Issue #54

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Lilac Wine

We didn’t know what the hell we were doing. It was Lily's idea but Matt's weed. Or rather, weed chocolates, package claiming its contents to be a “premium chocolate experience.” The three of us stumbled down the road, Matt catching my eye as Lily loudly proclaimed that weed never affected her. "I just never feel it, you know?" She said this in that way you speak after a gig, when ear-deafening drums have desensitized your hearing, statement punctuated with a giggle that bubbled past her lips.

When I was seventeen I used to hang out with Matt and Lily a lot. I had met the two of them on my first day of community college, sat next to them in English 101 and stopped looking any further. We ended up grouped together by chance of seating arrangements. This particular night resembled many nights before it. I struggle to even place the season. Chilly but not cold enough for winter or fall, I suppose it must've been spring – the spring before our senior year. It was late evening, that in-between darkness of twilight when you can still see but all the color gets washed away, leaving only grayscale in its wake.

There were no cars around to hear Lily's exclamation about the effectiveness of weed, just an empty road with a few dim streetlamps illuminating our path. The trees turned into shadow giants, jagged limbs swaying and dancing in a light breeze. My eyes stayed glued to my shoes as I put one foot in front of the other on the edge of the sidewalk. The groove in the cement became my tightrope and I noticed too late as the black canvas of my Vans slipped over the lip. Matt gripped me on instinct, long fingers curling around my upper arm with a gentle tug. My thanks went unheard.

"I want some sort of job where I can be outdoors. After graduation, you know."

It wasn't the first time I'd heard Matt say this, nor was it the only response he'd given to that question of what comes 'after graduation.' After graduation, he was going to move to California with his friend Ben. After graduation, he'd take a few more classes at the college and see where it went. After graduation, after graduation, after graduation. After graduation had spurred this walk, spurred this get-together, spurred every day of our lives lately.

All the same, I hummed in response to his announcement. "Landscaping, maybe?"

"That'd be cool. Or some sort of park ranger."

"Like Carl on 'Parks and Rec'?" We both laughed, and he finally let go of me to shove his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

"Exactly. You still wanna do English?"

"Yeah. Was never gunna be anything else, you know?"

"Mom still trying to talk you out of it?" His voice was quieter at this, suddenly sober.

"Not so much anymore. Just constant reminders that I need to have a career plan. Anyway, I'm paying for all of it; will have to get a better job after graduation."

Lily, a step or two ahead of us, turned at the phrase, hearing it this time. Automatic reaction. "You started your Western application yet?" I shook my head.

"Me either. They have a good journalism program, I hear. I'm still trying to figure out about how I'll..."

She didn't have to finish; we knew what she meant. She fumbled with the package of edibles in her hand as we walked on.

Soon enough we found ourselves by the lavender farm, it's potent scent mixing with the damp grass. It wasn't the sweet floral perfume of grandma's soaps but the rich, camphorous smell of growing lavender bushes. The aroma sharp in our noses, we wandered to the outskirts of the field. Our small town was known for its lavender. We had around ten or eleven farms dedicated to growing the plant, and we held an annual lavender festival every summer. "The lavender capital of North America," they called us. I'd never attended. It brought tourists from all over, just to smell some lavender, eat some lavender-flavored ice cream, experience the 'healing qualities' of the flower. I did my best to be out of town during that weekend each year.

"I lost myself...on a cool damp night."

Taking Matt and I completely by surprise, Lily began a startlingly out-of-tune rendition of the song “Lilac Wine.” Warbling continuously as she lay down on her back, it was clear what particular cover of it she had in mind as she tried to imitate Jeff Buckley's rich, tenor vocals. On a high note, her voice cracked and shot horrendously through several octaves in an unfortunate homage to a man we all adored.

I thought a lot about Buckley back then. I didn't know whether it was out of sadness, out of fear of death, or out of fear of living. I'd ponder for hours on how he died at age thirty, having not made nearly enough music for the world to enjoy (only a single studio album was ever completed); about all that he could've should've would've been able to do; how they didn't find his body for four days after he drowned. I would picture him wading into the harbor that night, fully clothed, laughing and singing “Whole Lotta Love,” swimming, and ecstatic to begin the process of recording new material. To be doing what he loved. Then never coming back out of the water. These were thoughts that would always make me freeze, jolt back into the present with a lump in my throat.

"It's a fucking lavender field, not lilac," I supplied with a stiff laugh.

Regardless, we couldn't help but join in as she butchered its structure, foregoing the verses and heading straight into the chorus. It didn't matter that next summer we'd hardly speak, not see each other a single time, that by the following autumn I'd have a moment of panic when I was no longer able to call Lily's last name to mind (Baker, it's Baker). Our voices filled the empty farm and everything else, even if just for the moment, we could forget.

Eventually losing interest in the lavender field, we trudged back to Matt's yard. It was his house we frequented. Kind of felt like a home away from home, distant from my tourist town, my little retirement town. In this alternate realm there was no noise, no neighbors, no old people driving perpetually under twenty-five miles per hour. Nestled behind trees and embraced by the vast mountain range around its backside, it was cut off on all sides. In darkness, the jagged structure stood tall and solid, protecting us from any danger that awaited beyond it. The house itself was big – bigger than mine and certainly bigger than Lily's apartment, where two steps led you to the kitchen and two more brought you to her bedroom. We never saw his parents either; his bedroom was right by the backdoor, and there was never any reason to venture further into his house. We spent most our time outside anyway, in his field, by his campfire, or at Safeway stocking up on fudge mint cookies to eat at one a.m. when we really ought to have been sleeping but perched on his bed watching him play zombie videogames instead.

Beyond the tire swing and to the left was his family's miniature orchard of cherry trees. We ducked under the low branches of the Montmorency, leaves brushing our heads. I leaned against the trunk, ignoring the bark digging into my back as I listened to Lily talk about Seattle. She was a naturally chatty person, luculent and fearless when it came to her opinions. I'd always admired that about her. She had no problem speaking her mind and falling into rants about the

inequalities faced by female soccer players. By no means an athlete, she worked for the school newspaper and was currently writing an article on the topic. She was always ready, whether it be pay digits and World Cup winning stats on the tip of her tongue or images of torn up skin from artificial turf on her phone.

On this night she told us of when she, her mom and her sister had lived in a sketchy neighborhood so frequented with crime they didn't bother locking their car. Leaving nothing in it worth stealing, they'd rather it got rifled through than the windows smashed. No money to spare on new windows. This was all told with an air of removal, as if she wasn't sure why she'd even thought of it. Her mouth opened again.

"Lilac wi-i-i-ne," "Jesus, Lily, that's dreadful." Our gazes locked and her full lips held a hint of a smirk, "I feel...unsteady." She popped a cherry in her mouth, hand stretching up to tug another down from its bunch. I mirrored her, biting into the fruit and letting the sour flavor dominate my tongue. The bitter aftertaste stayed for hours. Before we knew it, and certainly before I could track why the conversation began, we were talking about female orgasms.

"Women hardly ever get them from just penetrative sex, though."

"Hmm?" Was Matt's reply, spitting out a pit onto the grass where it disappeared into the blades, becoming indistinguishable in the ever-darkening night, "my girlfriend does."

"Does she though? Have you asked?"

"Well she'll get like...really wet."

"That could just be because she's aroused, doesn't mean she came."

"All we're saying is the clit, Matt, the clit."

It was quiet for a while after that. We sat in plastic lawn chairs that were hard in all the worst places and watched the clouds make their way across the midnight sky. No stars.

"Listen to me–"

"Don't even start–"

"–why's everything so damn hazy?"

"I swear to fucking god–"

"Or am I just goin'..." Lily leaned into me for this part, bumping me with her shoulder as dark hair flicked across her face. I could practically feel the whir of her mind as she thought about having to catch the bus home in the morning, having to sleep on Matt's floor tonight, the $4.00 in her checking account, hear her internal reminder to check the pills left out for Grandma when she got home, speak in broken Korean to her halmeoni to assure that she took her medicine. It was all I could do to indulge her:

"Crazy, dear?"

The chairs were angled towards Matt's firepit, the remnants of wood ash from his last fire still layering the bottom. A single, charred log rested in residual powder, it's coal-black appearance contrasting against the dirty white dust.

"We don't have any wood left." Matt answered an unasked question as I zipped up my hoodie. It got stuck and I tugged incessantly until the rows of teeth finally met. Hook and hollow latched all the way up to my throat.

"Buy wood?" Lily suggested, only getting a grunt in response.

"We could go to Walmart," I started pointlessly. It was really only to contribute, maybe to see how Lily would react. I had a pretty good idea. "Buy a wooden chair, break it up, burn it."

"Hey, yeah! Could we do that?" Lily turned to Matt. She was still high. He just rolled his eyes, a passive expression on his face as he scooted closer to an absent fire, chair scraping on the pavement of the patio.

We talked Matt into bringing his guitar outside, observed as he fingered his way through various complex patterns. Hendrix morphed into Zeppelin morphed into Smiths. He could hardly see the fretboard in the hazy light of a waning moon, but he didn’t need to. The acoustic guitar he played was the same one he'd had since he was five, when it must've dwarfed him, before his hands grew big enough to stretch into a B-chord. He’d probably drawn on it in his younger teens, the body of the guitar covered in sketches. Tattoos and skeletons and quotes from books marred the surface from bridge to neck point; lived with, played often. It was a different kind of love than careful upkeep, but no less prized. I always pictured him as a musician, even if it was just a move to L.A. to join some shit band, if all they ever did was play cover songs in complete dives. I think he thought this too, every time he pulled the instrument into his lap. For just a second, I envisioned it as him plodding into that harbor. Of his body being retrieved, decomposed and dripping. Motionless and heavy with water.

I shook off the image as soft, second-natured strumming came to an abrupt stop. I looked up at Matt, watched as ghosts of a future he'd never have flickered across blue eyes. Matt cleared his throat, set down his guitar and announced he was heading to bed. I briefly wondered if the smell of steel would linger with him, the grooves in the pads of his fingers haunt his sleep.

Lily and I stared into the empty pit, bereft of warmth and light, for hours after his departure. Her head hit the plastic of her chair with a quiet pat as she leaned back. Eyes still trained on the reddish bricks, I found my voice breaking the silence.

"It makes me see what I want to see, be what I want to be."

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