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Ariel Chu

Afterimages

APERTURE

 

Issue No. 5 || REVERENCE

Syracuse, New York

 

1. THE PROTAGONIST

 

The day we meet, we bond over our broken hearts. Walking around the man-made marsh, we try to hold the universe accountable. Are we doomed by our watery star charts? Is Catholicism responsible for every bad impulse? What does it mean that love can be vicious and unfeeling? We talk for many hours, compressing the years between us.

 

Later, we’ll sit on my porch, watching an old Halloween decoration twist in the breeze. We’ll talk books and teaching and the time you almost died, breathless in your apartment. When a pandemic shutters the world, you’ll find me on the side of the road, taking trash out with gloved fists. “Hey!” you’ll shout from a rolled-down car window. “Hey,” I’ll respond, raising a hand to you from six feet away.

 

2. A SMALL VIOLENCE

 

In the kitchen, a yellow jacket bristles against the window screen. Before I can act, you take a broom, smashing the insect into the sink. We watch as it twitches on the outer rim of a dish. Is it you or me who reaches for the hot-water faucet? Who sends a column of steaming gray water crashing onto the yellow jacket? Side by side, we watch its tiny body boil and froth in the drain.

 

Yes, we understand these small violences. This is the first of our many quiet agreements. We shoot each other grimaces at a conference. We ruminate over synonyms and power plays at the dinner table. Two years later, we realize we’ve been reading the same esoteric Taiwanese book. “Collective consciousness,” we text each other—a tiny, cosmic moment on the bus ride home.

 

3. BLACK FLY

 

After a bad summer, you invite me to your lakeside rental. You’ve brought paddleboards, oars, kayaks. I’m no good on my wobbly paddleboard, and the waves eat me up. So you rescue me in your kayak, pulling me to shore.

 

As we ride the water, pain stabs the crook of my knee. Something’s stung me. The yellow jacket’s ghost has risen, come to take its revenge. Life-affirming fear darkens the edges of my vision.

 

When we get to shore, I ask you to check the back of my knee. Surely there’s a welt, some sort of swelling. “I don’t see anything,” you reassure me. “A black fly probably bit you. They’re harmless.”

 

We eat pizza on your patio, watching the sunset. I’m still thinking about ghosts, the way old sadnesses can rear up, then sting. “I’m so close to quitting everything,” I tell you. It’s the only time I’ve said this to anyone.

 

4. HEADACHES

 

When I get my first concussion, you’re there with the best Earl Grey tea I’ve ever had. I close my eyes and you read to me, pausing to laugh or write comments in the margins of your book. Your voice unravels the thick, gray wool coiled in my skull. The shadows fall across your studio apartment, too beautiful for a city like this.

 

We’re supposed to be editing a literary magazine. These days, every task feels like a long shrug. But you are there, brow crinkled in thought, proofreading hundreds of pages with me. We fuss over small details together, the setting sun turning your walls gold.

 

In the winter, we walk back from campus in the snow, then hug on icy intersections. The powder collects on our faces, our jackets, the gray scarf you’ve knotted around your throat. “You can visit me anytime,” you say. And I believe you, which is a small miracle.

 

5. ANOTHER HAUNTING

 

One hour past midnight, I’m in your apartment, listening for ghosts. You show me the evidence: your whitewashed, too-bare bedroom. The sink where your boyfriend’s hair combusted into a nest of flame. The ring of dirt where a potted plant fell, missing your skull by an inch. Through the window, strangers glare up from the sidewalk, their eyes reflecting streetlights.

 

I want to protect you from the invisible. I bring you pyrite, sage, palo santo. I tell you to sleep in your living room. Maybe the ghosts will be deterred by this one word, “living.”

 

Another night, I leave your apartment too late. A man appears on the sidewalk behind me. I walk the breathless seconds home, then take out my phone to tell you. I know, I saw, I watched closely, you respond. Across the street, your second-story windows cast squares of light. At least in the visible world, I am protected.

 

6. THE RETURN

 

My first year in Syracuse, I lived in a tiny bedroom that tilted to the right. Whenever I sat in my wheeled desk chair, I’d find myself rolling backward. My bedroom was connected to an indoor patio with large windows. In the summers, the windows trapped sunlight and bugs. In the winter, pieces of insulation and paint cracked off the wall.

 

But in the fall of my first year, I would lie on the sloping patio floor, listening to the sounds of the house. Was it right to be here, feeling and doing so little? Beneath me, I could hear my roommates laughing in the dining room. In those days, I felt a thick sheet of plastic separating me from the rest of the world, and I heard all laughter as if from a far-off place, distorted.

 

I didn’t know that later that month, I would go to the apple farm with everyone in my cohort. We would sip honeyed cider, rolling the fizzy sweetness over our tongues. We would ride a wooden tractor into the orchard, then tear into the trees, crunching the reddest fruit between our teeth. When the sky turned orange, streaked over with pink and gold, we’d pose for group photos, our laughter darkened by shadow.

 

On the ride home, strapped into the car of someone I loved, I’d think, yes, this is where I belong. Or yes, this is where I am now, and where I am now is good. Sitting in the dining room, eating real Chinese food together, we’d watch the night unroll like an old song. Yes, I’d think. There’s a life to be made here, whatever it means to live.

Ariel Chu

Ariel Chu

she/they

Ariel Chu is a PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, where she was awarded the Shirley Jackson Prize in Fiction. Ariel has been published by The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and The Common, among others. Her works have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net Award, and Best Short Fictions Anthology, and she has received support from Kundiman, the Steinbeck Fellowship, the Luce Scholars Program, and the P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

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