Illustrated by Cathleen Abalos
We took the countless flights of stairs up to the roof of the engineering building, and though I was out of breath and my thighs ached, the view was worth it. The sky was starting to turn pink as the sun made its way behind downtown Los Angeles. It was one of those rare days when the smog wasn’t so thick and we could see for miles. There was downtown in front of us to the right and the Hollywood sign to the left. I could see the houses and the buildings and the tiny specks of people in toy cars meandering through rush hour traffic. I stood with both arms folded and took a deep breath. The roof was dusty. There were dried leaves scattered across the concrete and ivy growing on a small section of the brick wall that jutted out from behind the staircase. I closed my eyes and let the sun burn my eyelids. There was a strong gust of wind.
I followed May through a maze of wires and we meandered through the whirl of large fans, laughing past the sign that said “Authorized Personnel Only.” Maybelline Diop. Her parents were Senegalese and she spoke fluent French because she had lived in Dakar until she was seven. She was wearing cutoff shorts, a nose ring, and that giant kinky afro that has been coming back into style. I was giddy and warm and basking in her presence. If she had told me to jump off that roof, I think I would have. I think I would have flung myself as hard as I could, smiling all the way down. There were so many things I would have done for May. Like the time I drove from Long Beach to Santa Monica in the middle of the night because her car had stalled. Her parents were out of town. “I didn’t know who else to call,” she had said to me that night as we stood on the side of the road. She had put her arms around me and I had thought I would float away into the dark.
May took my hand and we walked to the edge of the roof. We sat in the dust and I stared out into the city, but I knew she was watching me, and it made me so nervous my hands began to shake. She was one of those girls who caught your eye and didn’t look away. She never looked away. She held your gaze with such intensity that it made you feel naked. And her eyes were so dark, jet black. They scared me sometimes, but they were the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning.
The wind was blowing hard, and May pulled her hair up and began to wrap it in one of those Erykah Badu scarves. On her shirt there was a pixelated face with the words “Make Art, Not War.” She bent her head as she wrapped her hair and her neck was long and fluid and her chin prominent and pointed. She was dark skinned and even toned and smooth. She had a way of smiling without smiling. Taking in her energy like she was a life source, I watched her tie her scarf. When she caught me staring, I looked away immediately and turned my gaze to the cloudless sky, tracing it from one end to the other and letting the wind ruffle my shirt and blast my knees. We sat in silence for a few minutes, floating in our own thoughts. May was one of those people you could be quiet with. But she also loved to talk, and slowly she started on one of her little lectures about chakras, about the universe and the limitlessness of our existence. She was one of those mystic girls. Campus was full of them.
I met May the year before when we were both sophomores. We were in a large class and she sat next to me. She told me that I had a very soothing vibe. “Like warm milk or honey,” she said. I looked at her, her dancing eyes, her firm lips, and I knew then that I had no business talking to a girl like May. I wasn’t a very adventurous person. I was incredibly straight-edge. I had grown up in the suburbs near Long Beach, in a yellow house with a white door. I read too much. I cut my hair short and kept my chin clean. I liked math and I wanted to be an accountant. So there was nothing unique about me at all, not like May with her crystals and her afro and her French-speaking African childhood. I was sure she would soon find out just how boring I was and move on with her life. But I liked her from that very first day when she laughed and said she would call me “good vibes guy” instead of Kenneth. We became fast friends in a way that I had never been with a girl. I was used to admiring girls like her from afar, pining from a distance but doing nothing about it.
On the roof of the engineering building, I could feel May’s eyes burning into the left side of my face. She was like that. You could sense her even when you weren’t looking at her. She had a distinct aura, a gravitational pull, and I could feel her everywhere I went. She could walk into a room and I would know immediately that she was there and know where she was standing. From the corner of my eyes I saw May fold and then unfold her arms. She did this often. She was sitting to my left with her legs crossed and she had suddenly stopped talking. I looked at her and she looked away. She was soft sometimes, but she didn’t like to show it. Slowly, she put her right hand on my left thigh and traced the stitching on my jeans. Her hands traveled just to my pockets where she jiggled my keys. I jerked away without thinking, alarmed. May looked surprised, a little hurt, and her bushy eyebrows folded into a frown. She let out a small sigh, and I saw her bite her lip. My hands were shaking. My heart racing. When she reached for my shoulder, I flinched. I almost jumped off the roof trying to get away from her. I was surprised but not surprised by my own reaction.
We sat in silence for a few more minutes. I continued to stare at the cloudless sky and to pretend that nothing had happened or that my heart wasn’t beating out of my chest. May sighed and waited and called my name. “Kenneth.” But I wouldn’t look at her. The truth was that even though I loved May, I was really afraid that she would devour me, that she would break my heart. She was unlike any girl I had ever liked. She was daring and sharp. She was tall and dazzling, always surrounded by other dazzling people, people who spoke multiple languages and played instruments and knew obscure topics. One day, she hosted a house party with her eclectic group of friends. Guys with dreadlocks, guys who could paint and play bass danced with her while I seethed in the corner, scared and helpless. She looked at me across the dance floor and I looked away. I ran and hid. And then I went home kicking myself, swearing that I would make a move the next time I saw her. But I felt inadequate, unexciting, just the “good vibes guy.”
May got up and dusted off her shorts. She twisted her neck from side to side and stared into the distance. Then she began to walk away. I jumped up immediately and followed her. At the staircase, she was cold. “I thought we were gonna hang up here for a while,” I called after her. “You wanted to watch the sunset.” But she walked down the stairs without looking back. Outside, she was already on her bicycle. I jumped on mine and chased after her and we rode past the track field, past the university gym, my ears ringing the entire time.
On the corner of Jefferson and McClintock, there was a fork in the road, left to her house, straight ahead to mine. I had to salvage the situation.
“Can I come with you?” I asked meekly as we stood waiting for the walk sign.
She shrugged. “Whatever.”
We rode to her house in silence and the whole time I thought I would slap myself. My thoughts were jumbled, swirling in my head so fast that the friction could have sparked a small fire. At her house, we tied our bicycles to the wooden pillars and took the creaky stairs up to her door. A few of her roommates were home, burning incense in the kitchen as we walked in. They were playing some new age music, lots of cymbals and drums that bounced around the old house with its creaky stairs and dancing ghosts. Upstairs, May closed her bedroom door behind me and fell on her bed, lighting a stick of incense before closing her eyes. It smelled of jasmine. I took a deep breath, my palms sweating.
She had hung some of her paintings around the walls of her room, pink-tinged watercolors of vast landscapes, naked women, contorted flowers, multi-limbed gods. There were knick-knacks from here and there: a small Buddha she had bought in Thailand, a wooden mask from her father’s village in Senegal, a patterned parka from Peru. Her room was everything I loved about her: that she had been to so many places and seen so many things and that she shared these things with me so willingly. I had only been to Mexico, but she never made me feel lame about it. “We’ll go to all these places together,” she would say. “Just me and you.” I stood awkwardly by the door, then sat at the edge of her bed.
“What do you want?” May snapped as she turned over to lie on her stomach, her back to me. Her shorts were climbing up her thighs and her skin was the smoothest brown, that type of brown that makes you think of some Caribbean coast, rum and reggae with nothing but blue for miles.
I looked at my hands. “I don’t know,” I said.
“You’re messing with my head,” she said slowly. I had never heard her bitter before. “One minute I think you like me and the next minute it’s like you don’t even know me.”
“I’m not very good at this,” I said. I wanted to tell her the truth, that I didn’t feel like I was enough for her. But I sat there instead and stared at my hands.
She said nothing and for a moment I thought she had fallen asleep. I took off my shoes and climbed into her bed. I lay on my back and stared up at the ceiling. She was particularly fond of quilts, and there were about four quilts hung up around her walls. On her ceiling, she had hung a yellow and orange quilt with the words “Mother Africa” stitched beautifully behind a setting sun. I stared up at the quilt and imagined myself on a wide plain, nothing but sky and flatness, with a mirage in the distance.
“You know what your problem is?” May suddenly said, turning so that we were both facing the ceiling.
“What?” I asked.
“You think too much. You’re always in your head. You have that frown on your forehead when you’re thinking and I see it all the time. Just jump. Just close your eyes and jump.”
I closed my eyes, and we lay still for what seemed like hours. I could hear her breathing gently as we floated off to sleep. As I slept, I dreamt that I was standing at the edge of a large canyon. The canyon was sharp and jagged and the bottom was pitch black. I closed my eyes as I leaned over the edge. I paused for only a second. And then I jumped. And that was the beginning of May and me.
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