plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

Polaroids


by Holly Fisher

Milk Drop Study by Bradley Ennis

Her fingers are so long and thin and agile—guitar hands, artist hands, people call them—that when I watch her pinch up the last few mushrooms to put in her mouth, I don’t see her hand as a hand, but as a flower with five sweeping, closing petals, something delicate—yet definitive—like a paintbrush. She licks clean the remaining dust on her nails and wraps a strand of wet hair around her finger, twisting it anxiously, almost forcefully.

“Feel anything?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “Not yet.” We’ve brought a carton of Tropicana along with us and she picks it up from the wooden slats of the boat dock and spins the lid off. She takes a long swig, flushes the juice between her teeth, and sets the container between her legs, crossed and bare and pink. I don’t dare reach for the juice.

“Hand me the juice?” I ask. She does.

We’ve eaten all there is to eat out of the fold-over sandwich bag, but before I get to lick it clean, the wind comes and blows it away. It spins up into the sky at once, as if it’s been snatched away by God, then floats down to the water’s surface and lands quietly. I imagine perch attacking the remaining bits. I try to imagine mushrooms from a fish’s perspective: all those colors, all those scales, all that water and nightmarish algae, the threat of needle-nosed gar, the death sound of engine propellers. The perch have a fifty-fifty chance, I decide. The trip could be good or bad.

“What are you thinking about?” asks Rachel. She’s on her stomach now, sprawled across a beach towel, inspecting her forearms for new freckles. She isn’t looking at me. For once I tell the truth, since I’m not thinking about her.

“I was thinking…” I start. “Well, I was thinking about the fish, and how they’re going to eat those mushroom flakes, and whether they’re going to trip, and if they do trip, what it’s going to be like.”

“It might not be possible,” she says. “Their brains might be different.” She smoothes her fingers over her freckles as if they will disappear into her arms.

“Well, okay, maybe so,” I say. “But that’s what I was thinking.”

She looks over at me with a smile I can’t read, then pushes herself up from her towel and walks to the edge of the dock. She pauses there for a moment, bouncing on the balls of her feet, and then she kicks off and dives in. Her head slices the water and swallows her and I stop thinking about the fish. It’s her again: Rachel in the air, pointing her toes, lean muscles showing in her quads, her calves. Rachel in the air, vulnerable, manageable, no ground to stand against to make her powerful. Rachel in the air, for a second, mine.

I saw her first in art class, senior year. It was March, I think, or late February, and all of a sudden she was there one day in the corner, Mod-Podging magazine clippings and photographs into a giant artist’s book. She stayed back there the entire time, moving quickly, efficiently, never hesitating too long before deciding where to glue something. I must have been staring. I was staring—at her collarbone, the way it jutted out, defined. Her long, diluted strawberry-blonde hair, uneven bangs hanging down over her face. Her gray thermal shirt with lace trim. I was designing the final letters for my alphabet that day, a typography project: w, x, y, z. Class was nearly over and I’d barely formed the tail of my y with my Staedtler marker when Paul, a classmate in every art class since the sixth grade, came over and shoved my shoulder. I didn’t lift the tip of my marker in time and a giant swooping black slash flew up through my alphabet.

“Aaaaah, you fuck!” I screamed. “Look what you did!”

I didn’t look down at my project, but across the room at her to see if she’d looked up at my scream. She hadn’t. The girl was oblivious to everything, apparently.

“Shit shit shit!” Paul exclaimed, biting his lower lip, running both hands back through his dishwatery, shoulder-length, sci-fi enthusiast hair. “God, I’m sorry. Shit. Buy you dinner?”

“No, Paul,” I said, looking up at him from my seat, annoyed. Paul had been trying to buy me dinner—and various other equivalents—since the day he grew taller than me.

“Come on,” he said. “I feel bad.” He was clutching a sketchbook to his chest, and little penciled elves and dragons peered through his fingers.

“It’s okay, Paul,” I said. “I was distracted. I should have seen it coming.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” He shot a quick glance at her, still holding her glue brush, her magazine clippings, her composure. “Who is that girl, anyway?” he asked.

“I don’t know… I guess she’s new.” I tried to sound nonchalant, running my finger over the giant streak smudging my alphabet.

“You’re gay,” he said, “I knew it. You dream about girls.”

“Am not,” I said, straightening my spine. I looked around—nobody was listening. They were used to Paul and me bickering.

“Are too! That’s why you won’t give me the time of day!” He looked fussy, boyish, like a child refusing to touch his food. A novelty t-shirt hung from his gaunt frame like a cape. I thought to myself, that’s why I won’t give you the time of day.

“Gee, Paul,” I said, smartly, “haven’t you heard of aesthetic appreciation? Just look at her.”

“She’s okay,” he said, looking down into my eyes. “I prefer brunettes.”

“Well, thanks. But maybe I want her long hair and her absolutely intoxicating sense of mystery.”

Paul sighed, half-whispering a dismissive “whatever” as he padded off to talk to Mrs. Marx before the bell rang. It was true: I did want her long hair, but next to mine, on a pillow. Our strands would slip into a chocolate-strawberry mess.

We are glued to the bed, Rachel and I, flat on our backs, bare feet dangling over the edge. Our hair is wet with lake water and our heads press into separate pillows. We stare up at the ceiling. Even though I am not looking at her, I know she is doing only the things I am doing—rotating her feet in small circles, resting her hands on her belly, feeling each bit of breath travel up behind her eyes and down her throat and deep below her ribs. There is no chocolate-strawberry mess. My hair has darkened to onyx and slicks back over my scalp like oil. It’s nowhere near hers, which is guarded, pulled back into a low ponytail. She would sit up, and I would too, except it is physically impossible to sit up because we are tripping, convinced that we are the bed and the bed is us and we are invisible and small and gone.

Light is streaming in through the window, dusty and full of four-o’clock magic. Angel air. It gives the room the illusion of being warm, but it’s not. It’s silent except when the air conditioner kicks on and air blows over our two-pieced, sunburnt bodies and Rachel pulls in a sharp gasp of air. She shivers and I feel the reverberations slipping through the threads of the sheets like a network carrying signal. I close my eyes. Yes, the threads are a network, a million telephone lines between us; they’re ringing off the hook and I’m picking up.

“Yes?” I say.

“It’s cold,” she says.

“Don’t be cold,” I say. I try to force warmth through the telephone lines. I imagine her muscles loosening, her teeth unclenching, her shivering ceased. I imagine her nipples going soft, her gooseflesh relaxing. I imagine Rachel warm.

But there aren’t any telephone lines between us, just sheets. And even if she did tell me she was cold, out loud, right now, I wouldn’t have anything to say. I couldn’t warm her. So she lies there, sniffing back snot and closing her eyes, shaking. Her skin is cinnamon red from sun, and I worry vaguely about her getting sick, but then the worry slips and the only thing I can concentrate on is the sound of her teeth chattering, rattling, and soon I am cold, too.

The ceiling is white and bumpy, the kind that will flake off if you touch it, but the more I stare, the more it turns to icecaps and Antarctica. My vision is blue. My tongue explores my mouth, which has gone dry and numb, and I tease out bits of mushroom from my teeth. From up there in the glaciers of the ceiling, we look like two drugged-out girls who have been swimming all day. Down here, though, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

I’d been spying on her for weeks, watching her sheepishly dig through her stacks of Polaroids after art class. She sat by herself at lunch, too. She always wore headphones, always sat in the grass, always read Ayn Rand. I was in love with her, I decided, if only because she read Ayn Rand. No wonder she didn’t talk to anyone.

I stayed after one day to take a make-up exam, and as I was walking out to the deserted parking lot, I saw her. She was sitting on the curb, an oversized tweed bag at her feet and a tattered copy of The Fountainhead between her knees. The air was hinting at dusk. I walked up behind her.

“Destroy any buildings lately?” I asked. “Ruin a block of marble to fuck someone? How’s Peter? Still a goof?”

She smiled at me, then shoved the book in her bag. “Bad joke. Horrible joke,” she said. “I’ve never heard such a repulsive joke in my life.” She paused a moment and took in a couple of breaths. “But you read, I guess. That’s refreshing.”

I smiled. She didn’t say anything. I finally did: “What’s your name again?”

“Rachel. Yours?”

“Abigail.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Don’t hear that one a lot.” She tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear and stared out towards the street.

“Yeah, I guess. Hey, don’t I have art class with you?”

“You know you have art class with me,” she said, “so there isn’t a reason to ask.”

“Okay, Rachel,” I said, “I have art class with you. It’s nice to meet you finally.”

“Whatever. I’m almost out of here.”

“And you’re from…?”

“Massachusetts.”

“I don’t know anything about Massachusetts.”

“It sucks,” she said, “but it’s better than this place.”

“Your parents move for work?”

“Yep,” she said, “Dad’s in charge of some vendor or something. I don’t really know.”

“You waiting on someone?” I asked.

“No,” she said, a bite in her voice, “I’m just sitting here. Of course I’m waiting on someone. And they’re fucking late.”

“Need a ride?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know you,” she said, wryly, “and besides, they’ll be here any minute.”

“Suit yourself, Ms. Adventurous,” I said, walking away, my flats clicking against the pavement. I turned back and looked at her. The collar of her white blouse was flapping in the wind. She looked chilled. There was a thunderstorm approaching—I could tell by the thickness of the air and the muted, faraway grumbling sounds I kept hearing. “Yeah, you just sit here at school while you wait for your parents so you can go home and sit in your room and read books like you’ve done for the past month.”

She perked up at my fake meanness and said, “It’s what I do.”

I mocked her: “It’s what I dooo.” I couldn’t remember flirting ever being so easy.

“Jesus, fuck,” she said. “Okay, you can give me a ride. But only because I don’t want these prints getting wet.”

She picked up her monstrous tweed bag and a stack of prints. Four textbooks remained on the sidewalk, and I grabbed them without her asking. She followed me to my car, trying to balance everything in her arms. When she’d thrown everything in the back except her prints, which she balanced across her lap, she turned to me. Her eyes were wintermint blue, framed by lashes that stuck together in points that looked like tiny, delicate daggers.

“So,” she said, “what is there to do around here again?”

“Drugs,” I said. “Mostly drugs.”

We have pried ourselves from the bed, changed into clothes. I offer her mine from my closet since she has none, and she wears them easily, though they are a size too big. I want them tight against her, I think. The clothes are a little bit of me and she wears them dismissively, like a borrowed, bulky coat.

I’m sitting with my back against a wall, looking at her across the room in a rolling chair in front of my desk. She’s slouching, doodling with a pen onto a pad of sticky-notes that she has propped against her knee. My body feels heavy, as if I’m sinking into the floor, and my lungs feel damp and saturated—it’s hard to take a breath. All typical effects of psilocybin.

I look up, and Rachel is spinning, catapulting herself lengthwise across the bare wood floor of the room. I’ve never seen her so animated, young-looking, unaware. She is seventeen, but her spirit is three. Her eyes are lit up and her amber hair, dry now, flies behind her in lengths and tangles. Her feet are tucked under her, and when she hits the corner of a wall, she reaches out and pushes herself away from it, flying in the opposite direction. It’s human billiards, and I’m the eight ball she’ll never hit, but we’re both too gone at this point to make a decent game of it.

Everything slows down, and it takes me a minute to react after she’s fallen out of the chair. It takes me another minute to crawl over and see that she’s bleeding, and for her to tell me that the chair slipped out from underneath her and the music stand came crashing down on her. She points to her eyebrow where it sliced her, the gash red and throbbing like a miniature, swollen heart. The blood is pooling in the crease of her eyelid, leaking from the corners like tears. Instead of offering her a sock to wipe it off, I tell her to be still. I find her bag and pull out a Polaroid camera, ancient and arthritic. I point it at her, snap. She understands and we both wait for the picture to develop. Right before it’s finished, a thick clot of blood falls on it, spreading all the way to the white borders, and the picture is ruined.

“So much for that,” I say, looking at her. She’s leaning against the wall now. I expect her to cry or at least grit her teeth, but she just sits there, straight, strong, waiting for me to do something.

“I don’t know where the medicine cabinet is,” she says. Her hands form tight fists against the floor.

“Right,” I say. I don’t get up just yet. I look at her, frail and bony in my clothes, hair falling down all around her, ratty, sea-like. She smells like apples and water. I don’t care that she’s cut. I don’t care that she’s bleeding. I don’t care about infection. All I know is that I want to do something like put my hands at the back of her neck and run my fingers through the dead, dry, summer-streaked prairie grass of her hair. The blood’s dripping down to her mouth, into the corner of her lip, and she licks it away. I imagine it tastes like metal and magic, the way blood tastes, except hers probably tastes better. She looks at me, hard. I wonder if she’s going to lean into me, kiss me. I wonder if she’s caught on yet.

“So, um, a Band-Aid?” She points at the cut again. I remember now. An alcohol prep pad. Neosporin. A Band-Aid. Things that we’ll use to erase this moment.

We spent the summer after graduation together, mostly smoking joints on the top of Whitney Mountain and sneaking liquor from our parents’ cabinets. For the most part it was terrible alcohol, the sorts of flavored, syrupy concoctions meant for coffee or drinks that have more fruit than booze. We made a time of it, though.
I finally saw her pictures, which she kept private for the longest time. I only became more fascinated by her because of them, though I was beginning to see her as more of a person than as a harsh and brilliant light full of sharp diamonds, capable of
blinding me.

I’d seen Rachel tired and high, blazing, eyeliner smudged. Her feet were gangly and scarred, bigger than mine—a size eleven. She had terrible mood swings and would sometimes lapse into a period of eerie and furious quiet that made her nearly unbearable to be around. She swore it was a personal tic, something she was born with, never caused by outside circumstance. It was hard, at times, to believe that. But these small things, in retrospect, probably made her even more blinding. I probably
fell harder.

One of my favorite memories is the night we spent in her basement, the night we had Red Stripe, two six-packs, more than enough for the two of us back then—and we sat on bean bags and pallets on the polished concrete floor in the light of an old TV, swapping stories. Her parents were on business, her brothers at friends’ houses. We could have been in the house, but the basement seemed better. The chill and the dank smell heightened the atmosphere. There were darts, boxes of old things. The prospect of ghosts. Her cats wove between and around us, passing under our bent knees and flicking their tails against our arms. After a while, she went upstairs to the bathroom, and when she came back, she saw me sitting on a blanket, cross-legged, thumbing through her Polaroids. I’d taken them from her bag. I expected her to scream, but
she didn’t.

“So you’re looking through my pictures,” she said, the way an old person might say something like, “So you want me to tell you about the war.” There wasn’t a question mark, only a vague sigh, like she’d been expecting this to happen all along.

“This one,” I said, pointing. It was a shot of a grocery store meat case, all blood red and beef. “What made you want to take this?”

“Because I’d never seen a picture of a meat case,” she said. “Because I liked the colors.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” she said, nodding.

“And this one,” I said, pulling another from the stack: a pile of dead locusts, their carcasses all intertwined, little legs braided into one another.

“It’s a pile of dead locusts,” she said. “I found them under my porch.”

“Yeah, but…” I hesitated. “Why dead locusts?”

“Why not?” she said. “The composition’s nice, don’t you think?”

I thought a moment. “You just don’t seem like a girl who’d be fascinated with dead things,” I said. “I always expect those kinds of girls to have bars through their noses and wear lots of black.”

She rolled her eyes, half drunkenly. “Well, I like shopping for cute underwear. And fashion magazines. I have five kinds of perfume. I also like mud and climbing trees, and sometimes I like to stare at dead things. It’s that simple.”

“You don’t… I mean… it doesn’t seem simple,” I said. I felt the alcohol burning through my blood.

“I’m not crazy, or even hard to understand,” she said. “People just think I’m that way, and I’d rather they did. I’m not fond of people. I’m kind of a bitch. You’re all right, though, Abby.”

“Thanks,” I said.

We finished our beer and watched The House of Yes on the old TV, a movie she’d been bugging me to see. We were lying on our bellies on the blankets, elbows bent, chins resting in our hands. Rachel was wearing her glasses, clear plastic ones she only used to watch movies and drive. We were drunk, but not gone.

“Parker Posey’s fuckin’ hot,” said Rachel, from out of nowhere.

“She’s what?”

“She’s hot, I said. She’s fuckin’ hot,” said Rachel, slamming a fist down onto the hard, blanketed concrete. “I would so do her if I were a guy.”

“What if you weren’t a guy?” Drunk, I didn’t regret the statement.

“If I weren’t a guy?” she asked. “Eh, then I’d…”

Before she could finish, her hands slipped from underneath her chin and she rolled over, lapsing into instant drunk-sleep. I beamed. The only thing Parker Posey had that I didn’t was a set of Hollywood credentials and a set of supremely large teeth.

I took her glasses off, folded them, set them on top of the television. I lay down next to her and fell asleep to the sound of her breathing.

I’ve bandaged her up. A thick white pad of gauze sits on her eyebrow like a moth. I think I can see it moving—the cut, the miniature swollen heart underneath, seems to be beating: du-dun, du-dun, du-dun. Tiny streams of dried blood still rest in the creases of her eye, like sleep crust, except red.

She’s decided she’s famished and we’re in the kitchen now, wedged together at the counter, clumsily sectioning a grapefruit. The kitchen is moving, melting, squeezing in and out of itself like a funhouse mirror. The old linoleum looks particularly ancient, and the corners seem to be peeling up even further, folding in on themselves. Clustered bits of mud swirl on the floor like an army of confused ants. We’re giggling. We’re at that part of the trip. Rachel removes a large piece from the grapefruit and it stays whole. She seems proud, as though it’s a remodeling project and she’s successfully peeled off a large strip of old wallpaper. The section she holds between her fingers looks like a thick, pink snail, and the juice runs clear, trickling down her wrist. She dips it into a bowl of sugar, coats the thing, then tilts her head back, opens her mouth, and closes it over each of her fingers, licking them clean. I imagine the fruit dissolving in her mouth, the tiny pulp breaking apart into a sea of tinier pink teardrops before she chews and swallows them. The lucky goddamn pulp.

Rachel, laughing still, finishes her grapefruit and leans against the counter. She’s out of it. She holds her juiced hands at eye level, sticking and unsticking the palms. She laughs harder, like a kid. I look at her bandage again, the roosting moth, and then back at her grin. I pinch up sugar from the bowl and fling it at her like fairy dust. She chases me back into my room and we collapse on the bed. I’m getting tired, dehydrated. The bed sheets seem to be breathing, pulsating. Rachel is as alive as they are.

“We have to take pictures sometime,” she says. “Come on, come on.”

“They don’t stay the same,” I tell her. “Everything you’re seeing now, it’s going to disappear later. That’s the only unfortunate thing about mushrooms.”

“Besides the point,” she says, reaching for the camera near the foot of the bed, its strap coiled loosely around itself. I give in.

We go to my room. It’s dark already—black dark, except for the yard light. I look out the window and my vision blurs. All I can focus on is the screen, which the mushrooms have made a silvery, shifting grid, a sort of trap. I punch the screen out, frustrated. It lands in an old kiddie swimming pool I bought ages ago when Pearl had her first litter of pups. They’d strain to climb over the edge and fall in, nose first. They’d come up sneezing and soaked, their little pink tongues hanging out of their mouths like valentine hearts.

I stand on the bed and lean out the window, looking up. The stars fill the sky to the point of cloudiness. They look like clusters of glistening sand. The air smells like dirt and pine needles. The mattress shifts under my feet and now Rachel is standing on the bed, too. She’s fumbling with her camera.

“I want you to take pictures of me,” she says. “I don’t have any pictures of myself.”

“There’s no light,” I say.

“Here.” She reaches above my head and pulls the chain of a bottle-green lamp that hangs from my ceiling.

The room fills with emerald, and she hands me the camera. I go to the bathroom, and while I’m sitting, I watch the swirls in the oak door dance and melt. I think of disappearing into the door, like a looking glass. It seems easy, as if leaning forward is all I have to do for the door to swallow me completely. Instead I go back to the room.

Rachel isn’t wearing my jeans. She isn’t wearing my t-shirt. She’s sprawled out the length of my bed, and at five-feet-eleven, she spans it. She’s staring at the ceiling, hands resting on her sternum. I see the dip of her pelvis, where her hipbones jut out in smooth ridges beneath her skin. She’s wearing a sheer gingham camisole—mine—and a pair of champagne lace boyshorts—mine—and I don’t ask her where she found them. I don’t say anything. Neither does she. I pick up the camera again, try to maintain a still stance, but I’m shaking. The lens rattles. I sit down in the rolling chair and this helps. I look through the viewfinder and everything about her is magnified.

I frame the first shot around her jaw, her ear, her neck—and I click. Z-zip. Z-zip. I take another, this one of her feet pressing into my coral-colored quilt. There’s a bruise on her calf, tender like the peel of an overripe banana. Z-zip. Z-zip. I frame her stomach, flat and taut, reddened from the sun. It looks warm, like maybe it stings her to touch it, and I want to press my cheek against it, feel its heat. Z-zip. Z-zip.

Rachel gets up from the bed and pulls the chain of the lamp. The room goes black. I sit in my chair, waiting for her to do whatever she’s going to do next. She pads across the room and flicks the switch of a multi-bulbed floor lamp, the kind you can bend into different positions. It casts a harsh glow over everything, and I feel suddenly nauseous from its brightness. She throws a purple top from my closet over the lamp. The room turns lavender and languid.

“Lighting,” she says, simply, looking back at me.

I nod, stupidly; her back is turned. Her thighs are smooth and tight, lean. Her legs look like long flats of beechwood. Her arms remind me of a praying mantis’s—they’re delicate, slow, meditative, as she picks out another shirt—red this time—and throws it over the lamp. The room beats with the colored light, and it reminds me of opium, purple and sticky and fragrant.

Rachel goes back to the bed. She stands, this time, and I continue to shoot. The process is slow and painful—I have permission to look at her, nothing else. She knows what she’s doing. With her back to me, she leans one hand against the wall. Her calves flex, and the balls of her feet press into the mattress. She rises, stretching herself out. Her free hand gathers her hair and pulls it up above her head. Her neck is small, delicate, what pearls were invented for. Z-zip. Z-zip. This time, I watch the picture turn. The length of her body fades in, like the outline of an elongated violin. She watches me from the bed and I watch her come to life on film. The outlines fill. She looks inhuman, perfect, like a secret that’s supposed to stay hidden at the depths of the sea, scales shining.

Rachel screams. I look up. The lamp on the other side of the room is on fire, flames billowing up out of the light. The room smells like thick, artificial smoke, like hair burning, styrofoam melting. She pulls the shirts down and stomps on them frantically. The lamp sizzles and clicks. Rachel keeps shrieking and we’re both stomping on the shirts now, barefooted. The tar-like goo of the ruined fabric clings to our toes in strands. It hurts. The lamp lands on the floor with a deafening crash. It hits her camera, smashing it into an unrecognizable heap of metal.

I lie down on the bed, scared. I press my body up against the wall and cover my face with my hands. I’m breathing hard, on the verge of hyperventilating. My toes curl into tight balls. My muscles twitch uncontrollably.

“We could have died,” she says.

“I know,” I say, to the wall.

Rachel climbs onto the bed. She puts a hand on my hair, strokes it. She lies down behind me, wrapping her arms around my waist. Her hands clasp at my navel. I feel her nose against the back of my neck, her breath traveling down my spine.

“Just a fire,” she says, sleepily. “It’ll be all right.”

My thoughts reel. My feet burn. I turn over and into Rachel. Our lips meet and it’s the most natural thing in the world. She’s slow. I feel her hands on my waist, my ribs, my chest. I lock mine in her hair. Our mouths taste like grapefruit and sugar and girl.

About the Author


Holly Fisher

Columbia College Chicago

Holly Fisher is a writer who made her way to Chicago after growing up in Arkansas. She has performed onstage with Belle and Sebastian at The Paramount Theatre in Seattle, on air for Chicago Public Radio’s Eight Forty-Eight, and alongside Neal Pollack for Chicago’s Silver Tongue Reading Series. In addition, she performs regularly as a storyteller for Serendipity Theatre Collective’s 2nd Story. Her writing has appeared in Hair Trigger, Scholastic Inc.’s The Best Teen Writing of 2005, The Bonfire, and Things That Are True, among others. She recently snagged a BA in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago and is at work on her first novel.