I always liked the quiet. The dull roar of an AC, pumping air that circles my body, a table, a sweating beer. I close my eyes and meditate on the noise, slowing time until it becomes my own, something that I can catch between my thumb and forefinger, like the wings of a bee—my mind racing at the same speed of its flutter—until it’s stuck, the buzz taking a deep inhale.
Then I let it go.
I love the kind of quiet that you choose to be just so. A bar early on the weekdays, a new cafe on a Saturday after the brunch crowd has gone down for an afternoon nap. The days waning past over and over again. The kind of feeling where there’s still something going on—it’s just not here.
I never seemed to have a quiet moment around you. Every thought, every moment, every inch of space seemed too precious to waste. I’d drive, talking through every song that came through the weak car speakers.
“I put this on because I thought it would shut you up,” you’d say. I’d shrug and smirk, continuing to sing whatever musical praises I had left.
I’d ask if you thought the two people across from us had just come into each other’s lives, or if they had known forever.
“They’re totally fucking, they have to be. But no one knows. Everyone just thinks they’re really close. No, don’t look, don’t make it obvious we’re talking about them.” I’d scoot into you, let them assume the same about us.
I realize now what I’ve been trying to do. The shell, I was building. The shell, I thought I could build from feeling exactly this. When you get used to the idea that you’ll never be wanted—as wholly and as truly as the damsels and princesses in the stories you read—you adapt. Become your own witch. Build your own tower. Never let down your hair.
I’d slather the shell in paint, like graffiti that would never be scrubbed away. I’d cake the outside in dirt and mud. Spray it with chemicals so not even the worst of weeds could grow. Even the rolling hills of invasive black mustard, choking Southern California in the spring, were still beautiful.
I had convinced myself that I could do without the feeling—of someone else absorbing me into their skin. If anyone came, they’d have to scrub. Scrub and scrub and scrub and scrub and scrub until they reached the end of the wire brush. Would you keep scrubbing? Buy a new brush and keep going?
This shell, I’d make from concrete. Who would want this concrete anyway? You somehow broke it as easily as plaster. It wasn’t concrete at all, shattering in a single touch. As easy as holding a bumblebee between your thumb and forefinger.
Then you let it go.
I thought I could be my own fisherman, dredging with my net through the brackish water as my little dingy sped further and further and further and further and further and further and further.
Let it be the only thing keeping me afloat. No one could follow if there was no trail, if I traveled in zigzags, from one shiny thing to the next. Eventually, I’d skim every ocean. I’d collect my thoughts like candy wrappers, airplane pieces, and krill that lay just beneath the surface of the water.
Maybe I could build something of my own—my own island where I would survive—free from want, from being wanted. I’d build a new shell from old beer cans, crushed and molded into spears. They’d point out from the moat that would lead to a Styrofoam take-out container lawn to a little shack made from driftwood with wind chimes of soda pop bottle caps. Everything patched together, becoming something with noble purpose. Once lost to the earth, finally breathing life. I thought this way, I could be the one breathing.
There was always a cost. What would my family say? My friends? The girl at the Dunkin’ drive-thru handing me my coffee every morning. Would I leave them wanting me? They would miss me, sure. But to want the body, the mind, the space I would take up? It seems selfish to assert. What would you say?
So I would build the island like I built stories, like I built myself for you to find. I’d strap the boat’s motor underneath to speed away from storms, to weave against coasts. I’d spend nights writing a lot, resting little. I’d spend days searching for peaceful waters.
I would be a fisherman, but never catch fish so they would never have to know what it’s like to feel without air, wanting to breathe water as much as I wanted them. I’d cut gashes in the net, easy enough for a minnow to swim through without realizing there was a net there to begin with. Sailing, watching it fall apart until it finally disintegrated—retiring back to the sea. A brand-new net, worn to molecules. Like sugar stirred into tea.
The truth is, I’d return soon. I’d turn my phone back on. Burn the pages I’d collected my words in. Burn the shell, burn the island. Maybe I’d start on a new one. Maybe I’d call. Let you meet me on the bank of a river, in the delta where the water is shallow and the mud is soft. I’d wait there until you come, the water lapping against my skin, warm unlike the prickly ocean of my travels. Cold and empty and deep.
That’s what I’ll do. I’m certain about it, as I am about most things. Certain that you’d answer the call. Certain you’d find me. Certain of you.
I’d build that island of all the garbage on earth, freeing the seas of pollution if it meant it would clear a vision straight to me, finally.
You’d sit with me, right here on the river, in our own little quiet as the sun turned your nose and ears bright red. I’d be chest-deep in mud, slowly melting into the earth. Don’t pull me out, no matter how much I want you to touch me. Don’t speak, let me be selfish. Let me go, forgetting the feeling. Let me continue my quiet.
I’d ask you to paint the sunrise. You’ll pull out your materials, I know you’d bring them. I’d watch you bury yourself in color. Sit with me. I wouldn’t have to wonder if I was enough.
By the time you looked up from your canvas, I’d be absorbed into mud. My skin, my eyes, my hair, my thoughts dissolved. Like sugar stirred into tea. All mud.
I’d survive in molecules. (Trust me, I planned this too.) My molecules disperse. You inhale sharply in the first moment of panic when you realize there’s not even a trace of where I sat. You inhale me into your lungs, sticking to the sides like tar from a cigarette. All I am, the quiet, the builder, the fisherman, the sailor, the mud—never just one thing—just like I always wanted, like I hoped you always knew.
I’d give myself back to the mud. I’d donate myself, just to be your next drink, your next breath.
Don’t tell anyone where I went. Let it be just another secret spot on your map, a coordinate that you’d write on a page in your sketchbook and forget about. Keep me forever, a part of you to conceal.
If anyone does ask, let them read the letter I left behind for you.
Wait for the call, when you are ill with want.
I’ll be back, I’m just lost at sea.
Yasmeen Mughal is a writer, set-decorator and conspiracy theorist. She graduated from Ithaca College with a BFA in Writing for Film, TV and Emerging Media. Her work as a writer has been a part of MPAC/ABC-Disney Comedy Writer Lab, Buzzsaw Mag and PostGrad Zine. She lives in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake with her plants and matchbook collection. She saw Cats twice in theaters. If you want to ask her how the sinking of the Titanic was an inside job, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @themughalempire on Twitter.