A Year in January
Typically on my birthday I publish a book, fic, or short story. I'm a bit busy these days editing book II in the Atlas series, so today I'm posting an old story that I wrote for my wonderful friend Stacie Turner a couple of years ago. I never published it anywhere and I'm guessing that many who are new to my work have never heard of it, so... enjoy! This is one of my favorites, and it's a pleasure to make it available for you today.
A Year in January
She said her name was January, which I felt was a bold claim. I’m almost certain she made it up on the spot, though at the time I was not very concerned with whether she was hiding from something. Life has a way of being like that, wearing you down to the point of acquiescence. I suppose it was largely because she was female that I didn’t question whether or not she was a serial killer. That, or I was tired.
“This is a very odd description, is it not?” she said, pointing to my Craigslist ad, which for whatever reason she had printed out and annotated. Next to the line that said “must not be ‘not a morning person’ or ‘not a night person’ but simply a person unbeholden to chronology, as such” and below the line clarifying “judgy people please kindly reconsider applying, p.s. this isn’t rude it’s simply proactive” was a small series of foreign-looking hieroglyphics.
“I’m not technically sure,” she offered in apology, walking back her initial suspicions of my oddness, “since I don’t have a lot of experience.”
“With Craigslist, you mean?”
“Among other things.”
“Did you just move here?”
“Yes, a lateral movement.”
“What, like within some corporate structure, you mean?”
“Impossible to tell,” she said solemnly.
I felt this was actually very within the realm of possibility and when I said so she remarked that there was no way of knowing; the realms were constantly shifting and as such very little could be said about them definitively, much less in reference to actuality. I felt this, too, was a strange remark but I, unlike most people, am not opposed to strangeness. I am generally regarded as strange myself. Many people also find me condescending and I suspect they are mostly correct about that.
I was starting to feel a bit tired and I told her so. “Are you often tired?” she asked me. I had the feeling it was a very clinical question, which reminded me of the doctor I had been trying to avoid. “No, no, I only ask for purposes of atmospheric betterment,” she assured me.
Briefly I wondered if she’d been reading my mind and then determined it was best not to go down that path. Sometimes it concerned me what other people could see in my thoughts, but there was never a good way to address these anxieties. It was like writing a word too many times until suddenly it made no sense. Or when you’ve begun thinking too consciously about breathing and then, abruptly, you can no longer breathe.
“Just wait until March,” I said.
“What happens in March?”
“Don’t worry about it. Something about the equinox.”
“Ah,” she said, untroubled. “Understandable.”
She was approximately my size, which is to say neither especially tall nor elfinly small. In terms of appearance she reminded me greatly of the peripheral tests at the optometrist. I mostly saw her in flickers.
“I’d like to take a nap,” I told her. “Just please don’t touch my things without asking.”
She pulled out a pen and scribbled it down, murmuring to herself—“don’t… touch… things… without… asking,” she echoed, and then looked up. “Is there a specific way you’d like me to ask?”
“I’m very tired,” I told her again.
“Ah,” she said, “expediently, I see.”
Then I walked into my room and crawled into my bed, burrowing under the covers.
All of my friends made it very clear that using Craigslist to find a roommate was a terrible idea, which is why I didn’t tell them I was doing it. On a potentially related note, I am not very good at friendships. I find I have a tendency for devotion and therefore expect the same. When I do not receive it I become despondent, though not fruitfully so. Some people have such verbosity of sadness, periods that lead to beautiful metamorphoses. That or they have a destructive form of sadness, little inner cyclones of it. Meanwhile I become something of a brick wall, or a used car. Less valuable each time I am injured.
“There’s a clause in this agreement that suggests you require services of some kind,” said January.
I had not opened my eyes yet, but she was sitting on top of my ankles.
“See? Here,” she said, though I continued to keep my eyes closed. “You specifically said you needed someone who was willing to take out the trash without being asked.”
“It was more of a descriptive passage,” I said. “A desirable personality trait, not an anticipated service.”
She considered this a moment. “Taking out the trash without being asked is a personality trait?”
“I’m sure I could have shorthanded with something if I’d really wanted to,” I muttered. “Conscientious or something. Thoughtful I guess.”
“How common are they?”
“Dismally uncommon,” I told her, and then I rolled over, or tried to. “You’re sitting on my feet,” I remarked with glumness. Sometimes when I’m unhappy I become impatient with my own unhappiness. There is such a drudgery to my needs that even I find upsetting. I dislike inconveniencing other people. I also dislike other people.
“Is that a pressure point for you? You should have said.”
She budged over.
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t really feel like talking.”
“Are there better ways to communicate?”
That wasn’t at all what I meant, but I didn’t think explaining would help the situation. “Mutual understanding would be ideal,” I said, “but that only happens over time.”
“Is it like telepathy?”
“More like data extrapolation.”
“Friendship is an algorithm?”
“We’re roommates, not friends. But basically yes.”
“I see,” she said.
I think she wrote it down, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. I was trying to go back to sleep but couldn’t, because she’d woken me. If I read a few pages of something I’d likely drift off again, but there was no telling what state of mind I’d be in after some reading. That’s the trouble with books; it’s the same trouble with clothes. The issue of deciding what to wear isn’t a matter of textiles, but a question of who I’d like to be once dressed.
With books, quality is one thing, the resulting mood another. At a time like this I couldn’t risk becoming overly excited. I had scheduled the majority of the day for sleep.
“It won’t always be like this,” I told her.
For a strange, prolonged moment I felt like crying. There are many different ways to cry and this was the worst kind: leaking. Spillover. The issue wasn’t the mess, but the not understanding what I contained that was currently leaking. I prize all knowledge, but especially knowledge of myself. I dislike these sorts of tears; they indicate flaws in my management style.
I think January had already left by then, so I curled up in a ball and burrowed deeper in my blankets. I don’t like crying in front of people, anyway. It’s one thing to feel distaste for misery on my own behalf without suffering the compulsion to soothe myself for the benefit of other people. Everyone always wants you to feel better, don’t they? They can’t sit comfortably in a room with your misery, it’s like pins and needles for them. To be properly sad you either have to be alone or a little selfish. You have to not care whether your gloom dampens someone else’s bright.
You might be thinking there was something wrong with me. You might be wondering whether my distress had anything to do with January disrupting my sleep. Truthfully she didn’t stop doing it, but I had my own share of transgressions. At some point I got restless and had a revolving door of idiots I invited up to my room. It was Kyle, I think, who was responsible for what I like to think of as the Clitoris Episode.
“You’re doing it wrong,” said January, which was of course very upsetting for poor Kyle, who hadn’t expected a stranger to walk into the room where he and I were well into the latter stages of penetrative sex. “She should have reached ecstasy by now.”
“She’s not wrong,” I told Kyle. I found January’s behavior just as odd as everyone else did, but as I said, generally speaking I am comfortable with oddities. I sometimes have the feeling I’ve seen so much variation over so many forms of existence that this particular version of me is immune to the concept of anything ever being out of place.
In any case, January went on to explain to Kyle the workings of the clitoris, which I had recently explained to her when she asked me about my aforementioned revolving door of men. I think I had said something along the lines of wanting to feel something, and also hormones. Chemicals and such. She had assumed alchemy and I corrected her, no, biology. She seemed disappointed and didn’t leave her room for several days.
According to January, she’d studied at a very prestigious academy with some sort of exacting priestess, which I told her sounded a lot like Catholic school. She was relieved that I had some basis for comparison and explained that proper research was paramount for any degree of true comprehension. I think I was drunk at the time.
Anyway, January explained to Kyle that he needed to stimulate my clitoris while in the midst of penetration (a very attentive listener, January) and when he asked her if she wanted to do it herself she said no, she wasn’t ready, proper research was paramount, et cetera. But presumably he was some sort of prodigy in regards to my needs, she offered Kyle encouragingly, or else I wouldn’t have let him try something like this, which required a great deal of intimacy.
“Actually, no,” I said, gently correcting her. I explained that Kyle and I used to work together and that this was a purely physical sort of thing.
By that time Kyle was beginning to get a little antsy and making excuses to leave. I thought about being frustrated with the way my evening had turned out, but upon further contemplation I realized January was right. I should have reached ecstasy well before then, but if not for her I wouldn’t have said so.
Sometimes I wonder what it is about me, if I need to be touched or if I just want to be wanted or if I am okay accepting lies. I think the latter is definitely true in addition to both of the former. I think there is no such thing as a person who craves honesty all the time, or a person who wants absolutely to be lied to. I think personally it’s always a matter of pursuing the truth of wanting in order to parlay some grander lie of value.
The point is January wasn’t a bad roommate. We both had our days.
Sometime in March I decided I was going to do a mixed media project. Food, sex, poetry, that sort of thing. I suppose you could conventionally call it a food blog, only I had no personal connection to the food outside of my wanting to eat it. It was mostly freeform poetry that reflected a period of grave erotic craving. I had also been very dedicated about my gym attendance at the time.
January asked me where all this energy was coming from and I told her I was feeling very invigorated by something, I don’t know, everything, and she said why didn’t that work all the time and I said I couldn’t hear her over the sound of the treadmill whirring. She said was it from all the sleeping I had recently done? and I said no, I didn’t think so, but also the treadmill was quite loud, so could this conversation wait until we got home?
Though I was excruciatingly neat during this period, I was not a very good roommate. I scrubbed our bathtub with a toothbrush, but also I found the middle of the night to be a convenient time to work. At some point January asked me why I was poisoning myself and I said that wine was a very important aspect of my personality and she said why, and I said because sometimes when I felt this EXPANSIVE and V A S T it was important to remember that it would end soon. The fear, January!!! I shouted. The fear is the driving factor, my mortality was a race and so long as I never asked questions I would win it really wasn’t that complicated January would you please hand me that whisk!
I found January to be especially fascinating at these times. I had noticed, of course, earlier in our living together that she did not always understand electricity but seemed to have no problem conjuring toast. Initially I had not been interested in pursuing my curiosity (I think truthfully I had none, because curiosity implied conversation, which I did not have the energy for) but then I became intensely ravenous for explanation. Did she learn that at her academy? Yes, she did, though how anyone could go about not learning it seemed frankly irresponsible. Was she displaying some sort of specific and therefore limited ability or was she herself, you know, magic? That was unclear according to her, as she did not believe there was a distinction between magic and nature and it just seemed very sad to her that I was so trapped by the constraints of physicality. I told her it made me sad too sometimes. She made a face like :/ and said she’d long suspected I’d been cursed somehow and was there anything I could do to break it? Had I possibly already broken it, given my recent proclivity for motion?
I don’t think so, I said.
Truthfully I knew I hadn’t broken shit, but I liked the idea of it. That maybe I just had some sort of curse and therefore I could, conceivably, break it. It took shape in my mind and I could taste it, a burst of flavor. What a delicious thought! I baked a cake attempting to mimic the way it felt to be so unexpectedly free, but I think there was a problem with the flour ratio. By the time I finished the poem I’d been working on about the mystic savoriness of existence I no longer felt it was worth reading.
At some point I had to go away for a wedding. I did not anticipate this being an issue, as I am very extroverted even if I am deeply antisocial. Unfortunately, things that seem only reasonably unpleasant to me at a surface level have a way of sneaking lethality in from somewhere deeper. The water source or something. I’ve never technically understood wells.
January was devastated when I told her that various behavioral traditions dictated she could not come with me. I believe she used the word “oppressed,” as in I was oppressed by the expectations of my tyrannical society. I remain unsure whether she wanted me to stage a full scale revolution over it or not. It’s possible I disappointed her when I failed to file a petition.
It was a family wedding. Distant enough that I was only half-heartedly invested, close enough that my every behavior was heartily scrutinized. I returned home to find that January had built some sort of wooden structure into the living room, like a temple.
She gave a little half-gasp when she saw me and demanded how it was possible that I could spend so much time alone. I said why, were you lonely? She said she didn’t understand what that meant but there was something upsetting about the way her thoughts in my absence had reached a dangerous momentum. It began with something very simple, i.e. her current circumstances, and progressed to violent extrapolation, i.e. whether the universe was in fact just a dream that a giant was having and when he or she (the ambiguously gendered giant) woke up we would all be rendered dust mites. I told her that’s called a spiral, though I also told her I doubted it would matter whether we were the dust mites in a giant’s dream or not. Isn’t our experience real even if we are not?
She thought about this intensely. “What makes you say that?”
“Sometimes I’m sad. The sadness is always real. Sometimes I’m angry. The anger is real, too.”
She seemed bewildered. “But you… are… ?”
“Are we human or are we dancers?” I joked in response, which was a reference to a nonsensical song by The Killers that I still recall frequently. That, along with whatever song that was that contained the lines he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus but he talks like a gentleman like you imagined when you were young.
Back to the point, though, I think January thought I was serious.
“Are we dancers?” she asked me in awe.
I paused to think about this. Not because I thought it was a complex question—dancers are customarily informed of the choreography in advance and I was obviously not, which meant almost certainly no—but because it was an interesting visual. I rarely see myself with any elegance, but even a stage full of Pitbull backup dancers has a certain gravitas.
What if we were dancers and God was Pitbull? I shuddered and said, “January, even if I were a dancer, I doubt you and I are the same.”
She seemed to suddenly recall that she had erected some sort of magical temple in our living room and, quote, “didn’t believe in space and time,” and then seemed relieved to have remembered what she was, though she remained interested in my existential state.
“I thought you said the wedding was nice,” she said, peering at me. “You look miserable.”
“It was nice,” I agreed. “Both can be true.”
Then I slept for about three days.
January had a mild interest in my sex life. I think we can agree that we all have mild to moderate cases of this when it comes to other people, so it didn’t seem fair to blame her. She drilled me about my end goals, my deliverables, my pings and actionable items.
“Is it for pleasure?” she asked me.
“Mostly yes,” I said. “Though also sometimes because it’s easier.”
“Easier than what?”
“Than saying no.”
“Depends on the reason. Sometimes I have a headache or I feel sort of inexpressibly bloated, but if I say anything about it I’ll remind them of my bowels and it’s really not worth planting that in their heads. Might actually want to do it some other time, you know? So what’s one loss in a winning record,” I said, setting the timer. I was making tea at the time.
“Do they not know you have them? Bowels,” she clarified. She was learning that I did not always know what she was talking about. As a result, she had undertaken habitual efforts to increase her clarity that I found very thoughtful.
“Yes, they know about my bowels. I think.” (I had to consider this.) “They know, yeah. But it’s not sexy to them.”
“Yes. Being of or related to sex.”
“What is sexy?”
“Mm, depends. Sometimes confidence, sometimes vulnerability. Black lace. Mascara. Sometimes high heels, sometimes short skirts, rarely dark lipstick but sometimes red. Oh, and sometimes sweatpants,” I added as an afterthought, “or gym clothes, but only the kind that make your butt look good.”
She told me that her queen had held frequent masques for this express purpose. I asked if they were all essentially orgies and January confessed that she found it confusing the way I tended towards a single partner. Didn’t I know my chances at ecstasy increased with multiple partners simultaneously?
“It’s not always about ecstasy,” I said. “Besides, there’s the safety aspect.”
I explained contraception and her eyes widened, so then I explained procreation. I asked her if that hadn’t been taught at her academy and she said they—‘they’ meaning her species, I gathered—mostly went through a process of forced adoption. Sex, according to January, was for pleasure or power and nothing else.
I liked the idea of it. The simplicity of it. The world was very simple for January, I think. She seemed to find all of it very straightforward except for me.
“You’re sedentary again,” she observed aloud. It was sometime after the Clitoris Episode but before the next time we saw Kyle, which was at his wedding later in the year. I introduced her to the concept of tequila shots, but she was already well-versed in debauchery. She had a particular talent for mango margaritas.
I explained to January that I would be in motion again, maybe.
“Historically yes.” Though it was sometimes difficult to remember.
“What if you’re not?” she said. “Mobile again.”
“Then I’m not.”
“You’ll be sedentary forever?”
I found it amusing that she had chosen the categories of sedentary or mobile. It struck me as a more accurate way to put it than most people ever did. For example, my doctor had told me that my periods of seething frustration were one thing while my episodes of exuberant anger were another. But it made more sense to me in January’s terms that I was angry all the time, and only capable of doing something about it at some of them.
“It’ll pass,” I assured her, impassive from the exhaustion of being back to my least favorite bit of the cycle, but I think I was crying again, which might explain why she didn’t believe me.
“It seems to me this curse is worsening,” she said.
Then she left. Probably doing research.
I decided to take a week off during late spring and conscripted January’s assistance. I handed her my phone, my wallet, and my computer. If someone called me, I said, then she should simply tell them I was out of the country and would return shortly. In reality, she was not to tell me if anyone had tried to reach me and if nobody tried to reach me then she was not to tell me that, either.
“I’m just very exhausted by the pretense,” I told her. “I love strangers, did you know that? I enjoy having acquaintances.” Generally I found small talk invigorating. I liked to play a game with myself wherein I sought to identify whatever a person most needed to hear and then went out of my way to tell them. You will notice that despite my hinting at my flaws I have never claimed to be talentless. I am actually quite talented, though not in a way that fits with contemporary capitalism. I would have made an excellent court joker and, I suspect, a decent bard. My worth is inconveniently misplaced.
“The pretense of being yourself is what’s tiring you?” asked January, bewildered.
At which point I had to explain to January that I am almost never myself, because the concept of being one thing singularly is fundamentally unsound. I am only variations, I told her. I explained that I’m more like a place than a thing; I have seasons of poor weather, tourist seasons, El Niño or Santa Ana winds. At my foundation I am always the same, but atmospherically there can be issues. “It is sometimes unsafe to travel here,” is where I concluded my thought, I think.
“So you’re doing the pretense for the benefit of other people’s safety?”
“As much as I’d like to believe that’s the case, no,” I said. “Mostly I can’t stand not being wanted.”
“Will people want you more if you take a sabbatical from existence?”
“Does that make sense?”
“I believe so,” I said. “It’s logical even if it isn’t rational.”
We argued over semantics a bit but in the end January agreed to do it. Not that I doubted she would, but she seemed to have a weird thing with owing favors. I had to tell her quite coaxingly that it was a job, not a favor. I would pay her in whatever currency she wished, which ended up being a nightly conversation during my week of isolation. I thought I would hate this, but I didn’t, not really. I asked her to sit on my feet because my circulation was bad and they were always cold.
The first night she asked me about religion. I explained as best I could from a place of ambivalent Catholicism how organized religion had somehow managed to improve the state of humanity by bolstering the arts but had also contributed to an insoluble crisis of racism, xenophobia, and genocide. Kind of a bummer, as I told her.
“I meant gods,” she said.
“Don’t let anyone’s WASPy grandmother hear you say that,” I warned. “Most people think there’s only one and they get angry if you disagree about which one it is.”
“Oh,” she said, looking grateful. In fairness, I was aware I had probably saved her from any number of Twitter trolls.
The second night she asked me to explain what I meant by racism. It ended up being a very long lecture about colonialism and biological warfare, I suspect. I told her that as a person who was made up of several identities I had only ever felt confusion over it.
“So you don’t have one?” she said. It was one of the rare instances where she forgot to clarify what she was talking about, so I had to ask her what she meant.
“You don’t belong to something,” she synthesized slowly.
“I don’t want to belong to anything.”
She clucked her tongue in disagreement. “That’s not true.”
I was too tired to argue, and anyway, I didn’t know the answer.
The next night we talked exclusively about the book The Da Vinci Code.
The next night, the spectrum of human sexuality and the pitfalls of working retail.
The next night, subprime mortgages, the Wall Street bailout, the human impulse to find community, and the rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
On the penultimate night of my sabbatical we discussed the subject of my death.
“Do you think about it often?”
I nodded. “I sometimes think this would be a convenient time for it. Not invitingly,” I was careful to assure her. “Just in the sense that I’m not sure what I have left to accomplish and at least I don’t own property. The British nobility pay egregious estate taxes.”
“What are you trying to accomplish?” she asked me.
“Well,” I sighed, “unfortunately that bit’s a total mystery. Love? Sometimes I think it’s mainly love. Some all-consuming, enrapturing form of it. I think primally the answer is the continuity of the species. Transcendentally it’s an issue of work product.”
“What type of work?”
“Well, the canvas is me, I suppose? But the debilitation of creation is such a competing factor.”
“Shouldn’t the not-knowing keep it interesting?”
“Yes, I think so? But it’s also quite exhausting,” I said, referencing where I lay on my bed.
“Does everyone take sabbaticals?”
“No. But I think most people are better at it than me.”
“Better at what?”
“All of it,” I said, but what I meant was existing.
At some point I introduced January to brunch.
She loved it. It is, after all, the only known concept to be wholly without flaws.
It’s possible I’m losing track of how things went. It was very easy to lose track of time with January, who didn’t seem to experience it the same way I did. She told me that was due to something involving thinness in the air. I said like altitudes? And she said yes, sort of, shortness of breath and all that. It either made sense or I allowed it to.
I got very restless at some point. My dormant fury arose newly unhinged somewhere around autumn. I was no longer crying, having given it up in favor of weeping, which was ghastly. My head ached, my skin was terrible, and to make matters worse I was getting older. I used to be a prodigy, I shouted at January, and now I’ve pulled out two grey hairs in a single month!
“You know what would help? If you could forget things,” she suggested. “I think the flaw in your personal existence is your continuity. Don’t you think it wouldn’t bother you to have wrinkles beside your eyes if you’d forgotten they didn’t used to be there?”
“I HAVE WRINKLES?” I said.
“Oh,” said January. “Sorry, I thought you knew.”
January’s conception of what I knew or didn’t know seemed to be her main source of frustration. I got the feeling she was repeatedly trying to make sense of me and couldn’t. I explained to her at some point that it wasn’t her fault, and that the reason she couldn’t make sense of me had something to do with my volatility of emotion.
“It’s chemical,” I told her. “Chemical misfires in my brain.”
“So you’re not actually sad when you’re sedentary?”
“No, I am sad. But not about anything. Just in general.”
“So it doesn’t have a cause?”
“No, it has a cause. It’s just not always identifiable or, if it is, it’s unrelated.”
“But the sadness is real?”
I could see I was distressing her further so I suggested we get ice cream. She asked me why we didn’t always go get ice cream and I explained the concept of calories and also the alarming prevalence of Type II Diabetes. She seemed crestfallen and wanted more ice cream to improve her mood, but then she remembered the bit I’d said about the calories and appeared to have hit an internal snag.
“It’s alright,” I told her reassuringly. “We all go through it.”
“You’d think it would bond you together,” she said while we were walking back to my apartment. “All of you trying not to eat too much ice cream even though you want to. You’d think that would unify you in some way.”
“Actually, some people are lactose intolerant,” I said.
Politely, I looked away when she started to cry.
With Jason she was cold.
“I don’t like him,” she said flatly. “He’s not an idiot like Kyle. He’s actively mean.”
“I know,” I told her with a sigh. “Unfortunately I like it.”
“I think because it reinforces my suspicions that I’m not actually very good.”
“Why would you want that?”
“Because it would help me understand why I can’t have what I want in life.”
“But what if the world is simply unfair,” she argued, “and there’s no rhyme or reason for why some people get things and others don’t?”
For a moment my entire thought process went blank.
“That,” I told her conclusively, “is too much for me to carry.”
She said something about how diabolical it was that I seemed so strong and that I possessed so much knowledge, when actually I was also quite weak and incapable of understanding the most fundamental truths of the universe. I wasn’t upset that she said it because I already knew that about myself.
“Well, I don’t think you should date him,” she concluded. I had already explained the concept of dating by then, so we were at least on the same page.
“It’s fine, he doesn’t want to date me. Not seriously.”
“So what does he want?”
“Sex I guess?”
“Do you think your vagina is your best feature?”
“What? No. At least I don’t think so.”
“Then what exactly is the point?” she demanded blisteringly.
“I think I just hate feeling lonely,” I said.
Typically I didn’t notice whether I was sedentary or in motion until a series of predictable things started to happen. When I was sedentary, I was only able to tell once I had made a lot of messes and read a lot of books—like, more than one book per day. It was easy to wallow in loneliness with either literature or my own thoughts, and in a lot of ways being sedentary was safer even if I was much more aware of my disgust with myself. Nobody ever hurt themselves by reading, except for the mood alteration thing and also, internal self-destruction.
Being in motion was a bit more dangerous. Speeding tickets, overdrawn checking accounts, empty bottles I devotedly placed in the bins (you’ll recall I was only messy while sedentary), and then of course Jasons and Kyles. They mostly fell into those categories.
There was also the taking up of odd hobbies, the lack of sleep. It is probably not a coincidence that I wrote the Craigslist ad that eventually got me January while I was exceptionally mobile.
Wanted: a roommate. You get your own room plus shared bathroom and full use of living room and kitchen. Female or female presenting, do not care which, actually you can be a man if you’d like but know that I cannot be responsible for your socks and I will not attend to your emotional burdens in any way. Must not be ‘not a morning person’ or ‘not a night person’ but simply a person unbeholden to chronology, as such. I can’t promise to be quiet or social but I also can’t promise I won’t be. I’d prefer if you didn’t eat my hummus if I specify that it is in fact my hummus, but that being said I’m open to communal groceries. Ideally you’re the sort of person who likes dogs but doesn’t have any. Better still if you like cats but decline to call yourself a cat person. Knowledge of bookbinding v helpful, calligraphy also a plus, though not necessarily either. Everyone should have a hobby, don’t care what that hobby is unless it’s hard drugs or arms trafficking. I don’t like house guests so if you have a cousin from out of town who always stays with you or a long distance boyfriend or something that’s just not my vibe. You can use my Netflix account because I’m not a monster and rent is more important to me anyway. Be willing to take out the trash without being asked. No homophobes, no xenophobes, no transphobes… if you’re a phobe of any sort then history isn’t on your side and neither am I. Not looking for the kind of person who shares more than five memes per week. One or two is fine if it’s really funny but I detest being inundated. Judgy people please kindly reconsider applying. P.S. that isn’t rude, it’s simply proactive. I can’t waste my time trying not to be what I am, I’m tired enough as it is. Not going to claim I’m normal or nice or anything. However I think it’s fair to say I’m a decent roommate.
It doesn’t surprise me in retrospect that January was the only one who replied.
January had problems of her own. Evidently she had been ostracized or banished in some embarrassingly public way and there was frequent mention of a queen, though it typically only led to a discussion about the continued existence of the British monarchy on the basis of Divine Right (a situation we both agreed was questionable—January felt it should be largely a matter of conquest and when I asked if she meant elections she said “sure”). She had one year to serve out this sentence, as she explained to me once, and then she could go back.
At some point mid-September she suggested that I should go with her.
“There’s really no chance you won’t like it,” she said. “Your probability of ecstasy will increase exponentially. And it’s not as if you feel you belong anywhere in particular at present.”
Normally things January said didn’t upset me. I think it had a lot to do with her voice, which was soothing, or her eyes, which were mildly hypnotic. But something about this particular sentiment broke through her inoffensive sheen and rendered me very distressed. I couldn’t understand it, so I sort of stomped around for a bit and left the house to spend time with someone who wasn’t her and then I came home with someone who was also named Jason though it wasn’t Mean Jason. The sex with him was actually quite good, which is what made the aftermath so much worse, because it meant I couldn’t pretend my sorrow was due to any lack of ecstasy.
After I stayed in bed through most of the following morning and afternoon, January found me and crawled under my covers. She curled around me like a waifish petal and sighed.
“You don’t ever have to leave if you don’t want to,” she whispered to me.
I wish I could say it broke the curse, because for a second I felt like it might. There was a moment when I thought, I have been waiting my entire life to be told I’m allowed to stay, and it seemed to me that this was it. The happy ending.
But then I remembered I don’t have a curse, this is just who I am, and so even though I had a moment of contentment it was another week or so before I stopped being sedentary.
I forgot to tell you what we talked about on the last night of my sabbatical, which I’m realizing now might be relevant.
“I think we should talk about the curse,” said January. “About where it might have come from.”
I told her it was genetic and she said so were curses, inasmuch as they were placed on a bloodline; in this case, mine. I told her my child had a 16% chance of having the same problem I had and also my parents had had their own problems and all in all there wasn’t much use discussing whether I, personally, had a curse. I started telling her things I knew about developmental psychology and she stopped me.
“What happened to you?”
This was a surprising question. Not because January wasn’t in the habit of asking surprising questions, but because it was a question that shouldn’t have had a concrete answer and yet, somehow, I had a very specific one at the ready.
“I think I have an unnatural fondness for leaving,” I said.
January found this interesting. She expressed it with the deliberate arch of a brow.
“It makes me feel strong instead of weak,” I said, “to be leaving instead of left.”
“Do you think that’s the curse?” she asked me. She was being very earnest and serious about it. I doubted she would ever believe me when I reminded her that there was no curse, aside from general humanity.
“I think the issue is loneliness,” I explained slowly. “The fear that I’ll forever be alone is exacerbated by a personality that ensures it. Because even if I could tailor myself to be palatable to someone, it changes. Makes the environment inhospitable.”
“The bad weather, you mean?”
“Yes, the bad weather.”
“But people live in Alaska.”
“And the Midwest.”
“Yes.” She had clearly done her research.
“But you don’t think anyone wants to live on your island?”
“Sometimes I do,” I said. “Sometimes not. That’s part of the issue, too. If I could be convinced all the time then it would be easy to keep going. But there is a crisis of confidence that blows in every now and then. Seasonally, to some extent.”
“Sounds exhausting,” she said.
I think it was becoming a joke to her. My existence was tiring — this, to her, explained why I took so many long naps or, at the time, a weeklong sabbatical. She was smiling faintly when she said it.
“Yeah, so anyway, leaving,” I said. “It’s very easy for me. Easier than the alternative.”
I’ll never know how she figured out how to make that something I could understand.
The best thing about January was that as weird as she found me, she was unquestionably weirder. There was the queen thing, plus all the weird questions and her interest in my sex life (hers was admittedly carnivorous — or, more accurately, omnivorous). She had a fondness for marijuana, which I scrupulously avoided. My thoughts had a tendency to race, as I explained to her, and the few times I’d taken edibles had involved a lot of existential dread. January seemed to have a perfectly fine handle on mind-altering substances, and once she got a feel for which questions others found eccentrically invasive vs. insultingly nosy, she really perfected the Manic Pixie Daydream persona that I could only approximate on a good day.
January liked to say things like, “Careful, the old gods will hear you” or, “My former bones were less sensitive to the calamities of youth,” which prompted Kyle’s friend Brad to call her Ghost Girl. People seemed to have a lot of theories on January, though none more so than January, who was enamored with the concept of reincarnation and continuously fretted about how she could ensure coming back as a seagull—the perfect form, in her mind. Something about proximity to water and also wings. She’d have to be just bad enough, she reasoned, that her punishment would be abject freedom. That, I said, or being eaten by a whale. (“I don’t think that’s real,” said January, at which point Brad told her the story from the Bible about Jonah. She was not convinced.)
There were several week-long periods when January and I went out every single night. She had a very impressive social endurance, which she explained to me was one of the requirements for being part of her aforementioned court. She was very adamant about the fact that merrymaking was imperative in her former life, and even I could see she was an expert bacchanalian.
I think sometimes I have a tendency to show my sadness most clearly in periods of excruciating joy, so when I asked her if she was happy here among the mortals she grabbed my face in both hands, feverishly intoxicated.
“Do you even know?” she said. “How magical you actually are. I didn’t know I could imagine that something so odd existed and yet here you are, so strange. So fragile.”
She kissed both my cheeks like an Italian grandmother. I told her I loved her and cried.
“So you understand, then!!!” she shouted in my ear, her voice a graphic, highlighter pink.
I told her I thought I did.
“You’ll be in motion again,” she assured me once.
She smiled at me thinly, apologetically.
“Thanks,” I said.
She nodded. “I see now why it matters,” she said. “Memory.”
Gratifyingly she left it at that, leaving the room to return (I assume) to her research.
I obviously explained to January why Thanksgiving was both egregiously problematic and also, undoubtedly, marvelous. I also explained that turkey was almost always too dry to be enjoyable, but principles of tradition and/or seasonal exclusivity demanded it. She marveled at the concept of stuffing, but believed me once I explained what it was made of. I had already impressed upon her the cruciality of bread.
I had recently been running again, though I got tendinitis after the second week and spent much of my time with an ice pack on my knee between episodes of training. She told me I should take a break and I told her I couldn’t take breaks because I was working on something. I think by then she understood that what I meant was I can’t take breaks because I might regress into another period of sedentary misery if I stop. She generally grasped that I lived in fear of the day motion would cease again because I knew it would. I could always rest then.
Sometime after we’d had gratuitous amounts of wine and eaten just enough turkey to justify the amount of mashed potatoes we’d also served ourselves, January told me that this was actually not the first time she’d been in trouble. It was just the first time she’d been banished.
She went on to tell me that there were quite a lot of causes for banishment if you were a certain level of curious, in which case a banishment was not so terrible a punishment, because she had learned so much. She told me she loved Craigslist because it reminded her of the market back home, full of trinkets and oddities and also, quietly, danger, but there was something exciting about that. There was no fun in shopping at shopping malls where nothing was destructive and everything looked the same. Craigslist was niche, it was boutique, it was a masterpiece of human collaboration.
“Also, I found you,” she pointed out.
“I don’t really think of myself as a lucky find.”
“Well, from what I understand you have something other humans don’t.”
“I think plenty of people have wonder.”
“Plenty have illness, too, as far as I can gather.”
“Okay, then what’s significant about my personal wonder?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s so sad it makes my chest hurt,” she said. “Other times it’s so bright I can’t look directly at it.”
“So it’s… the unpredictability?”
“Yes, maybe. It’s exciting.”
“Unpredictability is counterintuitive for human survival on the whole,” I said. “I think that’s why people don’t like it, or don’t trust it. There’s a suspicion it might get us killed.”
“I wouldn’t know,” January reminded me. “And anyway survival is one thing.”
One thing among many, she meant. “Not everyone is looking to survive,” she added.
“I think they are.”
“They’re planning on it, not looking for it. I think you give people too little credit.”
I had the strange feeling like I wanted to kiss her, or kiss someone, or climb up a mountain and scream until I couldn’t hear the echo of myself anymore.
“That being said,” January cut in primly, “imagine if you didn’t go sedentary sometimes.” She unzipped her jeans and exhaled, full to a manageable point of suffering. “You’d break the world into pieces. Dangerous,” she remarked with a shake of her head.
Onomatopoetically, I thought about the snap of a Kit-Kat bar. I imagined my consumption of the world, crisp and effortless, a little break in monotony.
I smiled. “You make me sound so mystical.”
“I find it difficult to believe I could ever explain you,” she said. “You’re almost entirely chaos.”
“This from someone who was once banished.”
“A very orderly consequence,” she reminded me, and tapped my nose with one finger before asking me whose idea it was to put marshmallows on yams.
“Not a clue,” I said.
“Ingenious,” she informed me, rubbing her swollen belly like a fortune teller’s crystal ball.
At some point I realized January looked different to other people than she did to me. I think she was experimenting with race, which I had specifically told her not to play with. Age wasn’t much better. Neither was gender. Still, I think my limited experience depressed her a little.
“Everyone else belongs somewhere,” she said.
I told her I had never felt comfortable in any of the boxes available to me. I often paused before checking off my identity on a form. Things were improved by the “two or more” option but even then, I felt a sense of guilt selecting either or both.
“You feel a lot of guilt,” she observed.
“There’s a lot of places that aren’t for me.”
“Forbidden rooms? We had those at the academy.”
“Yeah sure, something like that.”
“So you can’t go in?”
“I could. But I assume people would question whether or not I deserved to be there.”
“Why does it matter?”
“You can’t belong somewhere if other people think you don’t.”
“That,” she said with obvious frustration, “doesn’t make sense.”
“Nothing makes sense,” I reminded her. “It’s all logical but not rational.”
“Do you think they’re jealous of you?” she demanded. “Of your magic?”
She looked at me like I’d stabbed her.
“You need a nap,” she said vitriolically.
The night before her banishment ended and her sublet on our apartment was up, I insisted on having a celebration. I was in a soaring sort of mood, intent on euphoria. I invited Kyle but not Jason. Some of my other friends with carousing tendencies were also there. Everyone I knew who had ever made jokes about their excessive wine consumption was invited and the theme of the evening was noise.
I set myself to the logistical arrangements, preparing to shimmer in my role as hostess. I knew that no matter what I did it wouldn’t be enough, but that was a sensation I was accustomed to feeling. The silence in January’s absence would be deafening, but I would adapt. It was amazing what a person could become okay with.
“Resilience,” January said to me in private.
I found her in the bathtub, staring at the drain.
“Insanity,” I countered, climbing in with her. We faced each other like two passengers in a drifting canoe.
Her smile broadened.
“People expand to bear their curses,” she told me. I think it was advice.
It’s funny how we can never really depend on memory. I wanted very badly not to forget this moment, but there was no telling what my mind would obediently save. 99% of my year with January was going to be deposited in the trash against my will, most likely. In retrospect I might only have glimpses, or even less than glimpses. Some of my strongest memories are just moments of blinding sun, perfect warmth. Instances of solitary peace. I had a feeling most of my memories with January would be less about our conversations and more about how I had felt while sitting in a bathtub with her.
“Are you enjoying the party?” I asked her.
“A little,” she said restlessly. “Why do people like parties?”
“The element of togetherness, I think. Companionship.”
“But I don’t think I make a difference to any of them.”
“Maybe not, but for a night your lives are all taking place in harmony. Symphonically. And there’s nothing more beautiful than a perfect chord.”
“Is this what it is? Beauty?”
“I like to think so.”
“So existence, it’s all about beauty?”
“About creating it, maybe. Mine is, I think. Finding it in places and hoping I can make other people see it, too.”
She rested her chin on her knees.
“Is sadness beauty?”
“Some of it.”
“And the rest?”
“Gives the other bits meaning.”
“The not-sadness, you mean?”
“So you have to be sedentary to appreciate motion,” she observed aloud.
She scribbled it down on her notepad, which I hadn’t noticed she had with her.
“Anything else?” I asked her.
“Is love beauty?”
“Yes. But not always beautiful.”
“There are selfish loves and wasted loves and toxic ones.”
“What was this one?” she asked me.
“Gentle,” I said.
I had the feeling I would have a very difficult time ahead of me when she was gone. Luckily I had thought to plan a party. It would give me something to clean up in the morning besides myself.
January shifted towards me in the tub and looked at me for a very long time.
“Nobody is ever going to believe me when I tell them about you,” she said.
“Isn’t that funny?”
“Yes, kind of.”
“Life’s funny,” she remarked to herself. “And anyway,” she added, directing her attention back to me, “I’ve thought about your curse a lot and I think it’s actually very important that you take care of it. Make sure you only let people in who are reverent with it. People who don’t understand magic can be a real drain on available resources, so don’t be irresponsible with your supply.”
“And just because a curse can’t be cured doesn’t mean you can’t ease it from time to time. I can leave you a list of herbs if you want. Certain rituals are more effective than others but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
“And I don’t think you should try to get rid of it,” she said.
“I don’t think I can.”
“I know, but don’t.”
“Yes, but don’t.”
“Fine, I won’t. But why not?”
“Because I learned there was a new piece of me to go with every new piece I found of you, and that’s wonderful,” she said.
I think she meant it literally—that I had filled her with wonder—so I tapped her nose.
“Bye, January,” I said, even though I knew it wasn’t her real name, because sometimes things are real even if they aren’t. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t ever have to leave if she didn’t want to, but I didn’t think it would mean the same thing to her as it did to me.
“You never know,” she said. “I might be back.”
Historically, she would be.
As always, it is an honor to put down these words for you and I hope you enjoyed the story. If you feel so inclined, here are my other books, including the Tor pre-order campaign for THE ATLAS SIX, but mostly thanks for being here on my birthday.