Emerald City (Pt. 1) / by Brian Birnbaum

Only time caulks a torn heart with scar tissue. Maybe it’s to avoid that very hardened healing that the heartbroken often deny this process, instead choosing to engage in various damages and escapisms, often simultaneously. To divert from the immediate pain of each moment.

Following the breakup, Julia Paolantonio slalomed like a skier between texts from Peter’s druggie friends. Offers to get smoked out that only sometimes set up their not-so-subtle stabs at being her rebound. Each text was a ski-pole glanced against a checkpoint, trading up from cherried bowl-packs to key-bumps at bar bathrooms, all drug expenses written off on account of her company’s beauty (trying to get a nineteen year-old male to empathize with how she felt and thought was like trying to appreciate The Kiss for its interior marble density).

Eventually she graduated to the EDM scene. Raves where mid-rung dealers spent their excess cash, rolling on Molly and chasing chemical interconnectedness. Under schizo light shows she shook her body to dub-step boomers, Schedule I neuro-nuggets climaxing in synchronicity with a dropped beat.

She’d look around at strangers suddenly turned best friends, the experience intensified all the more for sharing this experience, a sameness that almost transcended them if not for the barren, skin-crawling come-downs accompanying her chilly walks back to campus, now, suddenly, not so interested in any sort of company. Just hours before, in those shared moments she believed her bliss not to come with an expiration. Amazing, how many harrowing come-downs it took to teach her otherwise, but then again that was incentive salience for you, being drawn to the drug’s first experiences, its most powerful hits, despite subsequent evidence to the contrary. Sounded familiar.

Then she started drinking, to come down from all those rolls compounded like hangover’s interest – and also, as if on the retrograde mend, to come down from the breakup, precisely where she’d started, where it’d ended. It didn’t help that all this time it was summer, students loitering on campus like burnouts outside a 7-11, but with money, or family money. There was ever an evolving choice of whiskeys waiting in her roommate’s cabinet above the fridge. She’d pad out and peek for clearance, swipe the resident bottle, pour several thick fingers into her tinted Nalgene, replacing roughly half of what she’d swiped with water. Often she swigged right there in the common area. Her roommate would show up, unbeknownst of her whiskey connoisseurship turning deliquescent in Julia’s shattered gut. But booze sufficed only the first few times before Julia gained a kind of caustic respect for her father’s ability to withstand hangovers and comedowns, the addict’s thankless work. She thought of the city outside. The summer had been sucked into her solipsistic binge, crushing bowling nights at the Garage and hangouts at Gasworks’ lush golf greens to unhad dots. Plus, the drink and the drugs reeked of Peter’s influence.

But the pretext of making up for missed experience proved quickly to be strange sex. She’d later identify this phase as an attempt to defamiliarize her associative lattice of love. This promiscuity she practiced until a mild illness led to an STD scare, the battery of costly tests likening fornication to that of its clinical phonemes. Plus, these misguided experiences had led back to drinking, only this time at bars, which cost money.

Then there was of course the thing in her dresser drawer. If she looked at the drawer too long, she thought she saw its contents lifting like weightless plasma from the slightest gaps, or inscrutable voices that didn’t originate from her head, beckoning her to it. Always changing shape and color within its mere idea in her mind, behind its smokescreen of solution was something infinitely black. The thing was a gaslight burning off her attention to homework (three-credit social psych class to make up for a D last trimester – the first D, let alone C, of her life). Even a friend she’d brought over – Julia caught her gazing at the drawer, the friend’s expression some complex permutation of lust that too could be reconciled.

The drawer reminded her of him, then of her granddad, then her dad, a lineage of premature pain and loss, a lesson in life higher than any education she could get here. This, though indeed painful, was, however, clear, an idea all too palpable. But Julia also began equating the drawer to…to something amorphous, which called to her from a better place. Though less painful, it was just that: the opposite of painful, diametrically contradicting its implications of pain. The drawer called from a place where understanding was possible. Where accounts were settled and time mapped out. Knowing how ridiculous this was – knowing there was no beating life’s closed design – she forced herself to turn on a Pandora comedy station, and soon was listening to a standup special while filling out a MayoClinic depression survey (the new nadir for her attentive graces).

The following morning Julia spent significant time laying sidelong in bed. Futility surrounded her. Outside her Compartment was experience, proven nothing more than derivatives of her past, reminders at every corner. Within her Compartment, either booze or brooding, cloistering experience. But here in her room was worst of all. Here in her room was the drawer, what lay within, some root force of life, its noxious hope luring her like the incense from a carnie teller’s tent, teasing her with false premonitions and fortuities. She pried herself up to her makeup mirror, the dresser drawer in question just before her knees. She stared at herself in the rotational oval glass like a latent junkie who knows their first hit will bind their fate. Triumphing the urge, she instead blessed her sodden face with cold water and went out for a constitutional. To face her grief, then perhaps what lay behind it.





Brian Birnbaum is a recent graduate at Sarah Lawrence's Fiction MFA program. He has been working on a novel for a little over three years, and this is a short story that spawned from such. He thanks you so much for giving it a read, and looks forward to hearing back.