action sentiment
my cheek against the cold of the window pane, a fat man coughing next to me.

I am still determined to become an adult. To leave a
boyfriend, an apartment, my books, my habits, my systems, my expectation for what the street will look like in the morning. To place faith in a cold cheek.

rule for traveling, no. 4
Traveling is a validation of self, a bold statement that self persists beyond geography.

action sentiment
The airplanes are giant sharks on land, circling for prey.

A flashback to pre-history.

Should I be on this plane?

rule for coming home, no. 2
Coming home is returning to the physical loneliness of adolescence.

action sentiment
I can't ask my mother for an ashtray, so I borrow the soap dish from the bathroom. After I tap off ashes and put the cigarette back between my lips, it tastes like soap.

Loneliness is like a cold swimming pool. The initial shock seems unbearable. But slowly, cold water settles down to "water," a graceful opposition.

rule for coming home, no. 5
When you hang up the phone, you jump back in. The water's cold again. Tell your boyfriend not to call you.

girlfriend: Hello?
boyfriend: Hey love, it's me. Just thought I'd call.
girl: Where are you?
boy: I'm in between dinner dates.
boy: Hello?
girl: I'm here.
boy: That's my doorbell. I'll call you back, baby. OK?

rule for coming home, no. 1
Your mother will seldom be calm enough for conversation.

She's on the phone, talking to a friend she doesn't like. She smiles large with two rows of fifty year old teeth. "Your friend can't see you smile," mom. She frowns.

rule for coming home, no. 3
Cold pool metaphor, continued. Too much time alone and you will shrivel.

I'm on my bed, trying to remember what I have in my life. I take out a pen:
Y.M. magazine
teen sitcoms
going to the bathroom
body hair
period cramps
an eye doctor
a hatred of flying bugs
mood swings
insecurities (my shortness)
bad birthdays
a belief that my boyfriend shouldn't cheat on me

rule for traveling, no. 2
It is a bad idea to leave your boyfriend behind.

girl: I love you.
boy: I miss you.
girl: Oh God, I miss you.
boy: I love you, I love you, I love you, I'll be there soon.

rule for traveling, no.3
Every cell can be replaced in seven years. Every love can be replaced in seven days.

I spot him by the baggage carousal and wave. We have forty seconds between us. Enough time to convince myself I should hug him. He starts running. He looks stupid. I don't want to hug him.

rule for relationships, no. 1
Appearances are important.

A face is a signifier; it refers to personalities, existences; and somehow, most importantly, unabashedly, the face refers to our relationship to the face.
The car ride home, and I notice the pimple on his cheek.
I want his face to remind me that I love him.
But he puts his hand on my thigh.
I'm an action hero, frowning (with determination) before the bridge from signifier over to signified: thin ropes and wooden strips, deathly fast waters underneath. I place my hand over his.
  (In my bedroom, I pretend I'm his wife, and slowly obligation gives way to maternal strength: the realization that my imitation of warmth is soothing to him, and that successes should be continued. I know when and how to touch his back, to kiss his cheek, to run my fingers through his hair. )

rule for relationships, no. 2
Familiarity can make up for appearances.

While he's sleeping, I look at his face—the nostrils gated by hair—the eyelids, sealed with a stick-on strip of lash and bulging like white eggs—and I find it elegant, familiar. I find his hand under the bed sheets and hold it.

rule for relationships, no. 3
Through our lover, we fuck the world.

Dinner characters:
                   my Father, the Model, my boyfriend, myself

She makes us watch her late night show on public access. It's obvious that she draped a nylon stocking over the lens. Her face blurs and glows. When she crosses and uncrosses her legs, their nylon sparkles. My father watches and wraps his left arm around the Model's waist.
My boyfriend glances at my father.

(At 21, you realize that the world isn't made of molecules, but of stereotypes. And you learn whom to hate.)

After dinner, we return to my mother's. In my bedroom, I put on my flannel pajamas, but he pulls them off. "Let me see your legs."

rule for traveling, no. 5
Never visit strangers. Recall the horror of other people.

On the plane, I tell him, "I'm sad, because nothing surprises me anymore."
He looks at me,"I can't help you."

We land and his friend's father is waiting for us. My boyfriend's feet rotate outward.

\ / assimilation, confidence, a lack of self-
/ \ the way I walk behind him

In the morning, I sit at the edge of the bed my boyfriend still thinks is for sleeping and I watch snow melt off the neighbor's roof. Drops fall like silver nickels; I can almost hear the clinking. It seems appropriate that, at a ski resort, snow would melt into money.

At 6 a.m., the hallway is dark.
6 a.m. is when the horror of other people's houses fades. The family is frozen behind bedroom doors, and the house (or ski lodge) demands a companion. As its objects—lamps, cabinets, sofas—one by one turn visible again, they need to be acknowledged and loved by someone. Awake and lonely, I am a perfect someone.

The kitchen light is on.
My boyfriend's friend has flattened out yesterday's newspaper on the kitchen table. He looks up at me, and I can see: he must have been born at this time of day. Before the light was strong enough to reveal color. Across from him is an identical, white-haired boy. The twin looks up at me.

"Good morning."

Blondes Brunettes
Americans Foreigners (Mexican, Spanish, Iranian)
Attractive to foreigners and to each other. Body hair.

rule for relationships, no. 4
Identity is forged through difference. (rewrite)

At dinner, it becomes clear that the twins hate each other. One makes a comment, the other lifts his white eyebrows and rolls up his yellow eyes. "Dad, please tell him he's wrong."
The dad pushes back his sleeves, showing blonde arm hair, and starts a joke. The twins end the joke with identical laughs: (rewrites)
First, a hiss.
Then—their torsos lean forward & their heads bend down.
Finally, they shake.
How do they survive the sight of each other laughing? (The limits of self, stamped out in the inevitable hiss and shake?) I'm not sure they can.

rule for relationships, no. 5
Authenticity is the absence of formula.

As a guest, my boyfriend shines dull with politeness. The paisley couch: "What a nice sofa." Plates of spaghetti, steamed cauliflower, and bread: "What a lovely meal." The ceramic monkey: "I'll tell you why I enjoy this, Mr.—."

rule for self-preservation, no. 4
Sometimes, we must reward ourselves for being types. At the very least, we're being.

My boyfriend doesn't ski, so I keep him company at the lodge. But at night, he wants to go out.

The tubs, neon blue hexagons, float against the black of the pavement. I keep on my coat until I'm at the hot tub's edge, where I neatly fold it and push it back.

I think about frozen chicken breasts: thawing in burning water, the skin turning into satin while the center is stiff ice. The sensation of the hot tub is the sensation of thawing. Of turning into something edible—steamed, salted by chlorine—and not meant to think, move, talk.

The adults give in. They want to be edible. The woman in the red bikini across from me: her freckled, loose breasts must start to feel like they're for someone else. She closes her eyes.

We're deep in the pot. The steam is so thick we cast shadows on it.

The young teenagers mistake the danger for sexuality. A group of 14-year-old girls look at the twins and whisper. Then, one by one, in the 3-feet deep water, they stroll by. Their chests jutted out. Breast-nubs erect. Docking next to us, are shrill with success.

  (They will have a slumber party tonight. And, after hours of loud conversation, the shortest one will go to the bathroom to look at herself in the mirror. She will pretend to talk to the hand towels, to see what she looks like talking to her friends. She'll flip her skinny wrist out into the air, and roll her eyes. The spastic drama of youth. The nervous energy. Movements that are alternately too fluid and too jerky. The shortest girl will now look hard at herself in the mirror and giggle. What a success she's been with her friends tonight! It's not that she likes them; she likes watching herself with them.)

Any impulse towards movement has evaporated. The steam frizzes my hair. The neon water laps, hot and hot, against my breasts. But then, I forgot that boiling forces out germs: I feel clear snot tapping against my upper lip. Its trail from nose to lip vibrates with heat. I take a wet, shriveled hand out from the water and rub it away. But the water from my hand tightens my face, dries it out, and more snot slips out, as if it fancies itself moisturizer.

rule for self-preservation, no. 2
Learn to find comfort in yourself.

The blonde family doesn't own any kleenex. I spin out a foot of toilet paper, and keep it with me under the covers.

My hair, curled from the hot tub, stays curled with sickness.
When my boyfriend climbs into bed, he kisses the back of my head. "A childhood friend of mine had hair just like this."

rule for self-preservation, no. 1
Do not expect others to comfort you.

The twins take my boyfriend on his first ski lesson, and I stay in bed with the shades drawn. At 4 p.m., I need to replace the toilet paper I've dampened and shredded. I open the bedroom door.
The lodge is sighing. Drawing attention to its exhale, the emptying of lungs. The quiet confusion after noon—when routines, needs, are self-evident. Now: shadows that buzz with the graininess of video footage and a stillness that sounds like static. (I'm at the end of the hallway.) (A sigh is both the nostalgia for order, the necessity of the inhale, and the melodrama of despair, an emptiness of meaning.)

On my way back from the bathroom, I notice that the door to the master bedroom is open enough for me to enter without touching either the door or its frame. The bedroom is carpeted in grey and smells like other people: the scents people use to smell like other people: laundry detergent and deodorant. Sitting on the dresser's counter are two framed photos. In one, a twin is securing a soccer ball in the hard curve of his left arm, and smiling with a missing tooth. In the other, a twin is holding a baseball bat, squinting into the camera with all the menace of a blond team captain.

rule for self-preservation, no. 9
Consider having children.

I will one day set up photos of my own children. They'll be swinging through a jungle of purple vines. Their skin will shine white and their hair will be long, black and hopefully knotted. Maybe they'll be smiling for the photos. They'll have fangs.

rule for self-preservation, no. 8
Forgive the thoughtlessness of others.

BARING FEET (offender: the twins, this morning in the kitchen)

act: showing uncut toe nails and hardened
toe skin, turned white

significance: to live without consideration
of others, without expectation of judgment, without the sense that the only stable self is in others' perceptions of you

act: hiding feet in socks or socks and shoes (but not hiding feet without socks in shoes, which represents the freedom of baring feet at any moment)

significance: to live as a host of signifiers, to live as presentation, inflicting upon others your self, treating the self as a commodity

(But then, baring feet has become a signifier. People who bare their feet are proclaiming a belief in the "natural life," so baring feet is now a sign, and, as a sign—hypocrisy.)

rule for traveling, no. 1
You become the stranger.

At 6 a.m.—after the boys are asleep—I take my curly hair, my remaining toilet paper, and my heavy, sick bones to the cold morning kitchen.
I have the fridge open, infecting its food and letting the cold make me sicker, when a tall, wrinkled woman opens the kitchen door and drops her purse on the counter-top.
"Why, hello," she says. She doesn't sound happy. She has black bags under her eyes and black roots in her blonde hair.
She makes quick eye contact with me and then looks at the fridge. "You must be the sick girl. Don't worry, I'm here, okay? You're not surrounded by boys anymore." And then she smiles.

  (The tin foil of her mind isn't curled then crunched. She doesn't give off shrill vibrations. She knows how to cook, how to be a mother, how to look girls in the eye. An Intellectual without self reflexivity.
A Mind that has learned to feed off something besides itself.
[She knows how to smile.])

rule for traveling, no. 6
Loneliness in a new place feels more like anger.

action sentiment
We do, after all, say "I love you" every night. We sit on the living room sofa, next to the twins, and he puts his head on my shoulder, and touches my neck with cold fingertips. "Oh, my baby." He turns to the twins and drops his
hand. "So, tell me about the blonde girl that's guest-starring."

I'm being suffocated by cashmere. I'm inhaling relief.

rule for relationships, no. 6
People know that you are a type.

The blonde girl is an ex-girlfriend to both the twins. I understand her appeal.
She's a girl who hides her charms so that all men feel compelled to exaggerate them.
She shows up wearing glasses, no makeup, and a GAP vest that streamlines her chest.
"You must be the girlfriend. Still sick? Poor thing. Boys, are you taking care of her?"
I feel ashamed of the lipstick I put on.

over dinner,
she claps (as bimbo) she nods (as woman) she squeezes the mother's hand (as someday-mother) she laughs (as college student) she has no arm hair (as blonde) she probably has no under arm hair either (as blonde) she touches my boyfriend's hand twice (as blonde) and nods laughs (as blonde) suggests we all go skiing tomorrow (as blonde).

My boyfriend looks at the ceiling as I fall asleep. "Wasn't she sweet?"

At 4 a.m., my brain and stomach switch places, and I'm nauseous with words. I run to the bathroom, lock the door behind me, and bring up full sentences.

 V A C A T I O N

My father was sixty when he had me. He was not one of those white-bearded men in sunglasses that you see on the ski slopes or in Los Angeles—the men that believe they can transcend age with optimism and vitamins. My father could afford a child in his old age because he didn't need to marry my mother or raise me. If anything, his age required that I exist only as a symbol to him: his last chance at immortality through biology, and his last chance to write in his memoirs, "I was a father."
      He had one other child—a son—three years later. I found out his name, "Julian," when I read the will. My father wasn't dead yet, but he was morbid, and liked to rearrange his funeral preparations in his spare time. The will declared that half his fortune would go to whichever child was most fluent in French.
      He had had Julian to a French woman. My mother had only taken French in college. So she bought me a ticket to the South of France, to stay with mon pere, learn French and learn to love him. Things were always laid out very simply by my mother: "You will learn to love him."
I was sixteen-and-a-half that summer. These are the things I remember:

  • My father had a girlfriend who was 32. She was Brazilian and an actress. The first afternoon I spent in France was around a pool with the actress and my father. The actress took off her bathing suit, top and bottom, and slid into the pool. "Mani!" she cried at me. "You look so American! Girls in France never wear the tops of her bathing suits." My father, small and bald, looked at me from his towel. My breasts were my body's signature—they were unlike anyone else's, I thought. But that's not the motive of my American prudishness. My prudishness was a 16 year old's over-sexualization. I didn't know my father could see the pink around my nipples, soft and large, and not have a response. I was scared of tempting him. I was scared of wanting to tempt him.
  • The warm climate made me sick. My body had no patience for humidity. There is nothing worse than being sick in somebody else's house. No one has sympathy for you. I always believed my aging father and his actress-woman watched me grow weaker with the moral superiority that often accompanies health: the unspoken belief that sickness is (pure) mental weakness.
  • Back at home, I had a boyfriend who wanted to be a writer. he made me promise to never read his work, but whenever he left me alone in his room I scrambled to open one of his notebooks. His writings were always about the girls he had been with (but never me), and most of the encounters he wrote about occurred at night. It gave me the impression that his life consisted of many mysterious black tunnels—meaning was always around the next curve. When I tried to write about the men in my life (the two boys I'd kissed) I had nothing to say. My life was a panel of white laid out on the floor—no memory seemed important enough to write about. My life was a sigh.

My father, when I was feeling better, invited me into his room for lunch. Before pouring me orange juice, he asked, "What are your passions?"
       I was mentally naked—he had seen my absences. He knew what would embarrass me most—the constant white of my life that I tried to hide by dating or getting A's. He found it. I burst out crying.

I regret that summer. My father is still alive but I haven't seen him. He's rewritten his will but refuses to show us. My mother, whose simplicity is always suspect, is happy that I never learned to love him.


Nathalie Chicha

"The Structure of Break" was my answer to a question that, last year, continued to nag me: is the (fiction writer's) imagination anything more than a collection of stereotypes? I composed "The Structure of Break" mostly from journal entries, except for the last section—"Vacation," which is pure fiction. With "The Structure of Break," I didn't want to build a world up, but rather break one down.