Sunday, June 29, 2014

Antimatter by A.T.J. Cember

After years of wandering Apollo returns unannounced to Aviva's arms; by A.T.J. Cember.

It was only a few minutes after take-off from the runway in Bangkok that he began to wonder about Aviva, whether she had kept her promise. On the one hand, he mused amidst the rainy-season clouds, it was objectively unlikely; one the other hand, she was crazy enough to promise in the first place, and it didn't seem too much more drastic for her to actually keep her word. She wasn't the kind of girl to whom it would matter that, as the rest of their acquaintances had doubtless phrased it between themselves, he had "disappeared into thin air".

Actually not thin air, as it turned out, but the soupy monsoon breath of the southeast coast of Asia, and a few forays here and there into stretches of desert, be it in the Sahara or the Holy Land. But his wanderings hadn't included any altitude. And it was only his peers who didn't know where he was - his mother, Bridget Devereaux Wang, had been kept well informed. She had continually wired him money on behalf of herself and his father, and he continually sent expensive ethnic jewelry back by airmail for her to adorn herself with and continued to eat ramen noodles or the local equivalent form of subsistence.

Vincent Breaker knew where he was, and vice versa, to any degree that either of them found necessary. To the rest, certainly he had "disappeared". To Aviva - he had a vague, fleeting notion of his imagined presence wracking her like an obsession in nights laced with pain - he was probably considered destined to come back. She foolishly, womanishly believed in a fortuitous knotting of the universe. He remembered the gold pendant she wore against her starkly pale breastbone, shaped like a hand extended with all the fingers pressed together. He thought of how she looked with her curtain of hair, as dark brown as it could be without slipping into being black, swept into loopy precarious constructs on top of her small head, how it made her look like a priestess of whatever flights of fancy she would believe into legitimacy. Yes, it was her job to maintain such notions and she certainly would have.

He felt some degree of shame that his two sisters, women of his own blood, weren't in possession of the same radiance. He couldn't always pinpoint what was wrong - was it something having to do with their mixed blood, that one of them looked too white and the other one too Asian, whereas he was a perfect, smooth hybrid, a spectacle of perfection by integration? Was it because, as he suspected with an incisive eye but no true measurements, Aviva's frame exhibited the harmony of the golden ratio, whereas his sisters looked more like real human beings, like men, who could run and swim and lift heavy objects? His mother and father - they were beautiful, he knew. The best of both civilizations. From whence he came into this new world, where blood told you only what predisposition you have to academic subjects and athletic pursuits and not what portion of the Earth you should be attached to.

As he looked out into the inchoate atmosphere, there were suddenly many small physical details of which he was aware. For the first time since he had put them on while sitting at the airport gate he felt the pillowy feeling of his headphones, the bounciness of the rubber in his sneakers' soles. The snugness of his dark jeans, as if they clung with passion to his narrow hips and long, muscular thighs. He put his hand in the pocket of his jacket - a sleek, shale-colored affair that held the faint glint of materials science glory - and felt his newly minted ID. He knew what it looked like exactly.

Apollo X. Wang. X for a Chinese name that really should have started with "Sh". But when his grandfather came to the States as a post-doc in a nuclear physics laboratory, he had spelled it with an X, and now Apollo did, too. A bar code. A bar code that somewhere had the information tucked in that he had filled out paperwork for hours, had been interviewed for what seemed like days, had been investigated for weeks. A hologram that encoded the result: success. And a separate little plastic thing to get him through airport security. It was that kind of a job he was flying home for, an interesting and cushy enough deal to make him decide that he had had it for now with wandering around the world.

He wrested the small screen from his other pocket. One sentence to a number that hadn't been used for 13 months: "Aviva, I'm landing at Dulles at 8pm, your time." He used her name so that she would know it wasn't a mistake.



Two twenty-something women were baking vegan brownies in a small kitchen in a small apartment that Aviva Klein, one of the two, could barely believe she could afford. She was thankful for the presence of Nicole, for the warm cushion of narratives already come to pass, understood, analyzed, remembered together now for years. She felt existentially guilty for wanting to still be in college, for being against the progression of time, yearning too unwaveringly for something she could never have again. In the pillowy, chocolaty heat of the kitchen she tried to let the pain and the fear seep out of her unnoticed, overwhelmed by the bustling of her friend. Her college roommate, for whose wedding she was maid of honor. Who did not actually share an apartment with her anymore, but was here because her husband was on a business trip. It comforted Aviva somewhat to suspect that Nicole was also distracting herself from some flavor of loneliness, but when she realized this she felt terribly guilty. She genuinely wanted Nicole and Nadav to be happy. Genuinely, achingly. That someone should be happy.

At 6:51pm, as the sun was beginning to slip away and Nicole was wondering out loud whether they should stop thinking about brownies and start thinking about dinner, Aviva wandered the ten feet over to her loveseat sofa. She dug out from the cushions the phone she had flung there this morning when Nicole first arrived and hadn't bothered to look at again.



The sight of his name - elegant, fierce, black against the yellowish envelope icon - nearly blinded her. She looked upwards out the window and searched desperately for something to fix her gaze on to steady her, hold her to reality while the gates of her mind opened to viscous flood. She found a yellow stripe on a flag and watched it waver softly in the wind, her rib cage wavering with it, Nicole's voice murmuring about Indian buffet coming like echoes from the space behind, which was suddenly cavernous.

Protectively she retracted herself, vulnerable and amorphous, like a snail.

"Who texted you?" Nicole was the kind of person who started washing the pan as soon as she was finished cooking, and her voice came over running water.

"This... guy I haven't heard from in a while. Kind of unexpected." She didn't say "Apollo", because Nicole knew who he was. Knew who he was and disapproved and worried, had disapproved and worried for years. Aviva desperately needed to talk to Genevieve, who for forever had seemed like the only one who understood. But there wasn't time: 8pm! Genevieve would have to be found (Aviva saw herself running into the arms of this other girl, who always seemed a few degrees steadier and stronger, for safety and inadequate comfort) after the fact.

She and he both knew he had had no intention of asking her to pick him up. He wouldn't have anyone else driving but himself, in a rented car that, like most material objects, seemed to fit snugly to him and resonate with his essence in some way that increased his power. He had no intention of asking her to meet him anywhere, and he didn't indulge in the old fashioned ritual of asking her where she lived now, as if he couldn't just find out. But she did know that he had expected her permission, the tiniest and shortest of signals: "You can come here".

She betrayed none of the excitement, the longing, the trepidation that pressed from underneath her skin, powered her frantic amelioration of the aesthetic of her little home and her own person. It was Saturday night, and with several exhalations of thankfulness to the stars, she knew that Nicole sometimes went to synagogue community dinners on Saturday nights as well as Friday nights, so she didn't feel terrible about turning down her friend's envisioned plans for the rest of the evening. Nicole had other things to do - a whole community of people who thought of her as Mrs. Zevelev who wanted her bubbly presence at their dinner tables - and she, Aviva, did not. She had a paralyzing closet of an apartment but she was going to stay put there expecting the rematerialization of her life, allegedly having already landed at Dulles airport.



The dress she wore was skin-tight and the color of the midnight sky. She had deepened the already-deep sockets of her eyes with a pale brown color and taken a curling iron to her hair to tighten the existing helices. She perched on the love seat with knees curled to her chest, slender arms holding her legs so tightly that her unpracticed biceps were beginning to tire. She prayed. Prayed that she might not be subjected to the wrenching hurt and disappointment of the very-possible possibility that he wouldn't come. And when the doorbell rang, her eyes went skyward and her fingers to the gold around her neck, and she asked forgiveness from the god of her ancestors that the only man she would ever love was blithely alien to their ancient civilization.

When she opened the door the contents of her skin evaporated, she became weightless. She had heard vaguely of antimatter and matter annihilating each other, and wondered whether this was the visceral truth of that opaque abstraction. Apollo stood up straight and silent as usual. He made a vague movement with one hand that caused his watch to glint in the tenebrous light of the doorstep. Aviva dropped her eyes to one side, and found her face suddenly held by a dry, calloused palm. He came in and closed the door, they stood in the narrow corridor that in five feet lost itself into her living room, and he crowded her against the pale wall. His body was hungry, predatory. The air near her felt like its oxygen content was enhanced. He held her and his hands found dizzying perfection.

In a few moments, he pressed his forehead against hers. His voice was suddenly in her ears instead of her head as it had been for so long; calm, quiet, unwavering, with consonants perfectly articulated.

"Did you keep your promise?"

Her forehead nodded slightly against his.

"There's been no one but you."

He said nothing again until he was inside her. She was in a physical pain that was somehow related to the shock of this apparition, to a panic of unadjustment, a diabaticity. She longed for the comfort of his voice to soothe the burn and the frantic nature of the darkness. The sound came, concentrated and geometric, but not speaking to her. He chanted something with eerie regularity of breath, in a dying language reminiscent of endless caverns and prismatic cloudscapes. Aviva thought of the Roerich paintings she would have seen on her bedroom wall if the light had been turned on. She saw them in the dark, hallucination coming easily in these moments of existential torpor. As she was obliterated.

It never left her, the fear. It never left her and it came flooding back as soon as it was over, when he stood up and his intense perfection in the shadows towered over her vanquished shell. She trembled and let the tears soak her pillowcase that had a design like a fractal.



He stood calmly by the window, gazing out into the urbane, imperturbable night. "Why don't you stay here and hold me?" a meek, fairy-like voice asked into the darkness.

"I don't want to", he answered - calmly, quietly, with no trace of anger or annoyance. It was just a fact.

Aviva looked at him with glassy eyes. Her breathing was as steady as it would be twelve hours later, when her small frame would be drenched in Sunday morning sunlight and stretched as if by an invisible loom across a yoga mat. A stream of tears fell down her motionless face as if she were a fountain, a Rodin sculpture made into a fountain.

Apollo came back from the windowsill and sat down on the edge of the bed. If he touched her, it was only incidentally, the small of his back grazing against her folded knees.

"I don't understand" - barely audibly she started - "aren't there girls who are stronger than me, who are brilliant like you, who you could talk to and who wouldn't want you to hold them afterwards? Who have careers they care about and wouldn't dare dream my princess dreams that you won't ever make come true? But instead..."

He turned his head and studied her shape under the sheet. Her golden pendant with the ancient symbol glinted for a fraction of an instant in the streetlight. He thought about the contents of the pocket of his leather jacket, draped neatly over the back of a nearby chair. He looked at her eyes but without communication. He averted them before he spoke again, in the same voice, the same exacting brevity:

"There are. But I like it like this."

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