Joyland

The Midwest |

Blue Girl

by Emma Törzs

 

The inside of the freezer was very blue and the girl was very blue as well.  Her eyelashes were silvered with frost and her pale limbs arranged over the bags of ice as if she were armchaired and sleeping.  Julie came around the corner of the gas station, tugged open the heavy freezer door, stared down, and was dumb.  The wrongness of it clattered through her like dice: how girls shouldn’t be in freezers, how they shouldn’t be blue, how they shouldn’t be splayed out like this, so cold… For a moment no one breathed but the freezer, panting mechanical huffs of frost into the April air, until finally Julie’s lungs unclenched with a ragged gasp, and she began to scream.

 

Later, when they let her watch the footage, she’s embarrassed by how shrill her voice is and how long she goes on for.  Her screams echo from the small television and flap around the tin trailer, graceless as ducks. At one point she cries a little, even after the blue girl has sat up and blinked open her frozen eyes.

“Of course we’ll be disposing of this tape,” the producer says, reaching over Julie’s shoulder to the small screen so he can spin the volume down as her screams reach a crescendo.  “We would never dream of using it.  And again, Julie, on behalf of the station, I apologize for how much distress we’ve caused you.”

Maybe he’s not the producer.  Maybe he’s a tech guy, or the candid-cameraman, she doesn’t understand how television works.  He’s to the side behind her, one hand on the back of her chair, and she shifts her shoulders abruptly to try and get him to step back.  She doesn’t like that he’s said “how much distress we’ve caused” instead of “the distress we’ve caused” – the quantification of distress seems to put the blame on her.  There was too much distress.  Irrational distress. 

“I don’t know who would think that was funny,” she says, her eyes still fixed on the moving image of herself.   “I think it’s pretty sick.”

“We’re very sorry,” the producer says again.

Onscreen the blue girl is crouched beside her on the sidewalk, and she turns her blue face imploringly up into the hidden camera, one blue hand on Julie’s back as she mouths Stop.

The camera goes dark a moment later.

 

Julie works at a coffee shop that does most of its business when the men’s A.A. meetings adjourn at the church next door.  The guys come over afterwards, leaning on the counter and ordering herbal tea because they get free caffeine in their meetings and are already hopped-up and jittery.  She’ll never admit this aloud, but she likes alcoholic men better than most other kinds.  Likes the sober ones, anyway, the ones who’ve gone through A.A. and have been trained to speak about themselves in settings filled with other speaking men.

“So you’re twenty-five,” Willie says, pulling the butterscotch scone forward and digging out his wallet, a beautiful leather piece gone faded from years in the pockets of his jeans, pockets that bear their own worn white patches in the shape of the wallet.

“Yeah,” Julie says, clanging open the cash register.  “Almost twenty-six.”

“What no one tells you,” Willie says, “is that the older you get, the more dead bodies you’ll see.  And this one wasn’t even really dead.  Take it like a practice round for the real thing.”

She hands him his change and he drops a dollar into the tip jar.  “It felt real,” she says. 

“Julie, so do lotsa fake things.  Nightmares, fool’s gold, my ex-wife’s titties.”

“God, please don’t bring Sonya’s tits into this.”

“Why not?  She sticks ‘em every other goddamn place.”

Julie grimaces and waves him away.  “Go eat your scone.  Like, way over there.”

Willie cackles and sits down by the window in the white sunlight, a sweet Minnesota April uncrossing its legs on the street outside.  It’s true, what they say about spring, how everything’s charged-up fresh, bodies unpacked from their creaky winter bubble-wrap.  Julie isn’t in the mood to be unpacked.

She sets about rearranging the staling pastries left in the bakery case, most shelves bare save for sheets of wax paper scattered with crumbs and desiccated blueberries.  There are muffins in the storeroom, and croissants, and an entire luxurious carrot cake, all waiting to be thawed; and thaw them she will.  She’ll go in the back and stand before the silver walk-in freezer and open it up and waltz inside easy as anything, because the coffee shop freezer is nothing like the one at the gas station, and the blue girl wasn’t blue after all.

She was young, though.  Young and pretty like the photographs that smile up from shrieking magazine pages – tragedy! abduction! someone’s daughter!  Girls pretty as actresses, which the blue girl must be, and Julie wonders if even now she’s in the freezer, lying in wait, or if she’s been fired and the show’s found a different actress, a different gag, learned their lesson from the pitch of Julie’s screams and her threats to call her (non-existent) lawyer.

The blue girl was a good actress.  Played a good dead.  Even the moment when her eyes had snapped open, as blue as her skin, she hadn’t seemed alive; and when she’d touched Julie’s back, her hand was cold.  And had she spoken?  Julie remembers her lips moving on-screen, Stop, but she doesn’t remember hearing a word. 

Julie’s rag pauses in the path it’s been making along the countertop.  She does remember how the blue girl had sat up, how she’d climbed from the freezer to kneel on the warm cement.  But the memory is from on-screen, from watching the footage afterwards – more vivid and more real is the memory of the blue girl still and silent, chest unrising, blood unmoving, her skin like the skin that forms across a lake in January. 

Maybe, Julie thinks, and her heart comes up to stammer in her ears.  Maybe she’s been twice-fooled.  Fooled into believing the blue girl was a living body playing a dead one, while really she was dead all along, and playing alive.

Years ago Julie had gone to her grandmother’s wake and seen the corpse laid out in the casket, waxy-white and unmistakably dead.  And she remembers that death had been so distinct from life in that moment, the barrier between them so clear.  To see her grandmother’s body had felt a little like waking up from a vivid dream.  How in a dream she might believe herself awake, believe that the crocodile coming towards her in the supermarket was a living, wide-jawed danger, and she might run from it and throw cans of spaghetti-os at it and dart through the narrow aisles under a beating fluorescent light, and that crocodile would seem as real as anything – but then her eyes would slip open, she would take that first wakeful breath and realize that this, this was real life, and that was just a dream, and how could she have ever mistaken the two?

But now Julie doesn’t feel as if she’s come awake at all.

Bells ring.  Customers coming through the door.  Men laughing, shedding flannel, always too-warm after the air-conditioned confines of the church, and though they fill the coffee shop with noise, their voices sound false somehow, flat and faraway as if heard through tin cans and a length of rope. Their movements jerky and arrhythmic.  Julie stands behind the counter and watches them distantly and feels a fine shiver shake her body.

“Julie,” one of them says, gentle and indistinct, and she can’t focus to unblur his form, but he’s pale, too pale, his eyes sockets too dark.  “Julie, are you all right?  You look kinda pale.  Ray, does she look pale to you?” 

“Yeah,” Ray says, reaching out a hand.  “Hey, why don’t you sit down for a second, huh?  Your lips are all blue.”

 

When Julie gets home, her roommate is on the couch playing virtual soccer, tongue between his teeth and the controller clenched in his hands as he squints at the television.

“Hey,” Matt says as she comes in, but he doesn’t glance away from the screen.  “Thought you weren’t gonna be home ‘til eight.”

“Yeah.” Julie drops her bag next to the door and hovers uncertainly over a chair.  “I got sick.  Called Anna in to cover for me.”

“What kind of sick, like puke-sick, or cough-sick?”

“Just dizzy, I guess.”

“You okay now, though?”

Julie shrugs, but Matt isn’t looking at her, and her eyes too are drawn to the brightness of the TV.  She watches the pixilated soccer ball bounce around, Matt jolting forward in his seat and rocking dramatically back, swerving his hands as if the movement he makes on the couch will have some impact on the screened field.

“I’m still freaked-out from yesterday, I think,” she says.  “I keep thinking about that body.”

“I really wish you’d gotten the footage,” Matt says.  “I woulda killled to see your face.”

Julie’s quiet for a moment, and the TV gives a canned cheer as Matt makes a goal.  “It really scared me,” she tries. 

“I can imagine.”

“I was so sure she was dead.”

“Well,” he says. “Aren’t you glad to be wrong?” He swings his controller frantically to the right, and Julie gives up.  She goes into their kitchen and fills herself a glass of water, drinks it leaning over the sink and watching out the window as their neighbor’s kid plays fetch with his curly, panting dog.  Behind her the old refrigerator hums softly as it works, giving the occasional rattle when ice falls from the ice-maker into the tray, and Julie remembers learning about the speed of molecules in some long-ago biology class, how they move faster in heat and slow down in the cold.  Like a pause button, freeze! and everything goes still, blood turning to molasses, the heart stuttering to a stop, the voice suspended.  Then, when the door is opened, when warmth pours in, everything can start again, can sit up straight, can jump out of the freezer and crouch living on the sidewalk.

Maybe Julie saved the blue girl’s life.  Or maybe she melted her and now she’s a puddle on the pavement, dampening hems and being splashed-through by heavy boots.

Matt is still on the couch when she passes by on the way to her room, still staring intently at the screen, and for a moment she’s confused.  He’s perfectly motionless and the controller lies at his feet untouched, yet tiny men are kicking tiny soccer balls around unassisted.  They’ve broken free, she thinks, unsnapped the wires – but then she realizes that he’s swapped his videogame for a real soccer match, and they’re real players, a real field.  The net shakes with a goal and Matt cheers alongside the crowd.  

 

In the dark that night she wakes from an uneasy sleep, disoriented and sweating.  She’s shoved off her thick quilt, and the sheet tangles in her legs and doesn’t let her kick.  There is a high, cold jangle of sound filling the room, a sluggish pulse of green light, and Julie fumbles on her nightstand for the cell phone, croaks a hello.

There’s silence on the other end, the white noise of a connection.

“Hello?” Julie repeats, lowering the phone to check the caller ID screen: unknown.

“I can’t stop thinking about you,” the blue girl says finally.  “I’m so tired.  I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in two goddamn days.”

Julie’s room is illumed dully by her open window, the sky outside a watery-inked city grey.  “I’m sorry,” she says, filled with an obscure, jittering excitement.  She’s surprised to hear the blue girl’s voice, but not surprised to recognize it.

“You’re a really loud screamer.”

“I know that.”

“I keep hearing you scream.  Whenever I close my eyes, you scream me awake again.”

“But the joke was on me,” Julie says, rising to her knees.  The cool air is knocking at her window and so she lets it in.  “You were the joke.”

“I’m not a joke,” the blue girl says, sounding hurt.  “What a nice thing to say about someone. Jesus.”

The blue girl has a voice like tepid water.  There’s silence, until Julie realizes that it was her turn to talk and she might have missed it.

“Hello?” she says, panicked. “Are you still there?”

The blue girl crackles a sigh down the line.  “You tell me,” she says.  “Tell me where I am, if you’re still screaming.  Am I right where you left me, freezing my ass off?  You don’t seem like the type of person to scream at nothing.”

“I’m not,” Julie agrees.  “Not at all.  I barely even cry at movies, ever.”

“Neither do I!  But it’s funny, sometimes I’ll sit in the dentist’s office and just break down over one of those women’s magazines, with the pie recipes and the ten-day fitness plans.”

“I know what you mean,” Julie says.  Too well: the chalky smell of toothpaste, the whirr of drills, and the mascaraed receptionist at the desk behind glass, spinning on her spinning chair and staring as tears soak a glossy slice of apple crumble.

“Listen,” the blue girl says, and she sounds suddenly younger, shy.  “Do you want to hang out sometime?  Tomorrow, if you’re free?”

A lamp flickers on in the hallway and Julie’s door is limned in light.  There’s the hollow rap of knuckles on wood.

“Julie,” Matt calls, voice sleep-soaked and groggy.  “Are you on the goddamn phone at three in the morning?”

“Yeah.”

“Is everything okay?”

“It’s fine!”

“Then would you keep it the fuck down, please?  I’m trying to sleep, and you’re in there screaming.”

 

The blue girl lives in a cinderblock apartment on the West Bank, above a small Somali-run convenience store.  A group of older men are sitting outside on the sidewalk in green plastic lawnchairs, talking and laughing and smacking their knees, but they fall quiet and lower their eyes unhappily when Julie walks by.  Their silence unnerves her as she rings the blue girl’s bell, and she’s relieved when the buzzer sounds instantly and the shabby door clicks permission.  As she disappears up the stairwell she can hear their conversation start up again. 

“Hey,” the blue girl says when she opens the door. “Don’t mind the smell, I burned a batch of pancakes this morning.”

Julie follows her into the apartment.  It’s compact and sunny, sparsely furnished, and there’s a lingering film of smoke that floats across the white ceiling, lit up bright and winking, or maybe it’s dust.  The blue girl is as lovely as Julie remembers.  With her long blue limbs and colorless mouth, she looks more like an actress here in her own home than she had in the freezer with cameras on her.  Julie wants to reach out and touch, wants to feel the temperature of the skin or grab the arm to articulate the slim elbows, but this isn’t her apartment and that would be taking undue liberties. 

“Are you thirsty?” the blue girl asks, leading Julie to the kitchen.  “I have beer or lemonade.  Or water.”

“Beer would be great,” Julie says.

“Oh thank god,” the blue girl laughs, bent into the fridge. “I didn’t want to drink alone.  Not that I’m going to drink drink, but you know what I mean.”

Julie leans against the blonde wooden countertop, lightheaded.  The blue girl pops the top off one of the bottles and hands it over, then opens one for herself.

“Cheers,” she says, and they clink and swallow.  For a moment they’re engaged in their own space, the slide of cool beer and the mechanism of the throat, but then the bottles are lowered and the blue girl chews nervously on a fingernail. 

“I can still hear you,” she says at last, an apology and an accusation. 

“You’re still blue,” Julie points out.  They stand in the small kitchen and eye each other warily, two flashlights directed straight at one another and nothing lit up.  Outside on the street someone barks a seal-like laugh, and it sounds canned, released by a button instead of a body.

The blue girl says, “So I have this idea.” 

Her bedroom is separated from the living room by a length of cloth nailed to the top of the empty doorframe, and she holds it aside and gestures Julie in before following her and letting it drop.  There’s one window above the bed at the far end of the small room, and the blue girl gestures for Julie to sit down in the square of light that falls on her yellow blanket.

“Here?” Julie asks, sitting, and the blue girl nods but doesn’t turn from where she’s rattling purposefully at her dresser, clanking glass and tucking a large plastic bottle under one arm.  This, Julie thinks, is the moment to leave.  To let the apartment sink like a mirage back down into the sand of the city with the blue girl trapped inside, forever at the dresser half-poised to turn.  A still-shot, and Julie walking fast down the street, moving on.  She so badly wants an end; but she knows, too, that leaving now would be endless.  There would always be a string dragging behind her, a trail for anyone to follow or tug on and unravel.  So she sits, and the blue girl completes her turn.

“Lie back,” the blue girl says.  “This quilt is ancient, so I don’t care if you put your feet on it.”

Julie stretches out awkwardly on the bed, propping her sneakered feet on the blanket, and the blue girl sinks down beside her hip.  She reaches out and clears Julie’s hair from her face with a deft, familiar touch, fans it out around her head.

“Okay,” she says.  “Close your eyes.”

Julie obeys and sinks into bright darkness, the overhead lamp burning red through her lids.  She starts a little when the blue girl’s cold fingers touch her temples, and then work their way over her forehead.  They smooth over her brow, curl around the shell of her ear, and what feels like a thumb is swiped tenderly across the bridge of her nose. The blue girl’s hands work under the hollows of Julie’s eyes, over her cheekbones, around her jaw and to her neck.  The press of fingers on the lines of her throat is uncomfortable, and Julie swallows with difficulty.

“Hey,” the blue girl says.  “You’ll say if I’m hurting you?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“So far so good?”

“So far.”           

The blue girl pushes aside the right strap of Julie’s tank top, bears gently down along the dip of her collarbone and across the top of her breast.  The strap is replaced, the next removed, and now across the left clavicle, lingering on the knob of the shoulder, then up the neck again behind the ear.  A pause, and Julie’s arm is lifted for the coolness to be massaged into her hand, over the knuckles, the elbow.  The light is dimming through her lids as she grows languid under the touch, and it’s as if the ceaseless, rhythmic strokes are slowly wearing down the separation between her skin and the blue girl’s fingers.  She feels expansive, inclusive, feels like she’s all body.

“Almost done,” the blue girl murmurs from above.  “Just gotta –” and she passes her fingers over Julie’s eyelids, light pressure and then release.  “There.  Okay.”

Julie blinks open her eyes, still feeling the ghost of fingers on them, and she sits up carefully, her mind surfacing as from a deep sleep.  The blue girl watches her re-orient, and then she says, “Stand up, come with me.”

The bed creaks fretfully as Julie leaves it, and she allows herself to be steered towards the corner of the room, towards a tall, flimsy mirror in a plastic frame.  With the blue girl’s hand on her shoulder, she stands before it.

In the reflection are two blue girls, two girls tinted like the edges of a bruise, like mid-water, like the photographed idea of ice.  Their lips hold no blood, their lungs no air, and their glassine hearts don’t beat.

“See?” the blue girl says.  “Do you see, now?”

She wipes a hand across her cheek, offers it forth. 

“It isn’t real.”

Her blue fingers come away blue.