I'm busily trying to make sense of my first draft of Mya--and make it make sense where it doesn't. It'll take some time. There's moments of doubt, but also moments where I get the right word, the right turn of phrase, the right description, and it's elating. Until every line generates that feeling, it won't be done.
In the interim, as I continue to work, here's a new excerpt. Enjoy!
From Mya’s balcony, the chaos in the city looked like a single, twisted black arm from the sky tearing at the city below. The fire, which was originally just a dot of light from which the smoke grew, had become a short, thick line—if she squinted, the light looked like the dark arm’s jagged bright claws. More ominously, Mya could now hear sirens at a distance, wailing unceasingly throughout the evening. Unfortunately, the sirens didn’t eclipse her neighbors’ voices, chattering from the balconies all around her. One female voice insisted that the city was rallying air support, while a deeper voice responded that the smoke was so bad over the city that flying in the area was impossible. Two separate individuals speculated about its cause, whether it was a simple accident or arson. One baritone speaker wanted to believe it had been a bomb, and that there were more bombs spread out around the city. The same speaker implied—without subtlety—the possibility that city officials started the blaze to clear out the old architecture to make way for new builds.
Mya sighed and shook her head at their overreactions. People want to believe so badly in the end—any end, every end. Their lives are so pillowy, and so buried in routine—like a comfortable prison. And like Plato’s cave, they know there’s something else out there, but it’s too dark in their cave to find its mouth. So, they lie to themselves about their morbid interest in catastrophes, craving vivid shake-ups, conspiracies, world-ending events, yet they are unable to imagine their own bodies burning in it.
Mya was in no hurry to learn more about the fire than she already knew, and she certainly wouldn’t have subjected herself to her neighbours’ rambling and rumour-mongering had she not needed a cigarette so badly. So, she simply tried to block it out as best she could while she rested against the railing in between puffs, her eyes following the black plume up where it scattered in slow-motion into the darkening grey halo suspended over the city. It had now been a few days since the fire began in the old city, and the giant, spreading dark pillar had begun to supplant the cloud of smog overtop of the old city. That day Mya had also received her first lungful of smoky air—not the satisfying kind. The first sharp edge of the miasma had finally wafted into the boroughs.
Unlike her self-medicating smoke, the growing haze gave her a headache and she soon decided to reenter her apartment. Once inside, she clicked play on her stereo and a droning, deeply pensive song resumed loudly from the speakers. She picked up a brush and began pecking at the large canvas on her floor. Her black hair was tied back in a pony-tail, and she had on old gray sweatpants and a black Sisters of Mercy t-shirt, both of which were dotted with countless streaks of paint—she had changed into her painting clothes as soon as she got home and prepared her paints and brushes. It was her usual evening ritual, and it was only ever interrupted by smoke breaks, her generalized nausea from turpentine fumes, and her sheltered, existential despair if the painting wasn’t developing as she’d envisioned.
On this evening, Mya was nearly satisfied that the current painting was complete—as satisfied as she ever was. Each new blob of oil she dabbed was part of the final glint and shine that exposed the final layer of depth in the composition. She scurried desperately around the canvas, bobbing and goose-stepping between her paints, her many paintbrushes, and her jars of turpentine—moving quickly, as if she were trying to put down her paint before the opportunity escaped. Tangentially, Mya was aware of the lack of proper ventilation in her small apartment, despite her half-open window and fan circulating the air. When she was painting, she was obsessed, like she was performing a rite, completely immersed in its movements. In the end, no matter the subject, Mya’s paintings were all like self-portraits: something so completely her that she could look at her painting and, despite how abstract it was, she would see herself.
At a quarter after seven o’clock, her phone rang, its tone barely audible through her music, but still cutting through the deep inspiration with which she was fueled. She stopped and looked at it with a scowl. She looked back and forth from her painting and the phone as it rang—if she had been at an earlier stage of her work, she would certainly have ignored it or unplugged it. Under the circumstances, she grudgingly tapped her music off, and picked up the receiver.
“Hullo.” Mya couldn’t hold back the heavy sigh that preceded her salutation.
“Oh, am I bothering you?” Her mother replied sarcastically.
“Hi mom, of course not. How are you?”
“I’m doing great—how about you? How are classes?” She was great? Mya had a bad feeling suddenly. There weren’t many things that made her dramatic, self-absorbed mother feel great.
“Um, they’re fine. Just a few days in, right, so it’s hard to say.” Mya started to zone out of the conversation as she looked down at her painting, tilting her head one way and then the other, trying to change her perspective. In the centre-left of the canvas, there was an obfuscated, dark face with two black smears, implying eyes or caverns that previously held eyes. A naked, elongated body flowed from the head, more like a cape than an actual figure, but anatomically correct in a slightly disturbing way reminiscent of Dali’s phallic imagery. The rest of the composition had shapes of brown and grey, suggesting the figure’s surroundings were melting away into a black oblong circle that halo’d it. Mya absently recognized the resemblance to the spiral over the old city that she’d been watching the past three days.
“—pe your art classes are fun, though art history sounds too dry for me—” Mya’s mom was still chattering on without saying much of anything. Finally, she finished her small talk, and disappeared into an obvious, hopeful silence. Mya stopped surveying her work and rolled her eyes.
“Why are you feeling so great, mom?”
“Oh well, it’s just that, I am—and don’t be mad, honey—I’m back with your father.” Mya hesitated a second, wondering if she’d heard what she thought she’d heard, then she dropped the phone to her side and looked up at her ceiling, her thoughts twitching in disbelief. She could still hear a faint “Mya? Mya?” coming from the receiver before she put it back to her ear.
“He came to stay with me. That fire in the city, it wiped out that little condo he’d rented.”
“Yes, but honey, it’s not just that. We’ve worked a lot of things out. He’s so much different.”
“I can’t believe you. What am I supposed to say to that?” Mya responded icily.
“I don’t know. I know that you… I mean, can’t you just be happy for me?” Mya’s mom sniffed into the receiver and mumbled something before continuing audibly, “He’s changed! He’s completely different than before.”
“He is!” her mom exclaimed desperately, “just listen, Mya. That building plan he was working on caught some eyes and he got a well-paying job with a firm in the city. It’s really helped; he doesn’t drink as much now—you know it was always the alcohol.” The man was an alcoholic, and the implication that ‘not as much’ was possible for an alcoholic was ludicrous to Mya. “He’s even going to see a counsellor, if you can believe it.” The pride in her mom’s voice was sickening to Mya—it suggested she thought it was the period on a convincing argument.
“Honey, I’m just saying he’s made an effort to make things right. Can’t you make an effort, too?” Mya could hear that her mom was starting to cry. “Can’t you give him a second chance?”
“Mom. . .” Mya paused, barely able to contain her anger. “Some things you don’t get a second chance at.” Her voice was a quiet and monotone, but rapt with tension. Before she could hear her mother’s response, she took the phone receiver in both hands and tried to break it. When that proved too difficult, she threw it at her wall as hard as she could. The phone crashed noisily against the old plaster board, shattering into a rain of plastic and metal that landed softly on her day bed.
Her painting forgotten, she stood rigidly, staring at the point of impact and feeling her anger overflowing, wanting to destroy something else. But her headache was intensifying and every subsequent moment she stood still, she felt more incensed, more paralyzed, more stuck in memories she had buried. Her mother’s pathos and weakness turned Mya’s stomach—she was maybe worse than her dad for taking him back. Just like when she was a girl, Mya felt herself feeding on that old hate—she felt the old feelings bubbling up, suddenly impulsive and self-destructive, and her stomach felt like it was on fire.
With her nausea starting to boil up rapidly, she was finally coerced into more practical action; she stepped over to the jars of turpentine and twisted their lids tightly in place on top. She then went over to her window, pushing it as open as she could, which wasn’t much more than it was. She breathed deeply, forgetting the miasma that had settled down onto the city, and she ended up with a murky breath that tasted like wood smoke. It was finally too much for her: she ran to the bathroom and threw up the only food she’d eaten that day.
Such sickness and helplessness were like vestigial feelings from when she was a young girl, and for the first time in years, she felt them washing over her like putting on old, ratty clothes. She knew she needed to do something, to leave her apartment and distract herself, at least while the turpentine fumes dispersed. However, Mya had a distinct lack of options. A few ideas occurred and were discarded until finally—feeling manifestly defeated—she walked robotically from her apartment via the inner stairway, and descended two flights to Colin’s apartment. She hesitated for several minutes under the flickering hallway lights, watching the glow from under his door. Finally, she knocked.