MUSCLE MEMORY

BY JULIANA LAMY

It starts with an Old Spanish style on Cordova. We’re heading over to the Checker’s a few blocks away, and we’re walking down Jefferson, about to hit the Western Union on Ridge. There’s a tinfoil sky hanging over us.

When the days are gray like this it always makes me nervous as hell. Gray doesn’t take any sides, it’s neutral. And on days like this it feels like everything else is trying to make up for that, trying to make itself extra special. It’s all moving faster. Nothing has any soft lines anymore, no sluggishness, and I’m looking at a world distilled. Cars with solar flare paint, buildings with razor blade corners, trees and grass and bushes with radioactive leaves. Shining with that bright green shit they need gloves and special suits to handle, energy irrepressible.

Makai’s walking up ahead of me and I can barely keep up. He fell out of an animated feature, edges refined, skin that kind of brown no one’s ever gonna come up with a good name for. You’d find it in the woods, maybe, if you spent enough time looking. Maybe you’d see it if the earth got sick and its skin got thinner, and the hot gold magma inside its veins brushed up against the dirt you’re standing on. See how the colors run into each other, climb across one another, slot into each other to make something you still can’t name, something that sears any commentary to the back of your throat and closes your mouth shut. Makai’s like that. Inexplicable.

And inside the capsule of the bright fast day, he’s the brightest fastest thing for miles. You ever met anyone like that? Those people you feel like you can never really get a good look at— they’re moving too quick, you can’t see them anymore, dammit, you blinked and now they’re gone—but fuck it all to hell, you’re gonna try anyway?

We’re walking past the Western Union logo when he says it.

“We’re really gonna be the only ones not going to Lion Country with everybody else? This is some bullshit.”

I nod. “Yeah, it’s fucked.”

“It’s like we never get to do anything. Everything costs money, everything has a fucking age restriction.”

When Mrs. Richardson told us how much Lion Country’s entry fee was, Makai and I were devastated. Looking at our faces you would’ve thought we’d just gotten laid off after twenty years of dedicated, back-breaking work.

Everyone else was going. Of course they were. Our parents loved the idea of having us go to the better uptown school, but I don’t think they thought it through. Don’t think they ever really considered it. How lonely we’d be.

We’re walking past the bus stop now. Some guy older than my dad stares at Makai, tracks him with his eyes. I move up to Makai’s left, block him from the guy’s view.

“And are we even technically done with eighth grade if we don’t go? Like yeah, we’ll be in high school next year or whatever, but we still missed a huge part of what makes our last middle school year bomb.”

I see King’s Creek across the street, and I watch a big Mercedes drive through the gates. I don’t even notice that I’ve stopped walking until Makai’s nudging my shoulder.

“Leto? Leto, what’s—”

He cuts himself off. I don’t think the silver Lincoln turning into King’s Creek expected an audience today. The old guy driving it gives us a weird look. He barely gives the gates enough time to open.

“Hmm.”

When I look over at Makai, there’s a little smile on his face. Small enough to miss if you’re not looking hard enough. He had it that Thursday last year, when he asked Ms. Henderson to use the bathroom. After lunch that day everybody went back to class, but most of our teachers weren’t there. Turns out the knob on the teacher’s lounge door stuck. We got an extra free period right then while our janitors tried to figure out how the hell to fix it.

Had it when the lady who lives in the modern-style five-bedroom up the street from our complex woke up bald the morning after she hit me with her Lexus and drove off.

Had it right before he broke his arm walking up our landlord’s driveway, a few weeks after she tried to have him and his family evicted.

I narrow my eyes at him, suspicious. “What?”

He shrugs, noncommittal. “How badly do you wanna go to Lion Country?”

And I think about it. I really have to think about it, because whatever Makai’s about to suggest… it’s gonna need everything from me, no space for doubt.

The gray’s almost completely gone now, leaves the sky a chalky blue. I’m looking out at the side of the street we’re standing on, out at the cracked asphalt stretching out in front of us like an imperfect ocean. The chain link fences like gray nets around our houses, our strip malls of thirsty concrete, trees that always feel like they’re trying to run out of your eyeline. Some place with no intensity, some place color forgot, where hue dripped through its scrawny fingers and rainbow droplets found each other in the gutter, raced each other to the sewer.

And I think about seeing the lions and the giraffes and the sloths and the birds for real. Living, breathing things that aren’t people sad or people desperate or people disgusted or people lost confused lonely, about seeing what grass looks like when it’s everywhere and when it’s not fighting for attention, and my answer’s badly. Really, really badly. How could it be anything else?

“Bad.” I say it out loud. Makai nods.

We go home that day, sit in my room and come up with a plan. The money and the permission slips for Lion Country are due on Monday, so whatever we’re about to do, it’s gotta be quick.

“It can’t be King’s, too much security. What about Verdant Oaks?”

I shake my head. “No. We might get through the gates, but there’s always a patrol car rolling around.”

“Hmm Hardwood, then? It’s far but we could probably make it?”

“What about one of the houses on Cordova?”

He smiles big. “Yes. Oh my fucking God yes! We really shouldn’t have jumped straight to gated communities when— Okay, okay, this could work. Fuck, okay.”

Our plan is a non-plan. I sleep over at Makai’s because his apartment complex is closer to Cordova. It’s right across the street from that corner where Sherman Ave turns into it. We stay up past midnight, wait till Makai’s parents and little sisters are all asleep. Then we slip out into the streets heavy with the night time quiet.

I stare at the back of Makai’s neck while we walk, where one of his braids curls up against his nape and makes its own little galaxy.

We’re so nervous we go with the first upscale house we see. Old Spanish design. Walls a loud yellow quiet with the dark. Brown roof. One story. Perfect lawn. There aren’t any cars in the driveway. There’s a gate right next to the house that probably leads to the backyard. Makai and I pad up to it and it’s— not locked. We look at each other while we’re standing on the other side of the gate, in that backyard. Share a single breath, feel thrill chasing down anxiety inside our chests.

The back door’s not locked either. It’s one of the sliding glass ones, the ones white people can’t seem to stop walking into in those Windex commercials.

I thought it would feel different, walking into one of these houses. Didn’t think they’d look lived-in, didn’t expect the rainbow blanket hanging off the back of the bright white sofa. The Blu-Ray DVDs on the coffee table, sliding off each other, like somebody threw them down and forgot about them because they could. Because they’re home and they can do shit like that here. Wasn’t ready to see the family pictures. The dad’s tall and tan, the mom’s a little taller than him, and the kids are cute as hell. They’re at the beach and they’re all smiling—

“Um, Leto?” Makai whispers. “Can we do this little open-house walk-through some other
time?”

We grab the first kinda-fancy things we see, these two vases on the tiny table next to the loveseat. They’re white, and they have blue vines that wrap around them like fingers. And they’re so pretty I almost want to keep them.

We pawn them the next day, and the guy at the counter raises his eyebrows at us. Makai gives him his bomb-diffusing grin while I try on my best poker face.

One day and sixty dollars later, we’re riding around in a safari jeep, watching a grown giraffe and its baby walk across the green. It’s like somebody tore my life right open, let me see all the things dancing around behind it. And it makes my blood sing, turns it into a five-octave powerhouse. I’m dizzy with the feeling, giddy with it, fucking elated with it.

It’s supposed to be a one-off thing, but it’s not. Every time Makai needs money for something, we do a house. A physical for school, a trip to Universal with his band, a light bill. We never plan shit out, never know exactly how we’re gonna get into the houses or what we’re gonna take, but we get better at it. It’s like muscle memory.

And me? I get some of the money too. I pay for shit with it. Stuff at school, bills at home. But every single house we do gives me a glimpse of shit I’ve never been a part of. Families where everybody gets their own room, where expenses are an afterthought, where everybody’s in every single picture and everybody looks happy. Sometimes I’ll look over at Makai while we’re in some sleek King’s Creek kitchen and I’ll just see him staring at the coffee maker, the sub-zero fridge, the food processor, and I’ll feel whatever he’s feeling so hard my breath’s unsteady with it. It’s that longing, that wanting, yeah, that wistfulness. You might call it jealousy but I call it something else. It’s looking out at all the worlds out there, watching them all spread out in front of you, and knowing you got one of the worst ones. And that’s not an ache I could ever explain to anybody who’s never felt it.

When I was younger, before Makai, I would dream myself to pieces, shards of me like lava glass on the cracked streets inside my head. And every time I tried to pick up those bits of my splintered self they would cut at my fingers until red danced so angry and so beautiful on my skin that I felt like a dying sun. I felt like the tiny, malnourished strip of the universe that God had given me was falling apart, losing itself.

Makai? He never told me but I knew when I met him that he felt like that too. And knowing that made shit easier.

It hurts to see all the better lives that you didn’t get, the off-limit ones, strung out in front of you. But with every single thing we take from those houses, the vases, the china, the glasses, it feels like we’re chipping away at worlds with no room for us. We’re building moments with them. And it makes things better for a little while.