoke to herself. About who, I wondered. Colter cranked Nirvana Unplugged and it seemed more profound than ever. Kurt Cobain had died a week earlier.

*

                     As we pulled into Shadow Heights Park, a Little League game puttered along. I zipped my jacket and blew into my hands as we walked beside the baseball field. Colter and I had played there, with the Cardinals, years earlier. Now, we didn’t make the cut. Coaches and dads glared at my friends and me. Short-haired mothers perched on bleachers eagle-eyed us. Pretzel wrappers and leaves scraped across the walkway. I considered the game. It seemed aimless, empty. How could anyone possibly care about it? A few weeks before, one of the Little League coaches had gotten busted for feeling up some of his players. His son was in eleventh grade with me.
                     Colter and Hana led us past two empty baseball diamonds. They brought us to the playground, but we weren’t there to play. We were all business. Colter could be loose, but not when it came to drugs. And Hana—I very badly wanted to slip my hand into hers, or put my arm around her waist, dip my fingers under her belt, and curl them over her hip. But I couldn’t tell if she felt the same about me. I’d only known her since high school began. She and Colter had kissed before, at a party. But what did it mean?
                     On the other side of the playground, the hill declined to a roller hockey rink. We slipped through a hole under the fence and entered a faux jungle that was sprinkled with boulders. When Hana slipped under, her leather jacket and red shirt flapped up. I saw the lumps of her spine, her dark skin. Colter had gone through first, offered her his hand, brushed off her back, and didn’t notice my jealousy. I couldn’t help but feel left out. With Sharon it was different. She had a squat body, round cheeks, lumpy nose, and a whole lot of curly blond hair. She had nothing I craved.
                     I gave Sharon my hand when she came through, and she shot me a polite smile. No one had anything to say. If we’d all been stuck together in that mood for too long, Sharon and I would have partnered up. I think she understood this, too, and understood I didn’t want it.
                     When I had first met Sharon and Hana at our friend Terry’s house party, Sharon drank a bunch of rum and gave me a blowjob. That was more than a year earlier. She also blew Terry the same night. I don’t think she regretted it, though someone had leaked the news at school and it floated the halls for a couple weeks. I imagined she was a little embarrassed. But she always knew what she was doing. Steady. Like a chaperone, almost.
                     In the faux jungle you could jump from one boulder to the other or walk on the dirt between them. Thick old trees reached up to the canopy, at least a hundred feet high. Many trees had fallen and were either propped up by others or lay flat on the ground. Vines wrapped around the trees and dangled everywhere. Colter told me the vines had suffocated the trees, and I believed him. It almost felt like we were in another world, save for the cars and trucks whizzing down the highway beyond our jungle. Watching them through the trees was like looking through a waterfall.
                     Hana sat on a flat rock, jeaned legs crossed, jacket open. Her zipper tapped the stone. She wore black Doc Martens loafers and the skin beneath her hem was smooth, like she’d just shaved. I realized I was staring, as though I hadn’t seen those legs in cut-offs all summer. She was shooting for valedictorian, the Ivy League. She must have known how I felt. No one understood me like she did. Her pitch-black hair, straight down to her shoulders, hid her face as she fumbled with a dime bag of heroin.
                     We’d bought five glassine envelopes. Hana tore the seal and tipped a bump onto the back of her hand. Colter rolled a bill and gave it to her, and she snorted the stuff. Her face puckered and pruned. Pushing her nose into her shoulder, she held the bag out to me. I took a bump, felt the burn. I didn’t mind it, but I couldn’t help imagining the crystals eat at my nostril, like hot coals sinking through hard-packed snow. Soon, I tasted the drip down the back of my throat, and remembered too late that I’d meant to bring a bottle of water. Colter went next and his eyes glazed right away.
                     Sharon didn’t do drugs. Whenever her eyes caught anyone else’s she took on this sad, puppy-dog look—pressed lips and lifted eyebrows that tried to meet in the middle. I figured it was good to have someone like her around, safer. It was her choice, anyway.
                     Hana lay back and looked through the canopy to the sky while the rest of us floated around. For the first few minutes, before the stuff really hit, Colter and I smashed bottles. We chucked old baseballs too, and I thought back to Little League. Maybe I’d thrown some of these baseballs years earlier. I searched a bit and found an old, mangled ball. Inside the leather casing, it was made of string wrapped so many times around a center, like a decomposing cocoon. Under that string was another colored string. And below that, another. I’d expected it would keep unwinding down to nothing but, instead, I found a hard sphere, smaller than a golf ball, which was the color of decay. It looked like the pattern on an old butterfly’s wing.

*

                     I’d done heroin a few times before. A couple days a week after school, my friends and I used to drive down to Hawthorne Street in Newark to buy weed. One day our guy, Hector, mentioned smack. Driven by my need to sound cool, I blurted, “I’ll try anything once.” I didn’t really mean it, but then Hana pulled money from her back pocket and traded it for a bundle of glassine envelopes, the silhouette of a naked chick stamped on each one.
                     So strange how readily Hana’s folded bills materialized, as though she’d known all along that Hector would offer. As she stuffed the bundle into her pocket, I noticed Hector’s eyes roll down her and back up. Hana saw it too. We looked at each other. I should have kissed her then. I believed she may have wanted me to. Later, when we were doped for the first time, I reflected on how the interaction had unfolded with such nonchalance, such insignificance, and wondered if I’d only imagined it. Then I wondered who was at fault.
                     The sun fell away from Shadow Heights Park, but the chill didn’t bother me. I was warm and my head held my body up. We wandered about as clouds do. Everything I saw was a beautiful photograph: the perpendicular, horizontal, and diagonal trees, a family of ants marching down the slate-gray ridge of a boulder, the wing of a plane peeping through the canopy, then moving on. I scaled a fallen tree trunk that had wedged itself into the Y of another tree. I weaved through the upper branches, their live leafy fingers reaching from rot to brush my face, as the high blossomed.
                     From my vantage point, I searched for Hana on the rock where we’d snorted the smack, but Sharon was there instead. She looked sad, likely imagining the worst. I grabbed a branch to steady myself and realized how high off the ground I was. I wasn’t afraid. But at the same time, I knew that if I’d fallen I would have been hurt, and we all would’ve been in serious trouble.
                     Then I noticed the back of Hana’s jacket. She was by the fence, between two big boulders, swaying. An odd sight, considering how steady she always was. And insightful, too. When I’d told her how my dad was all over my shit, she asked, “What’s your grandfather like?”
                     “He’s a sweet man,” I said. “Not easy to talk to.”
                     “But what about when your dad was young?”
                     I shared things with her, like when my dad told me about how his father would come home from the factory all pissed off, down a bottle of whiskey, and, if he was in the mood, slap my dad around. Hana really listened, she made the connections. She understood the generational thing, how shit gets recycled down. It meant my dad lived according to a script that he didn’t have a hand in writing. It meant I didn’t need to hate him for being such a dick. Easier to try and ignore him. Mom, too.
                     As I watched Hana, she turned and squashed her nose with her palm. She’d taken another bump.

*

                     I managed to make it down from off the tree, and was thankful. We walked back up to the playground and sat, Colter and Sharon on the merry-go-round, Hana and I on the swings. I felt fine. Hana looked pale and fragile.
                     “You’re so white you look Kabuki,” I told her. “Damn. Why’d you have to do another bump?”
                     “I’m cool, Sammy.” Her voice was silk on my cheek.
                     We all shot the shit for a while, but I thought we sounded like a band missing the bass. Colter and I lit Camel Lights. Then Hana walked away toward the thorny bushes and pulled a baggy from her pocket. Sharon looked at me, I looked at Colter. He said, “Hana. It’s enough.”
                     “Just a little more,” she said. “Before I go home.”
                     Her voice was so frail, I wondered if Colter and Sharon had even heard her words before they dissolved in the wind.
                     “Holy shit!” I said. When Hana looked at me, hotness flooded my body and made my armpits itch. I pointed at her so there could be no misunderstanding, and I felt like such a dad. “You’re done for the day.”
                     I pulled slow drags from my Camel as we walked back past the Little League game. Behind Colter, Sharon, and me, Hana scraped her loafers over the loose asphalt. I hoped my reprimand didn’t piss her off too much, and dragged my cigarette so hard it caved in between my fingers. Parents at the game stared at us. It seemed they were all just standing around, like they’d forgotten what they were supposed to do. Colter and I scowled and flicked our cigs. We wanted them to know we didn’t give a shit.
                     I sat in the back of the Saab, again squeezed between Hana and bags of clothes. Anxious, though still feeling fine, I glanced at her. She looked relaxed, more so than the rest of us. The way she sat, her jeans were tight all the way up her legs. Her shirt had ridden up and her belly showed. Her head was tilted back, eyes nearly shut, though blinking. I took her to be lucid dreaming. About who? My dick got hard and moved in my jeans.
                     Colter rolled out of the lot and we weaved through the silent suburbs. It was tight in the backseat and my hand rested partly on my leg and partly on Hana’s. I squeezed her leg gently. She didn’t react, just continued to blink. My face burned as my hand felt higher. A breath escaped her and she licked her lips. The sun setting beyond suburbia blinked red through the hedges and glistened off her wet mouth. Cobain wailed about where bad folks go when they die.
                     As the car drifted, I squeezed her thigh again and dipped my fingers between her legs. Her eyelids, nearly closed, fluttered. I pushed into her and crimson flooded her face. She lifted her chin but I still couldn’t see her eyes. I wanted to kiss her neck, but I wasn’t brave enough. Then her mouth changed, turned down, like she wanted to cry. My heart drummed. I was confused and about to take my hand back when her legs tightened and her hips pushed against me. I was so hard.
                     “Samuel,” Colter said.
                     When I pulled my hand away, she jolted. “Yeah?” I said.
                     “How is she?”
                     “I think she’s okay. You okay, Hana?”
                     “Yes, thank you.”
                     We dropped her off first. She climbed the steps with her head bowed as though she were ashamed. Or maybe, high as hell, she just wanted to make sure each foot met the pavement before she committed to her next step. Perhaps, I thought, I should’ve been ashamed. I had taken advantage. Or had I? No, she was into me. We had something. Or, maybe it was the heroin. Powdered courage. Either way, I was right back where I started. We waited for Hana to close the front door.

*

                     The next morning, I couldn’t find her in school. I could usually catch her in the hallway after second period. It always hurt when she didn’t show up. Even worse, when she’d pass by without spotting me. I’d have thoughts that probably weren’t true—that I annoyed her, weighed on her. And then, the next time we met up, everything would seem fine.
                     She was always so strong, it never occurred to me that she had actual problems. Certain pressures pushed down on her with enough weight to provoke a dark and bizarre fatigue. I usually tried to steer conversations her way, open her up, let her know I was there. But she was too slick, always deflected me. Too smart for her own good. Colter was the one who told me about how her father had ditched Hana and her mother and moved back to Korea. After that they had to move into a tight apartment in the complex across from the high school.
                     I figured I’d find her at lunch, but I found Sharon instead. She told me Hana’s mother called the school that morning and had Sharon paged. She’d gone into Hana’s room the previous night and found her, overdosed.

*

                     Sharon, Colter, and I hopped in the Saab and floored it to the hospital. Mrs. Song was so anxious to see us. “Thank you for coming,” she said, bobbing her head. I couldn’t imagine what she thought of us. I just nodded and sort of smiled. I felt embarrassed, but I also felt that Mrs. Song was somehow to blame.
                     Hana was awake but dazed. Her eyes were sunken, half open, her lips nearly the same pale as her face. She looked five years older. An IV dangled over her head. I wondered what she remembered of the night before and was nervous about what she might say.
                     “I died last night,” she whispered, hoarse. She coughed, then opened her eyes all the way for a moment. “The doctors say my heart stopped for a few minutes, and I died.”
                     The way she said it, it sounded almost as though she thought it was cool. Looking at her lying there—so pathetic, so beautiful—I wondered how she could push herself so hard in everything she did. I needed to know what she was pushing against. If I waited around long enough, wouldn’t she fall into my arms? I looked down at her and wondered, wouldn’t it be inevitable? But I wasn’t brave. I was locked in a script I couldn’t transcend, like all the men in my family. I was locked in a script in which nothing I did would make me good enough for her, in which Colter was the brave one, the cool one.
                     “You good friends,” her mother said. “Thank you. You her best friends.”
                     Hana stared at me, not Colter. I wanted to kiss her, but how could I in front of everyone? My heart thumped so hard I could hear my pulse. I could also hear what Hana would have said, how my dad making me feel small only revealed more about him and my grandfather than it did about me.
                     My shoulder slid against Colter’s as I lowered my face. I expected her to look away, but she didn’t. Her lips were soft, though limp and cold. Her breath tasted of metal. The bright lights buzzed overhead. When I pulled away from Hana, her face was set, inscrutable. Maybe a look of suspicion. In hindsight, I think she needed me to say something, to have the balls to declare what I had in mind. But I could feel everybody staring, so close, suffocating.
                     I cleared my throat and the words squeezed from me in a cracked whisper: “I’m sorry.” I then backed away, my shoulder sliding against Colter’s again.

*

                     I should have said something else, something true, anything. I’m almost certain of it. Because when she came back to school a week later, she was different, focused, as though if she took her eyes off her future, it would disappear. I wanted to tell her I understood, that I was okay with however she’d changed, as long as she would allow me to hang around her. I needed her to know all those truths that were ricocheting within my head. But I didn’t have the language. And I suppose she didn’t have the patience as I fumbled to say something I was likely never going to figure out how to say.
                     Hana spun a stony cocoon after that. It was as though she didn’t recognize me, even when I talked to her. She nodded and mm hmm’d, she even smiled occasionally. But she was looking ahead, transcending the present, finally realizing she had the power to destabilize the world, finally starting to own it.
                     She was like that with Sharon and Colter too, though I couldn’t stop wondering how much of it had to do with me. What flavor did she taste when she thought of me? How would she remember me years down the road? Every time I saw her in school, I felt on the verge of panic, saying nothing and deciding that, next time, I would make my case that no love could be truer than my love for her.
                     But then school ended. She was off to Yale. On our rainy graduation day, she walked across the auditorium to collect her diploma, and, as she glanced in my direction, I saw that she glowed, that she’d unspun and emerged so dazzling and beyond me, that it stung in a deep and permanent way. Then she was gone, slicing through the sky over the golden horizon while I remained, fixed in my small world, and perplexed by my illusions of courage.

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