First (she raises her left eyebrow a fraction upwards, the arch causing wrinkles to appear across her forehead) – suspend belief for a moment – this is what the woman across from her says, her hair draping down like a curtain to cover her face as she jots something down on the pad sitting in her lap. Think of something warm. Breathe in. Deeper. No, deeper than that. O frowns, then sits back farther into the couch cushions. Right now she’s pretending that everything she’s about to hear isn’t complete bullshit. She’s trying. She promises she’s trying.
Count backwards from twenty.
“This is the third time this week,” he says, adjusting his mask so it sits more comfortably on the bridge of his nose. He pulls the fabric that covers his mouth upwards, folds it carefully, then drops his hand back into his jacket pocket.
“You know I come whenever it rains,” O says. She turns to pull her legs up on the chair and leans forward to rest her chin on her knees. Other than the floor lamp in the corner and the candle on the small rounded kitchen table in front of her, Q’s apartment is devoid of any light. The dimness of the fading bulb from the lamp stretches out to reach her, warming her thighs as if it were sunlight. It feels oddly homely – the smell of vanilla from the candle and mint from Q’s shampoo drifts by gently, tickling her nose.
“I know,” Q says, his voice barely audible from the other side of the kitchen. He shifts his weight to favor his right, cocking his hip so the bone juts out above his waistband. He places the kettle carefully over the small flame. Water droplets chase one another down the metallic surface, and with each turn of the handle in attempt to balance the kettle on the flame, they fall on the burner and hiss. He reaches out and catches one on the tip of his finger, letting the water coat and run through the labyrinth of the ridges on the skin.
O clears her throat and looks up towards Q. “You need to eat more, or you’re going to blow away in the wind. Then where will I be?” She attempts a smile.
“Well you won’t be here,” he says definitively. He walks back over to her, pulls out a chair from the table and sits down, then folds his arms across his chest. Rain hits the window, the rhythm slowing as thunder rolls again in the distance.
She frowns into her empty mug. “Don’t you like having me around?”
“Not like this.”
O slumps over her textbook. The pages crumple beneath her arms. The corner end rips. She picks at it, folding it over itself into smaller and smaller triangles. Somewhere outside a dog starts barking. Her chest starts to feel tight.
Someone at the front of the room calls her name, but she’s looking out the window now. Someone calls her name again, but she’s already floating.
Count backwards from ten.
She trails behind Q, exaggerating her stride to match his footsteps each time he presses down into the earth. It’s dark now. The lights from the festival move across the water beside them, bending and distorting as the breeze pushes back against the current. The murmur of the crowd in the distance ebbs and flows with the wind. She sucks in a breath, then whistles out.
“Are you hungry?” Q asks. He looks over his shoulder and stops mid-step. His leg extends awkwardly, as if someone has right-clicked, hit pause, and walked away – forgetting about him.
“Starved.” O kicks at the back of his knee gently, knocking him off balance, and gestures to the stalls up ahead. “Up here, yeah?”
“What do you want?”
Q nods. “I’ve got an idea.”
They walk shoulder to shoulder through the crowded streets, maneuvering through groups of people. Huddled close, everyone hands off various foods from packages wrapped thickly in parchment paper, exchanging breads hiding sausage and cheese for pieces of pork and stir-fried bell peppers. They talk excitedly to one another, their faces red from the warmth of the crowd and the lingering heat from earlier that day. The air, thick with humidity and the smell of frying meat from the stalls makes O’s stomach ache as she follows Q through the crowd. He takes her by the wrist and leads her around the corner, picking up his pace as they dodge two kids sprinting by. One of the children is holding the other one’s mask. It’s red with gold leaf pressed delicately around the contours. O watches curiously as the boy reaches to try to take back the mask. He has no face.
O stands in the aisle at the grocery store, weighing her options. She punches in a line of numbers and waits for the scale to balance. Someone behind her breathes heavy. It smells like sweat. She scrunches up her nose, grabs the plastic bag off the scale, then walks back to her cart. Simple. One foot in front of the other. How do people walk normally again? Her strides feel long (or were they always this long?). Her shoes feel tight.
She pushes the cart around the corner. He’s not following her, right? No that would be ridiculous. She pictures him behind her, his feet growing wider, expanding until they pop through the heel of his shoes, pace quickening to match hers.
She jerks the cart into the canned goods aisle and breathes in.
Count backwards from fifteen.
Q buys her sweet bread smothered in honey that warms her cheeks as she chews. They sit on the corner and listen to a little boy strum awkwardly at the strings on his guitar. His fingers are too short, but he manages to thread together something pretty and soft. O bobs her head. She pulls at the bread and pops pieces into her mouth, bits of cinnamon and sugar coating her fingers. She licks them, savoring the taste.
“Feeling better?” Q asks, chewing on his own bun stuffed with red bean paste.
“I’m warm,” O says.
“You look ridiculous.” He puffs out his cheeks to mock her, a gesture O can only partially make out from where he turned up his mask to eat. She nudges him and smiles until it feels real. He smiles back, his front teeth coated in red bean paste. O laughs.
“If you take a deep breath, you can ground yourself, here,” the woman across from O says. She’s looking up from her pad of paper now, and is watching O carefully.
O frowns but closes her eyes anyway. Nothing. She waits for that a-ha moment, but can only make out the noise coming from the fan. A screw is loose. It hits the porcelain bowl with each rotation.
“It’s important to focus on your breathing when it happens. When you start to slip you need to remember to stay here, here, in the present moment.”
Here? Whatever constitutes the present moment, it smells vaguely of honey. O searches for the source of the fragrance, and peeks out to look around the room, but finds none.
“Feel your feelings.,” the woman says.
Count backwards from ten.
“I always feel better after being here,” she says, brushing her hair behind her ear. She leaves traces of sugar and cinnamon on the strands. Her fingers are still sticky from honey residue and saliva. Q walks beside her, matching her pace. His hands are in his pockets, his hair wiry from being tossed by the wind. He leans slightly forward when he walks, but his mask remains intact, looped tightly around his head and secured by a pin. O tilts forward and cranes her neck to get a better look at him. He looks back at her through the mask. She wonders what would happen if she snatched the mask off. Would his face disappear too? She shakes her head, places her hands behind her back and waves the thought away.
She’s awake and gripping the phone. She can’t remember the last time she slept through the night.
The phone is ringing.
When the woman with the pad of paper finally answers, O is having trouble breathing. There’s something pressing against her. She almost laughs. She feels ridiculous.
Count backwards from thirty.
“So I’m a distraction now?” Q asks.
O hums in agreement. “Probably.”
“That’s reassuring,” Q says. He kicks at a rock. They watch it roll down the street until it hits the heel of an unsuspecting old man, who turns and looks down, his mask slipping, then continues shuffling along with his plastic bag full of lettuce. He has no face either. No one here does. “I can walk you home soon,” Q adds. He looks down at O, who is busy watching the old man disappear into the crowd.
“Don’t remind me,” O says.
He laughs. “You really hate it that much?”
“Not exactly, I just prefer it here. It’s far away from everything.”
“Ah, so the company is irrelevant, it’s all about location. I see,” he says. He reaches over and takes the kebab out of her hands, then tugs at a piece of meat with his teeth, tearing off the corner. He holds it out at arm’s length away from O, pushing her away when she extends her hand out for it. “I’ll be taking this then.”
“Hah-hah.” She reaches out again.
Someone is trying to get her attention. She blinks a few times, then smiles. “Sorry,” she manages to say after a beat.
“Where do you go off to? It’s like you’re here one minute, then-” her friend claps “-completely out of it the next. It’s weird.”
O smiles again, her attempts at being reassuring falling flat. She’s collapsing in on herself, she can feel it the blood pumping, her head pounding behind her temples. It’s hot. She’s suddenly hot. “I’m just thinking about somewhere else,” she says. She presses the pads of her fingers against her forehead, then frowns.
“Nothing, nevermind.” O feels her cheeks warming.
“You’re still going to those sessions, right?” her friend asks.
Count backwards from-
“So, how do you feel without all of that?”
“All of what?” O asks. Her and Q are standing at a stall waiting for the cook to finish frying something, the smell of ginger floating, blanketing them in smoke that makes O’s stomach churn. The woman next to them adjusts her mask, her grease covered hands leaving fingerprints on the white fabric. The eyebrows are arched upwards in unbroken surprise.
“That mess in your head. That’s how you got here right?” The woman cocks her head to the side, then tips her drink back. It coats her lips with something vaguely red.
O leans forward and tugs on Q’s sleeve. I want to leave. He nods and holds out his hand, then gestures towards the food the cook is shaking from the pan into a folded paper container.
“The noise though. You’re still dealing with it, aren’t you? I can see it.” The woman moves closer, her tone harsh.
O steps back, gripping Q’s arm, and smiles awkwardly. “It’s still there. I haven’t removed it yet.”
“Is that what you’re hoping to do here?” the woman asks. “I’m sorry, it just doesn’t seem like a viable option is all.” She chuckles.
“Well-” O looks up towards Q.
Q hands the cook a handful of coins from across the cart, then takes the food in his other hand. “Excuse me, but I think we’d better get going,” Q says, his tone polite but biting in delivery.
The woman gives a dismissive wave. “Of course, I didn’t mean to pry.”
The fan is clicking again. The screw loose inside rolls rhythmically with the weight of each rotating blade. O opens her eyes.
“You know that right?”
Adjusting the light in the room, she frowns, then blinks a few times. “Sorry?”
“To pry,” the woman with the pad of paper says, clearing her throat. “You know I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.” She coughs into her sleeve. “I just don’t think this is healthy anymore. You need to deal with these things, not run off and ignore them.” The woman leans forward in the cushion, the leather rubbing against her thighs until it squeaks. “It’s been a little over a year, you know.”
O looks down at her hands. Strange, it feels longer. Maybe she should google search this, provide herself with some answers. It’s time to move on, they say. They chant it at her until she can’t hear anything anymore. She sighs. Her stomach growls.
Count backwards from twenty.
They are sitting near the water, the hum of the festival still buzzing behind them. Q is lying back, holding himself up by his elbows for support. “I don’t want you to keep running away and coming here.”
“But why?” O asks.
The woman with the pad of paper opens her mouth, pauses, then shuts it again. “Have you been working on your counting exercises?”
O turns to look out the window and watches the rain hit the glass, then slide down to collect on the sill. She smells pork. She can’t remember where she is anymore.
It’s dark again. Q is looking at her, at least, she thinks he is through the mask. She reaches out to touch it, but as she’s about to place her palm against the cheek, he jerks away.
“You’ve been here too long,” he says, stretching his arms upwards, entangling them around one another until his back pops. “Let’s get you home.”
“Can we sit here a while longer?” O asks. She pats the grass next to her, the dew wetting her fingers as she presses her palms down into the soil. “I’m not tired yet.” She looks over towards the water and traces it until she hits the horizon. The lights from the boat in the distance reflect on the surface until it blends together. The stars beginning falling and melting into the lake. It’s collapsing. She’s collapsing.
“Five more minutes,” Q says after a beat. He sits back down and sighs dramatically, flopping backwards into the grass. He tucks his arms underneath his head, then crosses his legs. O does the same. The moon sits above them, bright, welcoming, but distant as it watches them. Far off behind them, O listens as a group of children scream at one another through fits of laughter. “Hey, O,” Q starts, rolling over to prop his head up beside her. She lifts her eyebrows. “Sorry it can’t always be like this.”
She nods, gives a halfhearted smile, then turns back to look up at the stars. “I know I don’t have that much time to be here anymore anyway.” She glances at Q, whose mask was pressed awkwardly against his cheek, causing it to bend more pointedly in the middle and lift up off of his nose. “Let me just ignore that fact for a little longer though, okay?”
She watches him curiously, his mask becoming blurred to match the reflection of lights dancing on the water in front of them. He turns over, propping himself up on his arm.
“What’s up?” O asks.
“Count backwards from twenty.”
“Let’s slowly begin coming back everyone.”
O blinks, contacts dry, with her eyes still trained on the window. There’s a slow rumble of thunder in the distance. The pillow underneath her feels flat, as if someone yanked all the stuffing out from under her. Her legs ache. There’s a quiet murmur from the others around her. The room, cramped and smelling of feet, is too humid to be comfortable. O rolls her shoulders and drops her head waiting for her ears to adjust to the onset of sound.
“Are you here right now? Do you feel present in this moment?” A man in front of her asks. He sits, perched in a wooden chair with a blue cushion, and looks around at the crowd of people gathered in front of him. His eyes are soft and kind. Everyone around O hums together in agreement, their breathing mimicking one another until the room feels like its sucking in air as one. O shifts uncomfortably and looks around.
The man, his shiny bald head and orange robe aside, feels farther away, as if someone dragged his chair back into the wall. O blinks. Her depth of field is off. She tries concentrating and traces the folds of his robes with her eyes, then looks back up at him. She thinks of honey. She thinks of Q without a face.
“Are you here with me?”
Count backwards until you’re safe again. ■