More Or Less Like This
Henry Solomon’s only conjecture is that he’s trapped in some sort of glass bottle. He can see the neck as it narrows far above him, and he can almost see out. But just barely. He’s afraid he’ll have to devise some sort of miraculous escape plan.
Henry’s fears are correct.
Yesterday, when he tried to leave, Valerie found one of his old collector’s edition Coca Cola bottles and took a Sharpie to it, mutilating its logo. After writing ‘Henry’ somewhere near the bottom, she put him inside.
Sometime after his capture, she shrugged off the nagging question of what to do about sealing the bottle and then set it, still open, on the top shelf of the bookcase she keeps in her kitchen closet. Currently the only other item on the shelf is a pocket sized book called What to Do About the Martians. It sits open to page nine. Henry knows the book because she’s always trying to get him to read it. He understands that she’s fond of it because it was written by one of her old professors, and that’s probably what’s clouding her judgement, but he can never get through the first page.
Page one of What to Do About the Martians is an incoherently abstract list called What to do.
What to do
What to do about the way the day breaks on my mother’s crumpled forehead, her dull shine
What to do about the small violences hidden in the king’s last wishes
What to do about fulfilled desires turned unfulfilled lamentations
What to do about the tired snail going the wrong direction back home
What to do about being caught in an act utterly outside your own doing
What to do about all the tiny hauntings
What to do about rawness—the way it soldiers on, unaware that its only battle is with the
brackish terror of its own disease—the lasting inability to become neither ripe, nor numb
And so on until page end.
The line what to do about the Martians never appears. As far as Henry knows, Mars and its inhabitants are never even mentioned a single time throughout the book’s entirety. This fact has always been extremely bothersome for Henry, though he hasn’t admitted it to her.
Henry doesn’t believe in miracles.
Henry believes he’ll never be able to get out of the bottle she’s put him in.
To top it all off, page nine of What to Do About the Martians consists, idiotically, of the same word repeated over and over, without punctuation. He can see the page from inside the bottle, laid out as if for him to read, its letters warped and elongated by the glass.
This park is shaped like an open palm.
Everyone says so.
Or at least everyone I’ve talked to about it.
It goes more or less like this.
Elbowing you softly, I ask: “Doesn’t this park look like an open palm? See the thumb over there? How it becomes the ravine? What do you think? Tell me honestly.”
And then you say: “Yeah. Yeah, I guess it sort of does.”
And then I ask: “Really? You’re being honest? You see it too? The open palm? You don’t sound very sure. I asked you to be honest. Remember?”
And then you say: “Of course I’m being honest. I never lie. In fact, the park looks like nothing other than an open palm. If I didn’t already know this was just a simple park I’d be thinking I’ve entered a completely new universe filled with no other things besides open palms identical in every conceivable way to the one we’re standing in.”
See? Everyone says this park looks like an open palm. Even you. Even Henry. We’ve called it Palm Park for ages, he and I. It’s kind of one of our things.
I really didn’t think he would choose yesterday to break up with me because the night before I’d had a dream he was an extremely talented trucker. In the dream he had to make this really tight U-turn around a tiny red quarter-full gas can, for hours. The length of the truck kept getting longer and longer, like a train, but wider. Like a truck-train. He kept turning around it, for so many hours, as if the truck behind him was an infinite veil. He never knocked the tiny red gas can over but it seemed in the dream that if he had, things would’ve blown up, or at least not have ended well.
In the dream, Henry completed the turn expertly.
Nothing blew up at all.
Palm Park is quiet today except for a boy some yards away trying not to cry.
He has fallen off his bike and made quite the silent drama of the tumble. He’s still holding his knee, rocking back and forth, sprawled out near the big metal trash can.
I watch him from my bench and stop myself from going to him.
It seems as if it’s been an hour or more, the boy posing hurt there on the ground.
A flattened bright blue hat rests exhausted beside him and the boy is crying—trying not to.
He seems to think he’s too old to cry, I guess, or not old enough, because he is grunting, the grunts guttural and loud, as if the sole use for his throat has forever been to suppress something unmanageable. To keep something large, damaged, and frightening at bay.
I decide to call him Jakey.
I’m so sorry Jakey, I say wordlessly.
To speak to him in this way—silently and without words—is my only magic. I’m using it on Jakey in the wake of his fall.
Do you see?
Palm Park is becoming overfilled with the diligent and cemetery silence I always keep close at hand. I carry it around with me, usually somewhere near my chest, like a burdensome secret. As a small child I’d reserved this special kind of silence for late night prayers and lucky artifacts. A small pink rock. One brass knob without a drawer. An oversized stuffed seal.
Now that I’m older I use my magic for everything. It is required.
I’m so sorry Jakey. I hate that you’re in pain. I’m sorry you fell off your bike. Please don’t hurt. I’m sorry.
Everything in Palm Park is mud.
A tattered red kite from last summer remains stuck in a tree, tangled like hair in a branch too high to reach. A Skittles wrapper missed the garbage can at some indeterminate point in time. Maybe months ago.
The wrapper disintegrates in mud.
Jakey is still trying not cry.
Everything is mud.
None of this matters.
Only Henry matters.
Say it with me, I’m begging you.
Only Henry matters.
Please, you’re helping me.
Only Henry matters.
Now you’ve really joined me. Look at us—both our hearts beating quick and reckless, like two dirty children deep in a hole the width of only us, digging to China. We’re sweating and we’re hungry and we’re becoming incredibly concerned. If China doesn’t show up soon we’re not positive we’ll be able to climb out. We’ll most likely grow too big for our tunnel, long before it even occurs to us to climb out.
It is a near certainty nobody will hear us calling.
No one ever hears us.
Jakey has gotten up from his fall and is staring at me, perched on his bike with unperturbed confidence, as if he’d never been bleeding on the ground holding his knee, persuading himself not to cry.
With my silence, I tell him to go home, get cleaned up, eat dinner, rest—but suddenly Jakey is cycling no-handed toward my bench. He’s going so fast. Too fast.
It seems I might soon become a casualty.
Jakey skids to an enthusiastic stop in front of me. Muddy ruts where his tires are.
This is the moment we both realize he’s trying to prove something.
I represent the half of us that knows what it is.
He may not look it, but he’s already a man. No doubt.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Valerie,” I say, “but sometimes people call me Val.”
It isn’t true. Nobody ever calls me Val. I’d really like it if they did.
“What does the word prescience mean?” Jakey asks, as if not registering my answer. His bright blue hat tilts slightly on his head, still dented.
Blood drains from a small gash below his knee and begins to dry.
I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I have no firm idea as to what the word prescience means. The question has surprised me and the sun is just out from behind a cloud, intense and blatant, and I’m squinting at a boy whose name I’m imagining solely so I don’t have to learn what he’s really called.
“You don’t know what it means, do you, Val?” Jakey says. “My mom didn’t either.”
“......That’s too bad.”
“I know what it means. In case you’re wondering. I looked it up on my phone this morning even though I wasn’t supposed to.”
Jakey takes off his hat, punches the dent out of it, and bends the bill mercilessly. He places the hat back on his head, backwards this time. His movements seem foregone conclusions—habitual and primitive. They exert the energy of ancient private rituals.
“Why weren’t you supposed to look it up?” I ask. I don’t know how else to contribute to what is now showing early signs of becoming less a conversation, and more an unplanned outdoor performance starring only Jakey.
Jakey uses all pauses to stare off into the distance, toward the ravine. Jakey bikes away to pop a couple of gimpy wheelies. Jakey ignores the blood below his knee with a peculiar obliviousness—the kind that can only be born of a baseless defiance left unmitigated across many generations. Jakey speeds away as if to flee, only to come skidding right back. Jakey spits dime-sized phlegm onto the ground.
“Well today I had to tell the class an idea for what I thought the word meant using only ‘pre’ and ‘science’. Without using a dictionary basically. My teacher said it’s cheating—to use our phones for everything. She says we should have to think.”
My one current desire is for Jakey to leave so I can go home to Henry, who is waiting for me. It’s too bright out and I remain unaware of Jakey’s intentions for both the duration and content of our budding conversation. I feel as if I’ve been dealt into a game in which I’m the only player without cards.
I haven’t been told the rules. Why did I even come to the park in the first place.
“Do you want to know how I pulled it off?” Jakey asks.
“Pulled what off?”
He ignores me.
“I told my teacher I had to text my mom for lunch money because I’m diabetic. So instead of texting my mom I just looked it up instead.”
“Am I what, a cheater? Heck no. My teacher’s full of s-h-i-t. Why not look things up if you can? I mean, it’s easy. You can get an answer quick and it doesn’t mean you won’t remember it like she says. I didn’t cheat because I don’t think what I did’s cheating.”
“No. I meant ‘are you diabetic’?”
Jakey skids to another stop.
“Do I look diabetic to you? I’m not fat.”
“You don’t have to be overweight to be diabetic.”
“Yes you do.”
“Actually no, you don’t. There are two types.”
“You’re wrong. My cousin is diabetic, and he’s super f-u-c-k-i-n-g fat.”
I want Jakey to give it a rest.
I want Jakey to stop spelling out swear words.
I want Jakey to shrink down to exactly the length of my arms so I can cradle him—rock him back and forth until he shuts up. Until he shrinks even further. Enough to lose his faculty for language entirely.
Mostly I want Jakey to go away so I can go back to Henry. I’d like to bring him dinner.
“Okay then,” I say, and move to gather my purse.
“Don’t you want to know what prescience means?” he asks.
“Do you want to tell me?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
This performance will go on forever. Even if I take my things and go, Jakey’ll still be here, stationed at my bench atop his bicycle, talking to the part of me that never truly leaves anywhere.
At this point, it doesn’t even matter if I stay or go.
Henry Solomon doesn’t know what he’s supposed to understand. He’s trying, but the book is utter gibberish. And if he were asked to be completely frank, he’d say What to do About the Martians is quite obviously and almost embarrassingly overwrought.
No one has asked Henry his opinion.
The collector’s edition Coca Cola bottle is a mess and no place to live. She’d barely washed it out before she stuck him inside. It smells like death—if death smelled like fifty two year old dust. He’s lying on the bottle’s bottom, looking up through the perfect cylinder above, studying his new sky: a small circle of mahogany on her bookcase shelf. Tiny half-s’s curve along the wood’s grain like split snakes.
It is actually quite beautiful.
Henry is trying to remember exactly what she’d said in the seconds just after she captured him, after he’d said he needed to walk away, after he’d pointed out the fact that she was using cliches, after she’d told him he could either walk away or take her hand because she’s been holding it out for him for such a long time.
It was something about the both of them going to Palm Park to talk it out. No, she’d said something like that, but more annoyingly vague and poetic.
Henry remembers now.
Let’s go to Palm Park, she’d said. Please. Our closeness deserves a chance. It at least deserves a walk. Please Henry.
Henry gets up. He presses his forehead against the glass.
What to Do About the Martians is still open to page nine.
Something he hadn’t noticed before has shown itself to him.
The letters of the second to last understand are scrambled.
Oh, christ almighty.
It is Henry’s opinion that the author of this book is a complete idiot.
Henry hopes she comes back soon.
He desperately needs her to turn the page.
The scrambled ‘understand’ was the last straw.
Now that he’s discovered it, he’s actually become somewhat proud of his prior patience with the book. He did it for her sake. Not many would have been so open-minded.
Page nine has made it very easy to say that What to Do About the Martians is a terrible book. He might even tell her his opinion when she returns from the park.
What could she possibly be doing there for this long.
It looks nothing like an open palm.
It’s just a regular park.
It is the most regular park he’s ever seen.
The cloud that seems to descend on Palm Park at around this time every evening has begun its descent. It’s so looming and so gray that there’s almost nothing looming or gray about it. It cancels itself out somehow. It is only itself, and therefore, is indescribable.
It’s possible the cloud is why I’m still here talking to Jakey. Maybe I needed to see the cloud this evening. I don’t know. It’s definitely not that Jakey is a skilled conversationalist. Or that Henry isn’t really waiting for me at all. The only reason he’s still there, if he hasn’t figured out how to leave by now, is that I’ve locked him inside. I wonder what Jakey would say if I told him how alone I’ve just recently become. I wonder what Jakey would say if I told him how, when Henry said he had to go, I’d stood at the door like a soccer goalie, vowing to let nothing through it, praying nothing would. I wonder if Jakey would understand.
“Oh f-u-c-k it. I’ll just tell you what it means,” Jakey says.
“Finally,” I say. “I’ve been on the edge of my seat.”
“My mom says sarcasm is corrosive.”
“Do you know what that word means?”
“No, but it sounds bad.”
Jakey gets off his bike and sits cross legged in front of my bench, looking up at me, his eyes barely visible from under the bill of his hat.
When did he turn his hat around?
“Okay, lady...I mean, Val. The word prescience kind of means to know something is going to happen before it does. Like, if you think about it, it kind of makes sense.”
I think I know what he’s trying to say but now that we’ve gotten here, to this point in our conversation, to the point it’s been building to, my role in the conversation has become unclear.
“Yeah? How so?” I say, in order to keep the conversation going.
My most recent current goal has become to keep Jakey talking. I’m now an expert.
As he talks, Jakey sits on the ground dragging a pointed rock through the mud. Slowly, letter by letter, I watch him emboss the mud with s-h-i-t-s-u-c-k-s.
“Well, ‘science’ tells us stuff. Like we know how long it takes for each planet to orbit and stuff, but what did people do pre science? They just had to f-u-c-k-i-n-g guess. And I guess sometimes they were right. So they were said to have prescience or whatever.”
Jakey stops and does not seem to be gearing up for continuing.
I’m not prepared for his silence. I have no other questions or thoughts to add to our discussion about the word prescience.
Palm Park sounds unbearable like this. There’s not even wind. Just the cloud, me, and Jakey playing with his rock.
I am beside myself.
Jakey begins using the point of the rock to dig some dirt out of his fresh cut. More blood forms.
I lean forward and gently pry the rock out of his hand. He only fights a little.
“Don’t do that. It’ll get infected. Don’t pick at it when it scabs over either.”
I throw the rock as far as I can. It isn’t far, but it’s far enough.
“Hey! That was my f-u-c-k-i-n-g rock. I found it! I can do whatever I want with it.”
“You were going to hurt yourself.”
“How do you know? You’re just a lady who sits all by herself in a park all day. You f-u-c-k-i-n-g suck.”
I should not have taken Jakey’s rock.
He goes off to look for it, crawling around on the ground while the looming gray cloud looms gray above him, casting looming grayness everywhere he looks.
“If I don’t find that mother-f-u-c-k-e-r...you’re going to be really sorry.”
“I’m already really sorry,” I say. “I’m already really incredibly sorry.”
I get my purse in order and get up to leave.
Jakey stops and turns around—walks toward me. He seems to have become gentler and older all at once.
“That was my lucky rock is all,” he says, and puts his hands in his pockets.
Jakey kicks a different rock around with his muddy shoe.
“I’m not sure there’s such a thing,” I say almost inaudibly, “as a lucky rock or a lucky anything.”
I start heading toward home. Toward Henry. Where I’ll have to let him go. Where I’ll lose him and where I’ll let him lose me.
Even though I’m not positive he’ll ever really understand what it means to lose anything.
Not like Jakey and I, at least.
Not like you and me.
No, not like us.
Jakey grabs the handle of his bike and brings it up to him in one easy motion. He gets on, and smiles at me quietly, almost not a smile at all.
“Sure as f-u-c-k-i-n-g s-h-i-t there’s such a thing,” Jakey says before he rides away.
Now that it’s been affirmed that What to do About the Martians is incomprehensible, almost aggressively so, Henry has nothing to do inside the Coca-Cola bottle but look through the glass at Valerie’s warped apartment and remember. A Betty Boop salt shaker sits on top of the stove next to a pepper shaker in the shape of Jessica Rabbit, and a picture Valerie’s sister drew for their second anniversary is pasted on the front of the microwave. It is a drawing of two cartoonish lawns separated by a tall wooden suburban fence. One lawn is green, and one bright purple. A fat man in a green suit mows his green lawn with his head turned completely around, like an owl’s head, green eyes beady and fixed greedily on the fence that separates him from his purple-suited neighbor, who is also mowing his own purple grass, but contentedly. In the drawing, Purple Suit smiles looking toward the sky. The caption, hand-scrawled, reads “The grass is always greener.”
There were moments when Valerie’s small and barefaced joy over items like these descended upon him and made him feel strange and delicate, as if he were suddenly famished for something that did not yet exist, something that won’t ever exist and never did, something that he was certain she believed existed and always would. He loved her so much in those moments. But for as much as he loved her, she left him just as hungry.
She simply didn’t understand him at all. And she wanted so many things—things she couldn’t name—so much of the time.
Henry feels sleepy and curls up in the curve of the bottle. It is surprisingly comfortable, but cold against his back, where his shirt rides up. He imagines he’d be a pretty funny sight—body contorted to the curve of the old Coke bottle, and stuck inside of it, parched and exhausted, his ass pressed against the glass—all of him, disheveled as if drunk or beaten.
Henry wants to sleep but can’t. He is worried now that she will never come home. When he broke up with her, he hadn’t prepared himself for not ever seeing her again. He hadn’t even thought about it.
A green bucket on the steps of my apartment has been gathering rain for some time and it isn’t even close to full yet. I try to stretch the stagnant brackish water into some kind of vague metaphor that clears everything up for me, but I fail. I’m not sure if the bucket is a metaphor at all because I don't know what it means. It’s just a bucket I bought when I thought I was going to do some gardening. I don’t even remember now why I would need a bucket for gardening. Sometimes I buy things without knowing when or if I’ll need them. It pisses people off sometimes, I think. The impulsivity of it, probably.
I don’t know about the meaning of the bucket.
Maybe you can help me.
What does the goddamn green bucket mean?
I miss Jakey already. Maybe he’d be able to tell me what the quarter full bucket means. Maybe he would be able to explain to me why I would need a bucket for gardening. He seems to know a lot. I hope he is home all right now, resting, nursing his scar, and not thinking about how carelessly I had thrown his lucky rock.
I whisper to myself that I’d needed to throw it, for his sake. He was just going to keep making his wound bigger. Bloodier.
I’m at the bottom of the apartment stairs now, surveying the hard dusty angle of the long climb ahead of me, up to the third floor. My floor, where Henry is trapped and not waiting for me.
Dust swirls around me in the sun, coming through the stair window like a mass of crystalline ashes.
The dust is almost glittery.
There is too much dust.
I become faint.
My knees buckle underneath me and I think immediately of Jakey—how he’d worked so hard to keep himself from crying when he fell. All I can think of to do is hope that when I hit the ground, I cry loudly enough for Henry to hear me. Only Henry, though. No one else. If you hear me crying, ignore me. Please don’t tell anyone. Unless the anyone is Henry.
Henry wakes to find Valerie beside him in the bottle, seemingly unconscious, wearing the same green dress she went out in.
Almost as a reflex Henry backs as far away from her as possible, pressing his back further against the glass of the bottle, and bracing his long arms against it too, almost as if trying to blend into his surroundings, become invisible. When he notices her bloody hands and knees and the fact that she’s still breathing, it becomes obvious that she’s quite harmless in the bruised state she’s in. Suddenly Henry feels guilty and sad that his first reaction wasn’t to go to her. To help her.
His guilt and sadness are shapeless though, and having no form, leave him just as quickly as they came. Why would he go toward a woman who’s trapped him inside an old Coca-Cola bottle?
Henry doesn’t know what to do.
He thinks of turning her upright against the glass and climbing her to freedom. He could stand atop her head and jump out. He thinks of touching her breasts and putting his head on her stomach to sleep. He thinks of lying down beside her to nap with her a last time. He thinks of waking her up and asking her how they can both get out of the bottle together. She would know something like that, he’ll give her that.
“Valerie,” he says. “Valerie, wake up.”
He puts his hand on her knee and is surprised by its warmth.
“Valerie,” he says again.
He puts his hand on her thigh, underneath her dress, and is again surprised that she isn’t colder.
“Valerie, wake up.” He puts his hand on her head and pushes her hair out of her eyes.
“Henry?” she looks around, eyes green—greedy for information. “What are we doing here?”
All at once, he begins to expend energy trying not to hate her.
“You put me in this bottle. I’ve been stuck here all day.”
“I did?” she says. “....–...That’s a stupid question. I know I did. I shouldn’t play dumb.”
“No, you shouldn’t.”
“No, you’re not.”
“How did I get in here?” she asks.
“How the hell should I know?”
She and Henry both look up along the smooth contours of the bottle’s neck toward its opening, craning their own necks like birds. They’ll need some sort of ladder.
“Henry. I have something important to tell you. I met a little boy today. He told me the definition of a word and he had a special rock but I threw it. I’m trying to figure out what it all means.”
“How does that relate to our current situation?”
“I don’t know. I just thought you’d like that story. I thought maybe you'd have some insight.”
“You need to let me out of here. I want to go. I need to go.”
Valerie starts to cry.
“Oh god, please don’t cry. I hate it when you cry.”
“I’m just a crier,” she says between gulps. “I cry all the time. It’s no big deal.”
She cries and cries and cries and as she cries, Henry looks away, through the glass, to page nine of What to Do About the Martians.
This is hell, Henry thinks.
As she cries, Valerie stands, blood dripping down her shins from where all the dust at the bottom of the stairs made her fall. She smooths out her green dress and tries to wipe her tears. To Henry it all seems pathetic and transparent, especially from so close an angle—she’s so close to him, bending over herself, tears falling, and he can see the world outside the bottle, her skewed stretched apartment. He imagines what lies beyond her. She’s so small compared to everything else.
“Come here,” she says through tears.
“Hug me. Say goodbye.”
Valerie cries even louder now, and the soft grating sound of her crying gets trapped in the neck of the bottle. He keeps telling her to stop. She keeps not stopping. No one else can hear them for miles and miles. They’re so small and so stuck.
“Okay,” she says and puts her whole face in both hands.
He’s tired of watching her. He’s tired of page nine. He’s tired of the bottle.
She cries and cries and cries. Henry realizes she’s the most disgusting thing he’s ever seen.
And suddenly he notices he’s floating, up. And then he’s swimming, up. And he smells her all around him, up up up, in the bottle full of tears, salty and dirty.
When he reaches the top of the bottle he looks down to see Valerie, still crying, holding her knees to her chest, head locked down, rocking. He thinks he hears her say she’ll miss him very much, or come back, or you’re terrible, Henry, you’re just terrible, or I love you, or please don’t go, or how do you know this is the right thing to do, or I’m so confused, or what good can possibly come from letting go, or I’m so scared, or please please please, or I’ll miss you very much, or I already do. I miss you so much.
As her tears overflow the bottle, in one fine and final wave, Henry Solomon is released, and is greeted by the damp air of her apartment.
And, as her tears overflow the apartment, Henry Solomon is greeted by the damp air of the day.
Outside on the stoop, a boy stops Henry as he departs. The boy is standing upright, almost as if at attention, and a bike leans heavily against his small frame, making him seem more like a wall than a boy.
“Hey, dude...do you know Val?” the boy asks.
“No,” he says. “I don’t.”
The boy cocks his head at Henry. He moves away from his bike, letting it fall, loud and final onto the ground.
“You’re going to break your bike if you treat it like that,” Henry says.
“No I’m not,” the boy says simply, and moves past him. He seems to have already forgotten Henry exists.
The boy places something on Valerie’s steps, puts a piece of paper underneath it, and turns to grab his bike again. He does everything as if in one action, both thoughtless and prepared.
The dark glinting thing the boy’s given Valerie sits lonely and little on the steps next to a green bucket, now full to its brim with Valerie’s tears.
“Wait,” Henry calls as the boy begins to bike away, “What did you leave her?”
The boy skids to a stop and turns his head back toward Henry near-violently.
“Why the f-u-c-k do you care?”
Henry stares at the boy and waits.
“It’s a rock,” the kid says finally, “You wouldn’t understand.”
Henry looks at the small jagged rock on the steps, paperweighting the piece of paper, now wet with tears.
“Don’t you dare read the note you f-u-c-king creep,” the boy says, and bikes away.
“Better get inside,” the boy yells into his own wake, dinging a bell on his bike, “It’s going to rain. Can feel it, I can.”
Henry sits on Valerie’s steps for a while, and watches her tears puddle around his feet. He wonders if she’s drowned.
He looks up to Valerie’s windows before he goes. Her whole house is an aquarium now. All her favorite things float inside like strange fish. Her arms somewhere, swim toward him, reaching out. Her mouth, somewhere, swallows tears, forming his name. All the words in her favorite book turn into dewy pulp around her, dragging themselves through her rooms like tiny sinking ships.
She holds whatever floats by tight to her chest as if it will save her.
She whispers that she’s drowning. That she loves him. Always, just like this.
Incomprehensible, and almost beautiful.
He almost cannot look away.