©2019 by Canvas Literary Journal

Published by Cosmographia Books

Background art “Camouflage” by Hyung Jin Lee

Canvas logo by Ali Wrona

Illusion

Alexis Yang

Autumn 2019

I try not to remember.


Iowa snow coats the windshield of my rental car. Flakes nestle against the wipers, burrow against the wheels. We never got snow like this in New Jersey. The cascading flakes and spotless road almost look pretty, but then I remember that snow is just crystallized rain, and rain isn’t pretty.

A month ago, I asked to visit you at your house over Christmas break. It’s been a year since I’ve seen you. We went to high school together in New Jersey, held hands and promised that when we went to college, we’d tell each other everything. But now we’re freshmen. I’m living in a New York City dormitory and you’re living in your father’s house. No matter how many phone calls we make, it feels like we are hiding the truth about ourselves.

Now here I am, sitting in a broken-down car in central Iowa. Your father is away on business, so we’ll have the house to ourselves. I’m telling myself that this will just be an ordinary visit, where we will talk about the classes we are taking and the food we are eating. But there are the doubts again—doubts about what I will say to you, what you will say to me.

The memories keep flooding back. How we used to sneak out on the weekends. The lies we concocted. The alibis we told our parents, all those movie theaters we never went to. Your voice telling me that you were okay, you were fine, everything was fine, everything was fine.

My foot taps against the car floor, rapid-fire. I try to focus on the falling snow. The empty road. A smudge on the windshield. I called you earlier, my phone to my ear and your name, Madeline Meyer, on the screen. I said my car broke down. You said okay, you were on your way. You called me Eleanor, not Ellie. You never call me Eleanor.

I check my phone. Two bars. It shifts to three, then slips back down again. I want to call a tow truck. I tell myself I don’t feel that pit in my stomach, that darkness that comes when I remember our hands together, the curse of being girls.

Last year, we went everywhere together. When I told my parents I would be going on a day trip with friends, I asked if you wanted to take a train to Central Park. Those weekends, we held hands and walked and tossed bread to the pigeons. We sat on benches and you pulled diecast cars from your pockets, watched them glint in the sunlight. I knew your hand better than mine. The creases on your palm, the words I whispered in your ear—

I’m shivering. The door handle is ice-cold. Central Park and diecast cars—that wasn’t how it was. And now all our phone calls, all the trivial things you tell me about your greyhound and your school’s hockey team, all the trivial things I tell you about my classes—that’s not how things are.

 

I wonder if you remember how I rushed us home from Central Park. I fudged movie tickets and restaurant receipts, false evidence for my time with you. I made sure that my parents never questioned if you were more than a friend.

My fears started with my cousin Carter. When I was eight and he was sixteen, my aunt and uncle found him dead in the bathroom with an empty bottle of painkillers. They didn’t know why he did it. The police had an investigation and found texts between my cousin and another boy. Carter said he loved him. He said Carter was a fag.

I remember my parents’ conversation, my ear pressed to their closed door. Carter never told anyone, they said. He just let his feelings brew.

That wasn’t the Carter I knew. He brought me to the candy store, played Scrabble with me and let me win. I didn’t recognize this swarm of hushed whispers about the incident. I never knew his dark secrets, everything he never told anybody.

By the time I reached high school, my parents never mentioned Carter. His name was an unspoken whisper, an untouched subject. But I never forgot. Part of me was still listening with my ear to my parents’ door, hearing about how he couldn’t cope and held everything in and never faced his problems.

 

And when I met you and felt my face reddened to my ears, I slammed the bathroom door shut and watched the ceiling spin above me. I couldn’t be like Carter. I couldn’t. And then I wondered if Carter felt himself falling and ignored his feelings, kept them from everyone else. Just kept living and telling himself that nothing was wrong.

It’s been thirty minutes since I called; you will be here soon. My mind races to think of what to say to you. Questions about college. Grades. Roommates. But all I can think of are the things we never talk about: my feelings, your diecast cars. All the secrets from last year that we tried to escape.

A buzzing sound probes the air, repeats in steady succession. It takes me a moment to realize that it is my phone.

I can see headlights down the road, like a set of alien eyes. Your name forms on the screen: Madeline Meyer. Standard font, no profile picture.

I raise my phone to my ear and try to speak.


“Eleanor?” your voice probes.


I’m staring at the headlights and the snow and the Iowa road. “Eleanor, are you there?”
I blink. Your car is facing mine.


“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I’m here.”


My mind is racing. I’m thinking about what will happen next. I’ll open my car door. You’ll open yours. I’ll see your hair spilling out from under your cap and remember how it used to feel between my fingers.

I hang up the phone, open the door and step out. I strain to see through your windshield. You’re wearing a gray cap and a winter coat; I think it’s blue. I can see your brown hair. Your nose. Your cheekbones.

And then you’re standing in between the headlights and we’re facing each other, hands stuffed in pockets. The air’s too cold and too clean and too sharp. For a moment, I want you to step forward and offer your hand. I want to take it like we’re in Central Park, hold on like we’ll never let go, like it’s normal.

“You going to say hello?” you say, smiling like it’s just a smile, joking like it’s just a joke.

 

It’s too quiet. The road is empty save for my car and yours. I can hear snow crunching beneath my boots, see clouds of my breath forming in the air, feel Iowa snow settling around us. Flakes cascade from the sky, white and spotless and perfect. As they coat our hair and shoulders, I wonder if they could cover us completely. Given enough time, maybe they could.

We’ve been apart for so long. You’ve existed on my phone and in text messages, and now here you are. Feet are separating us, not miles. But I can’t will myself to move.

My mouth tugs into a smile. I don’t know if it’s real, but I keep it on anyway. I still can’t get words out, so I cross the snowy ground between us and put my arms around you. Last time we hugged, we were in your family’s house. But now we’re a year older. We’re halfway across the country and contact is awkward. We don’t stay long, but when we draw away, I feel incomplete.

I should tell you that I missed you. I don’t know if you want to tell me this too, if it’s lingering on your lips. But too much time passes and I say instead, “Yeah, so I got bad luck with the car and everything.”

“It’s only a rental,” you reply. “You can get it towed.”

I nod. I’m supposed to respond, but too much time passes. You breathe in and smile and act as if it’s not awkward. “Come on,” you suggest. “I’ll drive you to my house.”

When I slide into the passenger’s side, your car smells like peppermint. Fake peppermint.

You turn the key. The engine rumbles alive.

An air freshener shaped like a pine tree hangs from the rear- view mirror.

Peppermint.

 

“Since when do you like air fresheners?” I ask.


“I don’t know,” you reply, giving me a lopsided smile.


You think I’m joking.


I gaze out at the road ahead. I should ask how you’re doing.

Last year, you pretended to be okay. In the heat of June, you wore sweatshirts to hide your arms. When classmates asked you why you wore them, you said it was comfortable. When they asked me the real reason why, I said it was nothing.

You were the girl who wore jeans year-round and never put her hair up, who kept toy cars in her locker and didn’t change for gym class. You gave yourself names: Avid Collector, Jeans Enthusiast, Creature of Habit. You told yourself that nobody would question.

You were covering up. I know it now, as we sit in the same car on the same road. You were covering up your father’s business suits, the way he smiled and said good morning. Because beneath the façade were the bruises he gave you. Your tears in the bathroom. His voice echoing inside you, eating away at the marrow of your bones. And you tried to hide everything with sweatshirts “for comfort,” scarves “for fashion,” long sleeves because your arms were “too thin.” All to hide the scars beneath.

I feel my chest tighten. “How are you doing, Madeline?”

Your eyes are fixed on the road. My watch ticks softly. “I’m doing fine,” you respond. “College is good.”

The façade, the façade.


“Okay,” I reply. “College is good for me too.”


This time you glance at me. “You meet some nice people?”


I feel my fingers drum against the seat. “Yeah, I guess,” I mumble, and stare at a fallen tree outside the window.


Maybe you think this visit will just be a hello. A how-are- you. But I’m thinking about your diecast cars, that old collection your mother left before she died giving birth to you. You used to buy one every week, expanding your collection. I imagined your cars growing life-size. Your hand curling around the door, pulling it open, grasping the steering wheel. Driving away.


Last year, I gave you train rides, Central Park, refuge upon refuge. Here you are in Iowa with the illusion of distance, of being far from New Jersey and New York, and yet you are still living with your father.


You could still have bruises.


You could still be hiding.


You could become like Carter, covering up for the world, telling yourself that you are safe.


I want to stop the car and explain everything right now. I could tell you about Carter, about my ear against my parents’ door, about sweatshirts and bruises and toy cars and everything they’re doing to you, everything you don’t realize. Because if you never know—

“I got it for a dollar,” you’re saying.


“What?”


“The air freshener. Smells good, doesn’t it?”


“Yeah, it smells like peppermint.”


“That’s because it is,” you reply. You say it like it’s simple, like it’s truth.


I wonder how long we can keep talking about air fresheners and college. We keep filling conversations with meaningless words, building a wall between us and a veil over our faces.

We drive through your town. It’s small. We pass the post office and the diner and the general store, all coated in perfect white snow. When we pull into your driveway, you kill the engine and open the door.

Your house is white and boxlike, so it blends into the snow. You unlock the front door and I grab my bag and we walk in.

It isn’t much warmer inside than outside. When I kneel to place my bag on the floor, coldness seeps from the tiles. Your greyhound trots toward me, dog tags jangling, and begs for attention.

“I’ll heat up some soup,” you announce, and motion for me to sit at the table. It’s made of synthetic wood that’s meant to look real. The greyhound leans against my legs, his body heavy, and I run my fingers along his sleek ears. In front of me, there’s a fridge with a magnet shaped like an eggplant. I look at the frayed rug in the living room and the coffee table with a nick in one of its corners. I wonder how it got there.

It doesn’t take long for me to realize: your father was here. Your father lives here. He sits on that brown couch, places mugs on that coffee table. Your father, who smiled and said good morning. Your father, who gave you bruises.

I swallow hard.

“Are you cold?” you ask. Suddenly you’re standing in front of me with a bowl of tomato soup.

 

“Uh, no,” I lie.


“You’re shivering. I’ll turn up the heat.”


You walk away and I raise soup to my mouth. It trembles in the spoon, or maybe it’s my hand wavering. I’ve had two spoonfuls when I notice the blue diecast car on the shelf in the living room, wedged between books on macroeconomics.

 

When you return, you ladle soup into a bowl for yourself and sit down next to me.

“Madeline,” I blurt.


You pause. My chest aches. I can almost feel my ear against wood, listening to my parents speaking about Carter.

Couldn’t cope.

Held everything in.


Never faced his problems.


“Are you still pretending?” I ask.


Your brows draw together. “What do you mean, pretending?”

I can’t tell if you know what I mean. Maybe you’re just avoiding the question, telling yourself everything’s all right.

“Come on,” I argue. “Stop saying that. You didn’t tell me much after you moved here, and you told me even less after we went to college. Madeline, I brought you to Central Park all those times. Remember that? I brought you there because I thought I could help you. I gave you an escape from him, and now—”

 

You aren’t moving. The greyhound slinks away, but you’re sitting still. That’s something about you that I forgot: you’ve always been patient.

“After all he did to you Madeline, you just—you can’t act like nothing’s wrong.”


“I’m not acting like nothing’s wrong.”


I stand and walk into the living room and grab the diecast car. Beneath my fingers, it feels heavy and slick. It’s been so long since I’ve held one of these. “Do you still collect these cars?” I ask, walking back into the kitchen.

You’re standing now, but you don’t answer.

“Do you still have that old collection? That one your mother gave you?”

Never had a chance to give. I see the correction rise in your throat, fight its way to your mouth. You force it back down and nod. “Of course I do.”

We’ve gotten so used to silence now, to never questioning each other. But we can’t do that anymore. “I never understood why you collect them,” I say. “I went along with it, but I...”

You shake your head and avert your gaze, pushing your hair behind your ear. “I just... I told you my mother bought a set of cars for me. When I was eight years old, my father told me that she loved to travel. She loved taking road trips by herself in this red Cadillac. But he wanted her to just settle down. Become a mother. He wanted to control her.” You take the diecast car and rest it in your palm. Your fingers curl around the grille, swallow the tires. “Then she passed, and he had me. And Eleanor, I’m not . . . I’m not what he wanted. Or my mother wanted.”

I open my mouth to object, but you continue with the car clenched tight in your palm. “He noticed me, Eleanor. I tried to keep it a secret that I liked girls, but he suspected for a long time. It was the girl friends I invited over, and how I never wore makeup, and those toy cars—it was always the cars, ever since I was born. When I was fourteen, I put this miniature sports car on my dresser. My father looked at it and said to me, ‘Your mother and I wanted a boy.’”

The house is so quiet. The walls and floorboards hum with a deep ache. Your face contorts as you finally put together the puzzle pieces, assembling this picture you’ve built but never seen before. “My mother always wanted to leave in that Cadillac. I don’t believe my father when he says it was just traveling. She wanted to get away from him. She never did, but these cars give me hope that I can.”

I step closer to you and my hand gently touches yours. It uncurls, revealing the blue diecast car and the red marks it’s left on your palm. “Madeline,” I say as I meet your gaze, “toy cars won’t take you away from him. You can’t escape if you’re covering up all the time.”

You bite your lip and set the car onto the table.

“You didn’t have to go to college here,” I tell you. “You didn’t have to live with your father. You could have come to New York with me.”

“Eleanor,” you say evenly, “I couldn’t come to New York with you.”

“You can still transfer.”

You shake your head. Your voice is still level. “Eleanor, do you know why you wanted to visit me?”

 

Answers throw themselves at me: because I wanted to say hello again. Because I wanted to help you. Because I love you.

 

“Not because you wanted to help me,” you say. “You wanted to come because you’re afraid of yourself. You need me to tell you that you’re alright.”


I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am alright. I get up and fall asleep at reasonable hours. I don’t drink beer like my classmates do. I don’t have bruises.

“I am alright,” I say.

You draw in your lip, then cross into the living room and return with an economics textbook. The yellowed, water-stained pages are filled with everything random—poems, pressed flowers, clippings from maps.

“Scrapbook?” I ask.

“Yeah, scrapbooking helps me relax.” You pause and then add, “My father doesn’t know about it.”

You’ve turned to a page about inflation. A flyer for our high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance is taped to one page.

“Remember this?” you murmur.


I do remember. The flyer is poorly designed and simple-looking, all black ink on white printer paper. During our senior year, the newly-formed Gay-Straight Alliance was trying to recruit members. You handed me this flyer and said we should go.

 

I said no. You never asked why, and I never told you.

 

“I remember,” I reply.


“You said you didn’t want to go.”


“Yeah, that’s because I didn’t.”

“Maybe you should have went.”

You look concerned, but you shouldn’t be. I don’t know why you’re bringing up this flyer from last year. It’s been months since then. I’ve moved on.

“I know you felt terrible afterward,” you continue. “I never brought it up, but I knew you were upset. I could tell you felt like you didn’t belong anywhere.”

The flyer stares up at me.


I hear the furnace kicking on.

 

“Eleanor,” you say.


“I’m fine, Madeline. Stop it. I’m fine.”

“Eleanor, please.” You reach for my hand, but I move it away. “I’m sorry that I never said anything about this. But after the flyer, I realized that something was bothering you. You’re afraid of yourself.”

The house is silent. Steam rises from my bowl of soup. I can’t think. All I can hear are my parents’ whispers about Carter’s problems. I remember those thoughts, those feelings like disease, that sickening dread that made me question what was wrong with me, why I didn’t like boys, why I could never fit in. And I can remember Carter’s texts. Central Park. My hand in yours. Questions you never asked. All the hints I never saw. There was a real meaning behind our escapades, my inviting you to Central Park, all our phone calls—I reached out to you because I was afraid of myself. I needed you to say that nothing was wrong with me. I believed that I could sneak out every weekend, never get caught, and nobody would know my secret.

I shake my head. The floorboards melt beneath my feet, warp, fall away. “No,” I croak, and my voice cracks. “No, that can’t be right.”

Your eyes soften. You take my hands and I want to cry.

I thought Central Park was your escape, your refuge. Every time, I brought you there to get you away from your father. I never knew that it was me who needed a safe haven, me who needed a façade, me who needed the reassurance that I was completely normal.

“You were afraid of people knowing,” you murmur. “Did you realize that, Eleanor?”

I don’t know what I realized. I only know that I lived with myself for so long. I coexisted with lies. I breathed them. They told me that I could escape my feelings, act as if I was someone else and nobody would know.

“But nobody knew,” I whisper. My words sound childish. I feel raw, cut open. My parents and everyone at school—I’m sure they knew. I’m sure they always knew. And I’m sure you knew you were providing me with an illusion. You knew that I found refuge in New York crowds, in the fact that nobody knew me. Every time you said not to worry, that our parents would never know—you knew that was what I wanted to hear.

“Eleanor,” you say, “You know they did.”

Our eyes meet and yours are brown, lighter than I remembered. “You need to get away from your father,” I tell you. “Madeline, does he—does he still hurt you?”

You don’t respond. I remember the first time you showed me your bruises. Blue and yellow, purple where they met. You hid them again and again, covered them up like a simple wound, pretended there was no blue beneath the bandage.

“Are you still hiding?” I ask, but you look away. “Do your college friends know?”

You draw in your lip.


We are silent for a long time.


“They don’t know,” you whisper.


Our hands are still together. I remember how we held hands last year. You were hurt; I was afraid of myself. But no matter how many months have passed, we haven’t changed.

We are still pretending.


We are still an illusion.


“What about you?” you murmur. “Do your friends know about you?”


You know the truth: they don’t. My mind is going back—to student groups waving rainbow flags, to my new friends who don’t know the truth about me, to the girl in my chemistry class who I lend my notes, to the striped backpack pins that I try to ignore. I tell myself that I am normal, that I am not one of them. I shroud myself in a lie because I am terrified of what will happen if anyone sees who I truly am. And I tell myself that you can keep calling me, keep sending me text messages, keep telling me that I am normal, I am normal, I am normal.

My eyes tear up as you squeeze my hands. “I wasn’t honest with you,” you say. “Last year. I knew you were afraid. But I never asked if you were okay, and I never realized—I never realized that I was lying to myself too. When I collected the cars, I hoped I could escape from him. In school, I thought I could hide everything. In Central Park, I thought I was free.”

We sit down at the table, our hands still together. The soup has gone cold. “I had a cousin,” I rasp, and my voice sounds strange, as if I’ve never heard it before. “His name was Carter. He used to do everything with me. We played board games together.” I squeeze my eyes shut. “He killed himself because he was gay. My uncle and aunt never knew that anything was wrong. Madeline, I wonder if he was covering up for everyone. I’m thinking—I’m thinking he lied to the world about himself. He hid and told himself that nobody would know.”

I open my eyes.


“I don’t want that to happen to you,” I whisper.


You place your hand on my cheek. I’m talking about you, but I know I’m talking about myself too. While I’m terrified to have anyone find out about me, I know what scares me more: what will happen if I keep hiding.

“Eleanor,” you tell me, “you have to face yourself.”

I know we have to stop lying to each other. We have to stop lying to ourselves. I have to board a plane and go back to New York, face the person I am trying to hide. I have to find my own path.

You remove your hand from my cheek and place it in mine. “Tell me everything that hurts you,” you say. “Tell me why you are so afraid of yourself.”

There’s no running from this now. I take a breath. I will tell you the truth about my secret. You will tell me the truth about diecast cars. For the first time, we will listen. We will look past the illusion and see ourselves.

Then we hear it: a car door slamming from outside.


“Who is that?” I ask.


“Mailman, probably,” you answer.


A key jams into the front door and unlocks the first bolt, then the second. The greyhound barks. Your hands tighten around mine. We both know who it is.

It can’t be him. He’s supposed to be on a business trip. But you don’t have any other relatives around here; nobody else has the house key but him.

We can’t see the door from here. His boots thump against the floor and the greyhound’s dog tags clink against each other and I know he sees my bag on the floor. My eyes meet yours and we clasp our hands together like we’ll never let go.

“Madeline?” he calls.

In a few seconds, he will walk into the kitchen and find us.

Will we maintain the illusion? Will we succumb to him, to our veil, to our lie?

He steps into the room and your hands squeeze mine.

 

I hope we are strong enough.

Alexis Yang is a seventeen-year-old at Smithtown High School East in Saint James, New York. She has received a national gold medal and several regional awards from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for fiction. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys playing the guitar and eating copious amounts of blueberries.