A brief excerpt of this essay appeared in DUM DUM ZineIssue #5 in February 2015.
A truck outside rattles through the intersection into the movie studio across the street. Unpleasantly warm breezes blow at me from opposite sides of the room. I can hear the bus arrive at the stop below my window: the rumble of the engine, brakes, the air hiss of the open door, the driver’s muffled announcement of my street, the door sucking shut, the engine accelerating again.
On the shelf next to the window are a couple dozen books, and on top of the books is a glass tray holding several crystals. Most are variations on rose quartz, meant to make me feel good about myself or find love or something equally onerous. The remaining item in the tray is a clear crystal sculpted in the form of a skull, a gift from a friend. About the size of a thumb, it disappears in my closed fist.
When Ben was my neighbor, you could say his apartment had a skull aesthetic. Here and there, paintings, album covers, sketches, a belt buckle or salt and pepper shakers. Even though we don’t talk anymore, I posted a photo of the crystal skull on social media. Even knowing he never uses social media, I hoped somehow he’d see it there.
When he still lived at the other end of the balcony—we called it the lanai—Ben and I would spend every day together. I would sit at one end of his couch and he would sit at the other, his arm resting on the seatback, my arm crossed over my lap. Our free hands smoked. I longed for the moment we would decide to smoke, and he would cup his hand around mine, letting it linger there as he lit my cigarette. I thrilled at our hands and mouths so close together.
I’ve always loved skulls and hated feet. I knew I was in trouble the day I couldn’t stop staring at Ben’s bare foot. His straight-leg Levis ended and frayed below his ankle, and his foot stretched out on the carpeted floor. It was the same ugly carpet I had in my apartment—the color of cheap coffee when the deli clerk has put too much cream in it. I don’t know how to describe his beautiful foot—toe length? arch height?—except to say I wanted to touch it with my tongue.
I planned to tell him that I loved him, but I decided to only tell him that I liked him. We had never kissed, after all. We were friends. One night, we went to the Natural History Museum, listened to bands, and looked at all sorts of skulls—Tyrannosaurus Rex, mastodon, prehistoric hippo, jaguar, many types of sinister birds, something called a “walking whale.” Everyone always spoke to us as if we were a couple, and this night, the head of the mammal excavation unit taught us how to clean bones.
We liked to learn together. Several afternoons a week, we would hike to Griffith Observatory and set off on a mission: acquire a fact and report back. This is how the moon wanes. This is where gamma rays fall on the electromagnetic spectrum. This is what rubidium looks like in its liquid form. This is when the Tesla coil was invented. This is how long we have before we’re swallowed by the sun.
I was so nervous when we were driving home from the museum, knowing I had twenty minutes before I would tell him, before my life would change for better or for worse, that I swerved into the wrong lane. “Are you drunk?” he asked. No, I thought, not like you mean.
Standing in my open front door, I am at equal distance from the tray with the crystal skull and where I told him how I felt. It turned out worse.
Where we stood then is now a small black metal table, a pair of black plastic chairs, and ten succulents. The soot from the bus coats their leaves. Most were gifts from my student who deals cacti on the side, but a couple Ben left behind when he moved away. He also left an ashtray from Las Vegas, a can of WD-40, and a wooden cougar head that lives on top of my refrigerator. Underneath there, somewhere, if the cougar were real, would be a skull, as there is within all of us, but it remains, as ours should, unrevealed.
Chris Daley occasionally writes for the Los Angeles Times and served as a fiction judge for their Book Prizes in 2013 and 2014. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Collagist, DUM DUM ZINE, and the Ploughshares literary borough series. She has an essay in the recently published W.W. Norton anthology, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. She is Director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles and teaches academic writing at Caltech.