The pain had returned. It lived in my stomach like burning metal, branding me on the inside. I'd seen several doctors, specialists about the pain, but they gave me no solutions, only remedies that called for a change in diet and lifestyle. Whatever. I knew what really caused the pain: Eva.
While Eva was out of my life, I'd lost the biting sensation that enveloped my organs in a rabid dance. It was like I'd been sleeping for years with a hot, bright lamp just inches from my eyes, but with her departure, I finally found the switch to turn the damn thing off, then once the metal casing had cooled down, I could safely remove it from above my bed. At last, my sleep was no longer fitful from fear of bashing my head into that horrible nightlight.
But she was back, wanting to be my friend again, and with her came the pain. Again my nights were as long as they were hot. Perhaps I should've renewed the Paxil at this point.
Eva had been my best friend for four years; four years that were fun-filled as long as I devoted all my attention to her. People shouldn't be as close as she needed me; it's unnatural. I would compare her to my mother, but at least Eva never made me rub her corns. Then, when I realized that I could have other friends too, that I could go out for coffee, or lunch, without inviting her, she'd dumped me with the bitter proclamation that I would never go anywhere in life, not even out for drinks.
I remember that moment like I remember fried bacon: crisply and fondly. At the second couch cluster on her office building's mezzanine, we sat listening to the babbling brook of people rushing below, as was our routine, but on this occasion, I stared through the plexiglas of the snack machine by the stairwell rather than my usual focal point, the adjacent Coke machine. As Eva detailed how fucked I would be without her, I said a prayer for her to become hopelessly hooked on sweets of the vending variety, promising God that this time, honestly, I'd make good on my belief.
I showed her. And God. The months following her rejection passed like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. What I mean is, they passed fast. But while those fast months were the happiest of my life, they were the worst of Eva's. She didn't laugh once in six months time, she told me later over tea and cake, and nothing, not liquor, not even candy – ha! – made her forget the weight of the world without me in it.
On the day she came back, begging to be my friend again, she said we'd grown into stronger, more independent people; we were two separate beings now instead of one, so we could hang out again, but in a healthy way. I've always been a sucker for flattery, especially in terms of my mental health, so I believed it really would be better. But of course, the internal battle began again.
It was like I was constantly reliving that time in the first grade when my two best friends had played a round of tug-o-war with my body as the rope. Some of the other kids had joined in, digging mud-filled trenches on either side for the loser to tumble into. They would have tugged at me until I split in two, one for each of them to play in the mud with, but our teacher broke up the game – she must have caught wind of it when Elliot went out for alligators. I wished that someone would pull Eva aside and give her a little talk about playing nice, or maybe just a spanking, but without an authority figure to save me from physical destruction, and with only one best friend, I had to play all the sides myself: tugging, being tugged, digging holes while mediating the war waged for my attention. My only respite was in dreams.
In a dream I saw The Figure Five in Gold. The painting was a machine. I flipped a switch and turned it on. Multiple fives flew in and out, growing larger and smaller, smaller and larger, pulling me into the machine and pushing me out, knocking me down. I fell into the painting and was lost in a dreamy art world. But this was not a surrealist landscape I'd landed in; it was surreal realism, precisionism, the world of modern art before the cult of the dream. Oddly, my favorite period.
A highway stretched out in front of me. It was dark, with no streetlights, no reflectors to guide my way. Then monumental gold numbers and letters appeared, lining the road. The gleaming figures illuminated my surroundings. But with no sun, no artificial light source to reflect off the gold, how did they shine? How did they cast shadows?
I followed the road. I was on foot, but the gold letters and numbers flew past me like green highway signs slip away from a fast moving car. Racecar is a palindrome, I thought as I tried to identify a pattern in the numbers and letters. But there was nothing but chaos. All was random.
I took the third exit off the highway and entered the language world. The gold numbers disappeared. The gold letters turned red. Slowly the letters became words, then quickly the words became sentences. Capital letters and lowercase letters created emphasis, like bold or italic might do.
WHAT do you want?
what do you WANT?
what DO you want?
what do YOU want?
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
I was screaming the words when I came to the end. Then they continued with an answer.
i think YOU know.
I think you know.
i think you KNOW.
i THINK you know.
I THINK YOU KNOW.
The road came to an end and I stopped understanding. My voice had grown hoarse. Had I chosen the wrong path? Should I have stuck with arithmetic, the final, elusive R?
I reached a monolithic black box silhouetted against a dark green sky. I turned to look back at my path, but everything was gone. There were no more letters, no words or sentences, no questions or answers. There wasn't a number in sight. Everything behind me was black, with a purple mist seeping in at the edges, a silence like orchids blooming in the night. My only option was the box, so I entered it.
The interior was an inky void. I fell into the darkness and kept falling, faster and faster, my memories like a signal fire growing smaller and smaller on a distant shore, soon just a pinprick of light, then nothing.
I awoke from the dream knowing that I had to do something about Eva – monoliths are a sign for histrionics. I had to stop the pain that blocked my entrance to a peaceful dream world. I longed to sleep free from art history allusions and dream of children playing quietly, silently amusing themselves with wooden blocks marked with letters and numbers in calming colors – children who could create simple words like cat or dog without pondering the anagrams therein.
A hatred developed in my gut, taking up permanent residence in place of my old pain. This hatred became rage, a rage like a killer tornado that threatened the mobile homes of my soul. Every time I saw Eva, I was so overwrought with this rage, churning within me at the speed of a small screw swept up in that tornado, that I couldn't stand without holding onto something, preferably something steady. Her buttery voice, her lilting walk, her newfangled clothes, her showy shoes, even the girlish slant of her handwriting – infinity symbols dotting every lowercase i and j – started a cringing sensation in my toes that moved slowly up until every strand of my hair was broiling. I often feared I stank of singed hair.
This may sound crazy, an exaggeration, but no red cape ever made a bull run as wild as my temper ran when I saw Eva. Each night I dreamed a more horrible method for her slow and painful death; lances and banderillas were no longer enough. Always I envisioned myself in red at her funeral: sometimes a gown of flowing crimson, in others a crisp scarlet suit.
For months this seething ire stewed in my stomach, though I masked my secret umbrage from the world as I feigned the role of constant friend. Until the day I realized if I was crafty enough to hide my deep-seated rage, I could pull off a simple annihilation, right? People got away with murder every day, no?
Plans for the perfect murder flew around the places in my brain normally filled with maddening rage. Many options materialized, but none were perfect, not even in that movie perfect way when you know the "bad" guys will blow it despite their careful planning. And then Eva provided the impetus for my perfect crime, the one I felt born to commit. On an early spring Sunday, she invited me hiking with her colleagues. All I had to do was get her alone, then one little shove would mollify my indignation forever. There would be no blood on my white-knuckled hands. It was flawless, gratifyingly so.
The day of reckoning arrived: the last day I would have to endure her ceaseless aggravation of my sense of self. I slipped on my red windbreaker, packed my pocketknife and the good cigarettes. I even planned my final words to her, carefully crafting my speech for when she plunged over the edge. My body burned with hope. Soon my pain would be gone forever. This day at Mt. Choler would be one I wouldn't forget for a long time, if ever.
The afternoon turned boiling on the mountaintop, but I kept my cool, not a bit of rage escaping its comfortable home within my gut. At the fifth peak, we broke for lunch. I knew that around the bend from this plateau was a notorious rock, shaped by the elements into an uncanny resemblance of a lion curled around a lamb. The perfect place for foul play! I was like that lion, but I would not be lying with my lamb; I would be acting out the rage of the beast against Eva, the not-so-innocent lamb-like creature with her soft skin.
I perched on the edge of the mythic rock looking southward, boasting that I could see all the way to the city from up there – an invitation to my former friend to take the final steps of her life. She stood beside me, but a little too far for me to push her without endangering my own life. After double-checking that we were alone, I slowly turned to get a better position. Then suddenly, her arm flew up. Then just as suddenly, I was down, hanging onto the head of the stone lion with only one hand.
"I always hated you," Eva hissed into the warm breeze.
All I could muster from my astonished lips was "How could you hate me?"
Her eyes flashed the fiery glow of an internal rage. I knew that shade of red like I knew what she would say next.
"I free myself through your death."
My speech. Exactly. But how?
"How?" I said.
"You think you're the only one to feel wrath? It's a sin as old as that rock you're desperately clutching."
Then I couldn't hang on any longer and I fell into the crisp mountain air, the sun white in my eyes. As I descended, slowly, arms and legs clawing in vain at the light void of the sky, I couldn't stop thinking that this story should've been about how I've always felt like a black man trapped inside a white girl's body.
About the author:
Sarah M. Balcomb is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. She is not an oboe virtuoso, but her fiction has appeared in 5-Trope, the American Journal of Print, Both Magazine, McSweeney's, Me Three, Opium Magazine and Pindeldyboz, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.