Flowers of the Flesh

           by Liah Paterson

“Do you want alcohol?”

We barely knew the boys asking us this question, Caroline and I, but we were with them then, sitting behind the gelato shop and passing bottles of sweet lemonade back and forth.  To be fair, I didn’t know Caroline very well either.  We had become friends only recently when she sent me a brief message online requesting that she sit with me at lunch.  Her usual table, comprised mostly of the kids whose hair was always greasy and who constantly smelled skunky and of longterm hospital stays, featured a lonely boy with long blond hair who had taken advantage of Caroline’s small, frail body at a recent blackout savvy shindig.  She couldn’t remember it happening but in the morning she’d felt it between her legs.  She prefaced her request by telling me that she had read my poetry, that it had really spoken to her, and that I seemed like the sort of person she would have spent her time with if she hadn’t “fucked up so badly so early on.”

At the lunch table, Caroline was quiet.  She chuckled sometimes at our soft tongued jokes or interjected with a story about her own experiences with prescription pill popping in order to teach her dad a lesson or her many bouts with alcohol poisoning and six-hour hospital stays.

Her skin was thin and translucent and I could see the purple and blue veins beneath it dancing like bits of knotted yarn around her wrists and neck.  She wore a bandage around her left arm for two weeks and when she peeled it off there were dozens of half-healed scars kissed from the bases of her fingers to the inside crook of her elbow.  I didn’t stare but others did.  I had seen the cuts when they were new and red and juicy.  She had posted a picture online the night she asked to sit with us, drunkenly typing underneath, “I think I’m dying.”

When others tried to ghost themselves a glance she always swept her revealed skin back down underneath the table out of view.  Shaking her head and looking at us she would mutter, “It’s just rude.  If they asked about it I would just say, ‘yeah I did this.’  I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Now, in the beginning of the summer, the boys watched us and waited for an answer.  Caroline sat on the curb with a cigarette between her lips, puffing lightly and apologizing for the smoke (which curled around her jawbones like the bodies of harsh lovers) as she tried to wave it away with her fingers, like those of a raccoon.  I’d realized only moments before that the three other cigarettes Caroline had smoked that afternoon were accompanied with other cigarette-related conversational topics.  

“I don’t even really inhale. I like the smell. It reminds me of my mom, I think.”  

She picked the habit up in seventh grade and in her little afghan purse a few summers later she carried four things: gummy bears, a pack of Marlboro Reds, a small, glass, smoking bowl with black mesh wrapped around it, and a white lighter.  

There is a myth that says Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain all died at the the age of twenty seven with a white lighter in their pocket.   Caroline carried her own like some sort of holy thing; a buddha that breathed fire, a thin metal cross which with the right flick could easily burn holes in the pages of a bible.  Live so fast and so raw that you can do nothing but die young.

She looked at me.  I shrugged.  I had never touched anything resembling booze before.  She peered back at the boys, the curly headed one, the one with dark hair that fell over his eyes and said, “Sure.”

Led by the adrenaline that comes from approaching the unknown, we followed these strangers miles and miles and we came upon a house with someone else’s awards resting on the mantle.  We sat in a room off to the side with a beatnik leather couch dragged in from the street and forty ounce bottles of malt liquor.  It smelled like mildew and brown rice.  The liquid was bitter on my tongue, warm in my throat, the fingers I wrapped around the glass ripping open into needles that could have bored into the throats of my mother’s trust.

Caroline was cooler than me.  She held the bottle around its base rather than its nozzle and then she lay down with me on the cool, brown floor.  We drank until this place seemed covered in goose feathers, soft enough to curl ourselves into for weeks, maybe.  The room was moving out from under me and smelling the mixture of sweat and cigarette smoke that familiarly dragged itself away from Caroline’s skin, I was sure that I had never been so happy.  

My eyes were milky New Jersey summer hazy; I turned towards her expecting to find a smile but instead found her eyes pressed closed, her arms outstretched.  Among the scars on her limbs was one round, purpled grape of a wound.  It had petals drawn in blue ink around the edges.

I touched it with the flick of my eyelashes, absorbing its awkward cylindrical shape, an ugly neighbor amongst a road map of slanted slashes, and Caroline caught me looking.  She laughed slightly and said, “I burnt myself with a cigarette last week.  Maddy thought it would be cute to turn it into a flower.”  She went back to her previous position and awestruck, I tucked my knees to my chest and studied the ceiling.

Caroline didn’t mention her mother often.  She told me once that her mom had moved out and no one noticed for three weeks.  She never left her room anyway and most of her belongings were left behind.  I could see Caroline’s discovering her absence, her slight pushing of the door, the emptiness of it all, her mother’s objects strewn across the floor and void of human touch, the lingering scent of alcohol and cigarettes attached to the peeling wallpaper.  The idea was so hopelessly romantic that sometimes I thought of it and found my breath lost.

Her mother had manic depression, numerous addictions, and a taste for psychotic episodes that sometimes landed her in the hospital. Caroline told me early on in our friendship that when police officers caught her doing illegal things they would usually look at her with a sadness, recognizing her ill minded mother in her facial features and sometimes saying, “Oh, you’re her daughter,” before letting her leave unscathed.

I didn’t ask her about her father who took too many pain medications or her sister who dropped out of high school junior year (after we stopped talking, Caroline was quick to follow in her footsteps).  I sidestepped these topics because when she explained them I could not find the nervousness in the back of her throat whose presence I expected.  There was an eerie calm in her acceptance and the crudeness of her life.

Once, we smeared black ink across our faces, dubbing it “warpaint” as Caroline hummed, “Finish this bottle of Southern Comfort with me.”  And so we did.  We drank it down until our throats were coated in bitter sweetness.  And later that night, we sat on the couch with vodka in our tummies and adventure on our mind and we tried to watch a few movies.

Caroline said, “I’ve liked you for a long time,” and someone across the room shot, “You’ve got a boyfriend.”  She offered, “No, it’s alright, he said it was okay,” and tried to dial him on an old purple weight she picked up off of the coffee table.  Later on she stopped rubbing my arm, singing the ABC’s, her eyes fell closed, and she rested.  The rest of us put our hands under her nose to make sure that her soft breaths tickled our palms before we drifted off as well.

She cut her hair twice during our friendship.  Each time she was drunk and her hands moved rapidly across her scalp, scissors shaking between fingers.  When we first began talking her hair was as long as it had been throughout her life, falling down deadened around her thin waist.  She chopped it to her shoulders as an act of rebirth.

Later that summer, Caroline slipped back into my life by way of an old beat-up pickup truck with a girl I knew from childhood.  I slid into the backside of the car without question and they turned to me, first Caroline, then the familiar stranger.  

“We’re going to go cliff diving.”

And we were off, the windows down, I leaned my head against my window, felt the heat of the sun diluted against my flesh.  The driver wore a pair of men’s swim trunks and no shirt so that her extra layers of belly laid heavily underneath the steering wheel.  At some point she fished a small green pill from her pocket, shrugged, and she and Caroline split it.  I held my breath.

We came to the backside of an old country club; leading to our parking spot was a slew of mother-daughter houses with brown paneling and plastic animals on the front lawn.  To get to the water and the rocks we had to squeeze ourselves between a chain- link fence and a boulder and my thigh at some point pressed so hard into the matter that an imprint the shape of a clawed paw was left on my flesh.

Caroline held my hand the entire time, leading me up to a group of people that I vaguely recognized from school.  They smiled at me, asked to borrow Caroline’s white lighter, and as she led me up to somewhere far above their heads, they lit their cigarettes.

We jumped from fifty feet above into the murky green of a man-made lake.  Our bodies brushed together underneath the water and when we surfaced three men on the other side with golf clubs and polo shirts hollered at us.  Caroline chuckled, threw her arms up in their direction, and we swam back to shore.

The police came and asked us to wait back at our car.  We slithered back through the chain-link fence and granite rock and took off while they gathered up the rest.

Later as we stood seventy feet from deadly, car wreck waters on a rock quarry cut off from the street by barbed wire, I watched Caroline closely.  The girl who I did not know was pressing her face into the chest of a boy that was not her boyfriend and Caroline was standing nearby with her eyes closed.  She ventured away from us, stepping on the edge so that her now bare toes dangled into the abyss.  

She sat there like that until we left.  I stood and shook from fear of heights and possible death.

The second to last time we found ourselves together, we sat in the garage of a band whose music we had never heard.  Caroline told me with a chuckle that the night before they had fished her from a lake too drunk to speak and in the morning she had woken in their car with a sticky note on her chest that read, “You almost died last night.”

The boys were sweet and did not seem to mind it when Caroline pulled a stolen bottle of vodka from her purse, though they watched us take sips and did not partake.  One boy asked about her scars but it was so deep into the darkness of that night, the marijuana smoke, and vodka haze that I can’t remember her answer.  She smiled through it all though and when I leaned over and asked three times if I was in real life she only giggled.

We slept on the floor of a strange living room.  The duration of our rest an oversized, long-haired dog dreamt too, with his body stretched across us.  They drove me home first and later Caroline told me that one of the boys had wanted to kiss her all night but she had been too intoxicated and his morals had protected both of them.  She said simply, “That was sweet.”     

Making plans with Caroline is not in good taste.  Her etiquette is this: she will find you and with her embrace she will grant you mischief; it is not your place to request her presence where it does not come naturally.

I saw Caroline only once more nearly two years after that summer we spent causing trouble together.  Her father moved to an apartment outside of the rocking slopes where we had cliff dived and she took up now with her mother a few towns over from our own.  She contacted me online when she found I was in the area and one day, I packed a purse with tea bags and lighters and another friend and I made our way to her home.

To get to the apartment, one had to climb a fire escape and then another set of creaky stairs behind a thin, oak door.  Her mother, heavier than I had imagined, with hair thin and waved like cotton candy, sat in the corner with a cat on her lap and computer in front of her and did not look up to greet us.

Caroline apologized for the stink of smoke.  I said that it was fine.

Her bedroom was narrow, fitting just a bed and a desk, a humidifier at the foot of it all. She lit a cigarette, dragging a crystal ashtray into the space between her crossed legs.  I watched the way she ashed it, flattening the embers and the relighting the stick of tobacco over and over.  We were mostly quiet. She offered me a drag and I declined.  She offered me a cup of water and spilled coffee, bitter brown, across her light colored bed sheets.  After ages of small talk, we stood to leave and she caught me in the doorway of her bedroom.

“Do you remember all of the times I drank and I asked you to kiss me?”

I nodded.  I remembered her nimble fingers wrapped around my elbow as she begged me to touch my lips to hers on three or four occasions.  I also remembered the time that we did kiss in a street at three in the morning, tongues like snakes, drunk on sweet, syrupy whisky.

“You did kiss me once, right?”

Again, I nodded and thought yes, hard on the mouth with my back against the asphalt.

“This might sound weird.  But what did it taste like?  I hope I didn’t puke beforehand or whatever.”

I shrugged and she shrugged and then she walked me out to the fire escape to my waiting friend.  In the car, I ran my fingers across the smooth glass of the window, it was fogged and winter chilled.  I thought then: I should have told her that she tasted like disaster.