Melissa Wiley

The Vapors

Drawers were becoming a problem. My dresser had four shallow ones, and I foresaw a deficit of wooden drawers small as inchworm coffins. The bedroom of the apartment where we were moving next weekend was so small and shrunken I’d have to stand on our bed to pull my clothes from them.

What do I need so many drawers for? asked my husband, he who knows I have no jewelry for instance, none besides the wedding ring I occasionally throw across the floor in a tantrum.

I need to hide sometimes, I had to explain to him, and I wanted the same for my possessions. I need hiding places for things I liked to hold at my discretion. Aside from giving my store of unmatching buttons and matryoshka dolls some seclusion, the drawers would provide a respite from the abundance of oxygen that at times became a suffocation.

Yet once we moved into an apartment half the size of the one we were leaving because our rent was rising, there’d be no space to move between the boxes. We’d have no new drawers either with which to replace them. Only a month ago, I’d watched a documentary on tiny houses and thought them cute, small spaces for people whose lives I’d never wanted, because simpler lives were for simpler people and I was complicated. I was a matryoshka doll myself containing infinite self-replicas.

Now that I’d have hardly any room for the one nesting doll I’d bought in Spain from a man from Russia, I wanted to collect them, though first I had to collect chests of drawers within which to put them. This when I’d be living in a tiny house within Chicago’s city limits according to its square footage, though people in tiny houses had rid their lives of clutter and reported feeling better for the absence. In the film, one after the other had told this to the camera, most living in Washington and Oregon. Only I liked a certain amount of clothes and books and drawers to pull open then slam in frustration.

And too many years now ago to remember the number, my parents asked me if I’d save any money from the job I’d gotten, when I said no, not really, because I’d been buying more clothing. True happiness, they reminded me, lay in immateriality. Without material comforts billowing like mushrooms given enough moisture, however, I felt fairly empty.

I regret saying it now along with a hundred other things, because they’re both ten years buried and I can give them nothing—no books, no sweaters or pajamas with ribbon threaded through their waists, though they never accumulated much of anything—they never seemed to want anything except to keep living. Now the emptiness looms so large inside of me it runs all throughout my body. The only thing I know to do about it is to read and dress nicely. Since their deaths, I have been spoiling myself constantly.

Not that I intend on stopping. With my smaller closet, I’ll only replace old clothes with new ones I buy online late into the evening. I’ll only leave more paperbacks in the laundry room’s corner when my shelves are overflowing. In the face of pain that never seems to drain from me completely, most people would develop new survival strategies. These are people I have no intention of resembling, those my parents would have thought well worth emulating. Those with cars, kids, and savings.

Perhaps by way of issuing them a tacit warning, I never took to driving from the beginning. I moved for college purposefully to a city where I could rely on public transportation for getting from point A to B. I hadn’t driven in four years once they both stopped breathing, something the old pickup my dad lent me through high school did independently.

The windshield’s wipers also soon grew tired of wiping, so I often drove while scarcely seeing more than ten feet in front of me, a phenomenon that recurs constantly in my dreams. Only in addition to driving blindly, I’m also driving backward on a highway. Fortunately, I always wake up before things end too badly.

And driving three friends of mine to a movie once I turned sixteen, rain fell not in sheets but in cassocks. Clergymen missing their bodies fell upon us from the firmament, and we hit a dip in the road filled with water I couldn’t see for all the water already falling. The truck spun twice around its axis. Though I kept hold of the wheel through the whole business, I might as well have let go of it, because my driving made no difference.

Something else was turning us, the same as a dancer twirling an umbrella while no real rain falls during her performance. And I found myself under a strange calming influence while my passengers were screaming. I found I liked being spun—I would rather someone else had driven us to the movie to begin with; I would rather someone else live my life for me, still would if I’m honest—because it’s something then and now I have equally no idea what to do with.

And while outside the rain remained liquid, inside the truck vapors stretched their arms around us, fogging the windshield even further in the process. The defroster didn’t prevent clergymen turned to ghosts within their cassocks from attempting to swallow us.

I opened the windows so the steam receded, but all three friends insisted I take them home as soon as the truck finished spinning and faced the opposite direction we were originally headed. All were blonde with eyes clear blue or an even clearer green, so perhaps they saw more depressions in the road ahead more lucidly than me, whose eyes are brown and muddied.

Less than a decade later, one became a doctor and the other two teachers, all mothers of children. So in retrospect I suppose they expected their future was important, a feeling that has never taken hold of me. I wanted to go on and see the movie but deferred to the majority’s tyranny.

I haven’t kept in contact with any of the three for reasons including the fact I doubt we’d have anything more in common now than we did then. I also imagine they’re much more self-directed of women, because their bodies were compact with muscle and ligaments, whereas mine likes to sprawl and tip its hull with flesh full to bursting. To the point, my husband has mentioned, I look blurry in photographs standing beside those who come out clearly. On film, my edges appear fuzzy, likely because my pores exhale their own steam, I’ve not bothered elucidating. My body tries fruitlessly to become more gas than solid, thinking this will make me happy.

And content as these old friends must be living within their ample houses, I envy only the fact they have more walls on which to hang more paintings and more room for storing their oddments. They harbored not an artistic impulse among them, so the space is wasted on them if not their families. Now that I’m moving into a place so small it accommodates just one chair and loveseat in the only room you might call common, I’m flooded with inspiration regarding how to decorate were the space more fulsome.

After my husband went to get our key from David, our new maintenance man, he reported he has a whole room allotted solely for his parrots. Each has its own cage strewn with newspaper rather than the bonsai and ceramics I’d fill my own cages with if I had them, wire dolls’ houses with no dolls inside them.

David, whom we’ll live across the hall from, divorced his wife within the past month yet still sleeps on the sofa. His bedroom he’s relegated to the birds he has adopted. My husband said six or seven filled the room with no other furniture inside it, and most have hardly any feathers left growing from their skin. David said that when they’re nervous, they pluck them.

And I have no idea what they’re afraid of or how to calm them. I’ll leave that to David, who also allows them to roam the hallway, he’s warned us, thinking that will relax them.

The laundry room, however, is only one level below us, so the steam from the dryers rises like a wraith come to haunt both us and the parrots. The steam is warm and fragrant, suggestive of something they might find suspicious. These are vapors being exhaled from what? David is leaving them to question, the little squawking detectives. Of clothes smelling better than them, I want to reassure them but doubt I’ll manage. You can talk all you like to parrots and have them repeat what you’ve said, but this doesn’t mean they understand your language.

Next time I see him, I’ve decided to recommend he buy an old card catalogue instead as therapy for them, one with a thousand drawers emptied of cards scrawled with now useless information so he can store bottle caps inside them. Then the parrots can open any number of drawers and peck away at the caps, purging their frustration. They can bury their heads in the drawers’ sweet darkness, because I suspect it is the open spaces that frighten them. Were all animals content to roam freely as lions a savannah, they’d build no nests, creating no cozy places. And even lions have their dens. Real liberation means hiding within an enclosure even for predators on occasion.

My poor matryoshka dolls and buttons, with no room for drawers to hold them. Even steam emanating from dryers needs room for expansion.

Around the corner from the birdhouse we’re moving into next weekend—a birdhouse because of its smallness and I too am featherless—is a Mexican restaurant. The chef is blind, and her only employee is her husband, who wears no glasses, while their cash register talks to them. When I paid for my tortilla soup after browsing my new neighborhood, the husband was cleaning a table and the chef took it on trust that I gave her the ten-dollar bill I promised. The space accommodated only four small tables, I noticed, and I watched as after handing me my change she carried another bowl of hot soup to another woman.

Again, the soup exhaled steam too aromatic not to signal something numinous. And I closed my eyes to it, because steam is a presence, not of love but thick with some intention I have yet to determine. Stand too long in its midst and your teeth ache then all your bones with it. The vapors that heated water releases want to turn all of you to softness, melting even your marrow like candle wax with no flame fluttering from its wick.

Walking toward a park after leaving the restaurant, I confronted a dead bird on the sidewalk. I stared into its eyes begun to leak sclera turned soft as albumen and felt grateful the blind chef would miss this. I also missed most of the dead birds in the world, I realized, in the same moment. I saw thousands flying, heard thousands more sound mating calls from tree branches, knowing their lifespans were far briefer than that of humans on average.

Yet where were all the carcasses? Where were all the dead geese and pigeons that alive were such a nuisance? No one buries them, but they must decay at some location. They don’t thin into clouds of steam that briefly soothe the skin. Vapors are a source of consolation only for melancholy women. Those who have no feathers to pluck when they’re nervous and have too few drawers to hide in.

And inside a Russian bathhouse later that evening where I met three other friends, I stretched out my arms and watched them disappear into water turned gaseous. These women sitting beside me in the steam room I’d known for some years yet still felt little closeness with them and they as little with me, I imagined. Because they all had houses, some with yards attached. Because they all had living parents, one a child, all careers with bimonthly paychecks—things solid with the space to hold them, all things I was missing in addition to the dead birds to whose corpses I should have been a witness. Their lives offered so many easy topics of conversation, myself next to nothing in the steam room where we’d come for relaxation. Where I should have been able to surrender to the nothingness more easily than the rest yet found little solace.

I suspect they wondered why I stayed silent while they spoke of their work and their husbands, when I just stared at my own limbs begun to blur into colorlessness. They probably didn’t know the vapors were once a shorthand for female melancholy associated with Victorians, a result, thought doctors, of wearing corsets that squeezed their internal organs. Or if they knew, they didn’t care to evoke the image of kidneys piling on intestines. I indulged myself in the picture regardless while wiggling my fingers then watching them vanish.

And as the steam grew into a revenant wholly shapeless, one friend asked another whether it was dry or wet. I said I hadn’t known varieties existed, but this went unnoticed. This steam was dry, one friend said with only one eye open, meaning all the water was heated to the boiling point then was heated further after that, so that none of the air retained a dampness.

The process is known as sensible heating and remains unknown to plants in forests where the air is hot enough for rain to diffuse into gas. Nature does not recognize something this pragmatic, only those who pay for it in Russian baths. If I am to submit to the extraction of toxins the steam promises, I would rather there be wetness.

Before I left my apartment, I’d listened to a tape on meditation rather than meditate in silence, communing with the great white nothingness that is as close as I come to worship of anything vaporous. I tried to void myself of all thought and emotion by listening to someone else tell me all was illusion.

Once I stepped off the bus to walk a few blocks farther to the bath, a man standing smoking a cigarette told me he liked the way I walked, which I thought a strange comment, because I only put one leg in front of the other and my posture tilts forward a bit. Still, I wanted to be noticed. I was aware of that much once he said it. I wanted to be a sex goddess and about ten years younger with skin smooth as butter begun to drip over toast burnt at the edges. I wanted strange men to want to touch me without helping it. Absent that, I wanted to stop wanting it. I wanted to burn up into an explosion of light no one would witness. A dead bird no one takes time to miss.

As soon as you’re dead, you may as well have never existed. I know this while still exhaling steam in winter so solid I can almost pinch it. Dead or simply missing from someone else’s sensory experience, you grow blurry at the edges. You become as phantom-like as Sammy Terry, whom no one remembers now except for me. I know because I’ve asked those I’ve grown up with, including what remains of my family, who tell me he may have been all a dream.

Perhaps I was sleeping yet more deeply while watching a man wearing a maroon cowl over a face painted green. Still I remember watching him late at night on TV after my parents started snoring. No one has since come as near to frightening me outside a body Sammy may have glued with feathers then plucked with his teeth for all this memory may conform to reality.

Yet I’m certain he materialized from steam. Apart from his green face, this was what made him most menacing. He appeared inside our TV from air grown dense as gauze, a scrim that failed to suffocate him of oxygen, because he also may have been part fish and used gills to breathe. Because the steam was wet, flush with water droplets filling our TV. The steam was hardly sensible yet living. And if he could appear from inside a plume of steam itself housed inside a box powered by electricity, there was nowhere he couldn’t be. Air only has to thicken for evil things to breed.

Inside the steam room, sitting with three women who were and are far nicer people than I have ever claimed to be, I said I expected something unworldly to happen within this steam with no moisture, only atoms dry to desiccated. No one, though, responded. Soon they began talking about a series on television I had never seen then speculating as to how much weight they were losing from the perspiration. For the first time in my life, I would have welcomed a visit from Sammy Terry, if only for the company.

The friend who invited me to the bath had gone to Puerto Rico with her husband and my own and me before she had a baby. I wanted to visit Monkey Island, I told her before we left, an island inhabited by a thousand rhesus monkeys. The monkeys, I only mentioned after they had vetoed the excursion, were all infected with AIDS for research purposes.

And as they lay sprawled upon the sand and I went swimming, I let the salt water carry me out so far they couldn’t see me, they later told me. For a few minutes, they had wondered whether I was drowning. I had tried to swim out to the monkeys, I teased, monkeys that couldn’t actually infect us with disease. For that, a male monkey would have to ejaculate inside me. But all the baby monkeys born to those mating only with their same species would die early deaths from having no immunity. They shouldn’t be allowed to mate, then, they said seriously. Why not if they enjoy it? I said, wiping a towel harder against me.

In the locker room of the Russian bathhouse, we changed into our swimsuits while trying not to observe each other’s bodies. Stepping into the hot tub together, it became harder not to see each other more closely. I am far from thin, a little plump actually, but all three of them have glistening bulges at their abdomens and yet more weighting their thigh cushions. And as we stepped into the steam room, they began discussing their diets, to the point I wondered what they did at home besides sit reading nothing of interest, watching only television.

I had been the first to arrive by twenty minutes and had sat in the café upstairs, waiting and watching Russian men wrapped in white robes fresh from the sauna watch me and a few other women also there sitting texting. A fire truck soon stopped in front of the bar across the street. I saw no smoke, and the firemen looked in no hurry to douse any flames I couldn’t see pluming from the building. They didn’t bother unwrapping the hose, simply walked inside wearing their fire-retardant jackets, their faces unshaven. And having nothing better to do, I stepped outside to see whether a fire would be lit so the firemen could extinguish it. My eyes followed a fireman with legs lean as clothespins leave his truck then stand outside the entrance, talking to a bouncer while snow began falling lightly on his shoulders.

When my friends walked inside in a few more minutes, they waved me to the lockers. They didn’t look toward any of the Russian men to see if they were noticed. They were smiling while wearing no lipstick. Had they seen the firemen? I asked them. Had they seen how handsome were almost all of them? No, they said blankly, wanting to change the subject. All week they had looked forward to this evening. Hours to themselves to do nothing except absorb steam dried into something so sensible it could do all the thinking.

In the women’s sauna after we took our showers, my mascara started running. It ran and fled and scurried to the point that one, two, then three of them tried to wipe it off my face for me. I told them it was waterproof, that I would have to sweat off a layer of skin for it to bleed off entirely, when they told me next time not to wear any. I wanted, though, to look nice for the firemen fighting no fires I didn’t know I’d see, I kept silent within me.

Sitting in our robes in a communal room where people sat watching a movie in which cars chased other cars through traffic, we paged through fashion magazines while I wished I’d brought something better to read. And when my friends turned their attention to spreads of clothes displayed absent any bodies, one by one they expressed their need to buy more clothing. Their husbands, they said, all wished they dressed more attractively, while mine only rolled his eyes at my growing collection of dresses and sweaters fitting too tightly, wondering who I was dressing for these days anyway.

Myself, I’ve told him honestly. Everything I do I do for beauty. You cannot look for beauty as much as I do and not suffer from some melancholy. You cannot steep your body’s cells as I do in poetry like some people do steam without feeling you have come closer to a reality beyond the pursuit of being happy.

Before we walked into the communal sauna, set to 200 degrees with men and women sweating in close proximity, I went back to the changing area and stood before a mirror. I took a tissue to my face then wiped off the rest of my mascara with what left my skin redder than the heat. A group of three women, each with legs more bone than anything and breasts large as grapefruits squeezed inside small bikinis, stood beside me examining their reflection. In the communal sauna, they would be the ones at whom the Russian men would be staring. The fattest of the men would wield a handful of birch branches and ask if they would like him to speed their circulation.

I sat beside my friends with their pendulous abdomens and watched as the top-heaviest of the smallest ladies lay on her stomach then untied the back of the top of her bikini. When the fattest man struck her with sticks still with their leaves attached, she began shrieking, which sounded more like an echo of something, a feint meant to make us watch her writhe like a worm dying. Because he could not be hurting her. He had only scraped her with brittle leaves to test if she was ticklish. And as I sat there watching then closing my eyes trying to not see the pleasures of other women with shapelier bodies, I tried to imagine myself being beaten by another branch, one held by a man with chest hair blanketing his neck down to his navel and sitting across from me.

As the girl stood up and adjusted her suit’s top while the men all eyed her closely, my friends walked out, saying they’d had enough heat for the evening. I stayed inside, however, realizing the discomfort was its own kind of beauty. A kind of honesty, because when I left there would be less of me. With enough heat, we would all melt into a primordial reality. Eventually, we’d all be consumed by the same nothing. Our particles would dangle in the air, dispersed beyond the recognition to which our faces held us hostage, dried by a yet drier heat.

The fat man still with his sticks in hand asked who would come next, but none of the other men volunteered to be swatted, and I was the only woman left. So he walked to the corner and added hot water to the stones, until such a steam arose that none of us could see each other’s faces. So that we might as well have all been ghosts, whether emerging or disappearing from material reality it hardly made a difference, because someone could have groped me then but didn’t. Sammy Terry was only a memory. We were bodies whose boundaries had begun to blur among smoke with no flames to feed it.

Melissa Wiley

Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Atlas and Alice, PANK, Superstition Review, The James Franco Review, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Pinball, East Bay Review, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Souvenir Lit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.