By Kirsten Imani Kasai
Zola is a performer, an ocean inside a girl, an actress vying for a part. Her personality is in flux; constantly evolving, she is a fluid creature who adapts to the tenor of a relationship. Never the same person twice, she is a mythical changeling, the devil’s baby from the dark heart of the woods. Those who wish to be saved must set out charms and recite incantations against her, take garlic and wolf’s bane to ward away the changeling. With the soft-boned boys (those with hearts of caramel and brains of red-hot cinnamon), she is austere and cold. She is the ice that melts against their warm tongues, the stolen sugar running sweet inside the pockets of their cheeks. When the boys are callous and fly away like supersonic jets, she is honey and treacle and jam. What they would mold and crush inside their fists, she becomes. She is element X in any equation, the unknown quotient.
Zola runs through people like Kleenex during allergy season. Maybe they are good and useful when fresh but ultimately, disposable. You find her behavior distasteful? Lamentable yes, but not despicable. Life is like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box; Zola loves to mull over her choices, nibble off the corners and finally slice all the candies in half to see what’s inside, which ones she can accept or reject. She is the sort of person who bites the heads off Easter bunnies and animal crackers, to demolish the bodies limb by limb. Otherwise, she is the one nibbled, sliced in half, sucked and slurped down with predatory relish.
It’s no surprise then, that she often wonders, “Where am I?” Wonders, “Whose hand is this that I hold in my own? Whose teeth gnash and wake me, whose thoughts are these in my brain?” Memory like an elephant holding a sieve, she cannot always recall the transformations, the instigating factors. Does water have body memory? It cannot, it is bodiless. So too, does she flow to fill the vessels put before her.
Her karma comes back like this:
A lucid glowing green spilled across the sky, chartreuse clouds dripping down over the corners of the day as reckless as wasted absinthe. The glassed-in mall temporarily closed and the employees herded into the service corridors, sterile white painted cement, each numbered steel door opening to disgorge a few excited or anxious workers into the growing throng. Zola bustled along, giggling with her friends and delighted by the sudden reprieve. Everyone was giddy with anticipation; the storm made them all restless. The noise in the corridors rang shrilly and ricocheted off rough walls. Zola watched the crowd, though she tried not to. Was he working today? She didn’t want to be caught off guard by him, Jason the dairy man, the banana split boy, managing a soda fountain at his age, honestly. She’d been thinking convenience when she chose him—afternoon delights, lunch-hour frolics—not suicide-pacts and poetry. He’d been so hurt, the look on his face terrible in its wounded innocence. Marriage was not in her nature.
The storm grew and rattled the floors. The lights flickered and dimmed and went out all together. Women shrieked, voices buzzed. A security guard made a vain attempt to shout directions at the milling crowd, a bullhorn distorting his words. The crowd surged against her, someone pushed through. The palpable darkness was as thick as paint. A hand brushed lightly against Zola’s belly. Instead of moving on, retreating in apology, it lingered. The hand touched her again, rested its full weight on her stomach before seeking, like some awful intruder, entrance. Zola held her breath. Bodies pressed in from all sides, murmuring, their voices piqued with fear. Beyond the steel service doors the tornado steamed overhead, gathering speed, roaring like a train, an angry lion. The stealth hand undid a button. Zola numbed with surprise, horror, excitement perhaps. A taint of metal on her tongue; even in the dark, the green air was sharp with ozone. The hand crept in, hot and a little damp, pressing itself against her naked skin. She dared not breathe lest it stop, or continue. Further, deeper, she closed her eyes, her sight deprived by the pitch blackness but her nose and ears keen. Oh! She recognized the voice in her ear, Jason’s suede voice, his scent of waffle cones and hot fudge.
He whispered “What have you done? Do you know what you have done to me?”
Windows popped from their frames, broken glass showered the mall floors. Safe in the darkness behind the doors, another button popped open. His breath on her neck, his hand hot against her flesh, insistent as if he were going to reach inside her, grab her warm liver in his hand and squeeze until the bile surged in her throat. She remembered something then, a moment of weakness one far-flung sunny afternoon, the two of them adrift on an ocean of white sheets, savoring their sweaty after-glow. The sunlight had bounced off his loose curls and lit him from behind, haloed like a saint, this triumphant George fresh from dragon-slaying. Zola yearned to peel back her skin and expose her very bones to him; he would lick and adore each one. But if he was Saint George, then she was the dragon and he would have gladly cut out her heart. She had turned away and hidden her face in the white pillow.
The tornado raged and grew silent. Jason’s hand was inside her blouse, fingertips measuring her heartbeat. Silence hung suspended in the air; at any second the other shoe would drop, the lights would come on, Jason would lose his bravado and slink away. She would feel nothing but the absence of his warm hand over her heart. Should she reach for him, steady his wrist, reveal her naked skeleton to him or simply turn away, exhale, keep safe inside her scaly dragon suit.
Jason withdrew. His hand skimmed the length of her bare, goose-pimpled arm and pressed a crinkly package into Zola’s palm.
So water flows…his had been a cracked pot. Did he not know that? She was mistaken. She believed he would be sweet because he drove an ice cream truck. The lights powered on. Jason had disappeared into the crowd. Zola looked down at the thing in her hand. She broke open the fortune cookie and read “You are the star for which all evenings wait.”