WHAT’S PAST IS PROLOGUE
Everything feels like a memory in a city when it snows.
It goes all blurry around its edges, like even as it’s happening
it’s already an old photograph. The whole world seems softer,
gentler, quieter. And when New York is the city where it’s snowing,
it’s more like the version that’s suspended in my snow globe
collection, where everything about it appears to be small and
clean and pretty, and where anything feels possible.
I climb the sixty-six
slippery stairs that lead to the Manhattan-bound
platform at the subway station closest to my family’s
Brooklyn apartment, looking down at my floral combat boots and
humming along with the Nina Simone song swimming through
my headphones. And for a moment I feel happy.
But the snowy morning is making me nostalgic for something
I can’t name; for a place or a moment that doesn’t really exist.
I think of the past but also of new beginnings bright with possibility.
I can’t help but think of Shakespeare, my favorite writer,
whose stories are old but somehow still so right. My mind keeps
spinning to friendship.
I haven’t spoken to my best friend, Layla, in twenty-seven
days, but the snow is making everything feel a little less real—even
that. As I look out at the blurry city, I embrace the illusion that
everything is fine because it’s snowing. And in the snow, I can
pretend that the sad things in my life are just dreams I’ve misremembered.
Maybe it’s the weather; maybe the song. But I hear Gigi’s
voice in my head. My grandmother’s been gone for four years
now, but memories of her still hit me in waves. Today is the day
your life changes, Little Bird, I hear her say. Today things can be
and new and maybe even better.
But then my wintry, soundtracked, semiperfect bubble bursts
when I slip on the platform. And as I slam into the ground, the
harsh truth of my own reality lands heavily, right on top of me.
“Damn, girl! You aight?”
“Oh my God!”
“Is she okay?”
“Everybody, back the fuck up!”
“Give them some room!”
“Pull her up, pull her up!”
About eight arms reach for me all at once. My left earbud has
fallen out, but my right one is still tucked into the curve of my ear
so that I hear the screech of trains entering and exiting the station
and everyone’s concern on one side and, now that the Nina song
is over, Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World” on
A little kid hands me my glasses, scuffed but unbroken, and
a woman wearing a hijab, hipster glasses, and bright red lipstick
digs through her backpack and offers me a Band-Aid
taking out her own earbuds.
“Thanks,” I say to the kid and all the other strangers, because
it’s times like these when I really don’t get why New Yorkers have
such a bad rep. When shit goes down, they’re there for you.
Once I’m upright, I tuck the other earbud back into my ear so
I’m drowning in sound again, just the way I like it, and take stock
of my unfortunate situation. The leggings I’m wearing under my
uniform skirt are ripped and one of my knees is scraped and
bleeding a little, and worse, I see that my shoe is untied. I don’t
know if the rogue lace is the reason for my fall, but with my luck,
it probably is.
is kind of my brand.
People are still staring at me and I feel my chin wobble, an
in the making. But then a garbled announcement
that no one understands peals through the station.
“What?” a dude with a handlebar mustache says to no one in
particular. “What the hell did it say?” There’s some kind of delay
and everyone groans. A dozen hands pull out a dozen phones.
And just like that, no one cares about me anymore. This is why I
both love and hate New York. In a city like this one it’s easy to fade
into the background. But it’s also inevitable that at some point, by
someone, you’ll be overlooked. Or completely forgotten.
And that’s when it hits me the way it always does: the fact that
I’m alone; the fact that Layla is really lost to me. The unshakable
certainty that we are never going to be friends again.
It’s just like it was—just like it still is—with Gigi. I can forget
about her for hours or even whole days, and then the truth rushes
back like a brush fire, burning me from the inside out.
That person you loved? They’re gone.
Gigi taught me to pay attention when the world is trying to tell
you something. So for a second I allow myself to look and listen, to
notice the world around me. But inevitably, that leads to noticing
my utter aloneness, and to thinking of every ugly thing I’ve done
that has led to this moment.
I limp over to the closest bench. I pull out my water bottle and
squirt a little of its contents over my bleeding knee. And instead
of taking in the world, the way I know Gigi would have wanted,
There’s a line in The Tempest about the past being prologue to
everything that comes after, and I can’t help but remember it as
memories of Layla fill my head. The thing I didn’t realize about
having a best friend while I still had one is just how wrapped up
she is in everything I do. Every outfit I wear or song I listen to.
Every place I go. Losing someone can leave you haunted.
I look up, through the lens of still-falling snow, feeling the
familiar burn of tears forcing their way to the surface. The Louis
Armstrong song that reminds me too much of the day I met her
is still pouring into my ears. I swallow hard and yank out my earbuds.
I push the tears back down.
I’m sick of crying every time I see or hear or feel something
that reminds me of her. But before I can move on, I have to shake
off the weight of my past. Of our past. I need to rewrite our prologue
before it destroys me.
So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
A THEORY & A SNOWMAN
When the train finally shows up, it’s so crowded that I end up
smashed into a corner between a stroller and the doors, and the
guy in front of me is wearing a backpack he refuses to take off.
One of the buckles is pressing against my boob.
I want to growl at this guy to put his bag on the floor, for
everyone to give me some goddamn space, but I don’t, because I
don’t do stuff like that. If Layla were here, she’d tell the dude off.
But she isn’t! I shout inside my own head. For fuck’s sake, stop
So I imagine a clean sheet of paper. Mentally, I start making
the list I need to rid myself of thoughts like these. The steps I
need to take to rid myself of Layla . . . for good. The systematic
way I’m going to unhaunt my whole life.
I get off a few stops later when we reach Layla’s station—the
one where she’d hop on the train every morning and find me. I’d
always sit in the first car so she’d know to walk to the front of the
platform to wait. When the train pulled in, I’d look for the smear
of her black hair, or the blur of her hand as she waved at me. We
met and rode to school every day that way.
I follow the flow of bodies toward the stairwell, push my way
through the turnstile, and step out onto the sidewalk. I slip my earbuds back in, put on Ella Fitzgerald, and look left and right, making sure no one who knows me is around. The coast looks clear, so I turn my music up, cross my fingers, and keep moving. Something about skipping school makes me feel like I’m actually in control of my life.
I walk down Layla’s block, taking in all the familiarities of the
street. The way the door to the bodega on the corner doesn’t close
all the way. The ragged rainbow flag hanging from the fire escape
of the building beside hers. The same yellowed flyer’s been taped
in the window of the deli advertising their “new” kosher salami
since I was twelve.
We always got Popsicles at that bodega in the summer. We
challenged each other to jump and touch the hanging threads of
that flag whenever we walked past it. We never tried the salami, but we’d get sandwiches and ninety-nine-
Arizona iced teas
at the deli almost every time I slept over. If it was warm out, we’d
eat on Layla’s stoop.
I keep walking, past Layla’s building and into the park where
we first met. Its lawn is wide and a little green even though it’s
February. The grass is dusted with snow and it’s still falling fast. I
go to the exact spot where I was sitting the day I met Layla—the
exact spot where she saw me crying about Gigi and where she
started singing to make me feel better—and
I text my dad.
Daddio, I send. You’re off today, right?
His response comes almost instantly. Yep.
Can you meet me?
Cleo . . .
Daddy . . .
You better be on your way to school.
I start typing another response, but then my phone starts to
vibrate with a call.
“I . . . fell on the subway platform,” I say to him instead of
hello. It’s a low blow, but I’ll say whatever I need to get him here.
“The trains were delayed and my leggings are ripped and it’s
snowing, and you know how the snow reminds me of Gigi. I just
had an awful morning, okay? Please don’t give me a hard time
about this, Daddy. Not today.”
He sighs, long and low. “Cleo, this seriously has to be the last
time. If it isn’t, I’ll have to talk to your mother.”
I gasp.“Et tu, Brute?” My dad knows almost everything about
Layla, and that I’ve been skipping school to avoid her. But as long
as my grades don’t slip, he lets me get away with pretty much
whatever I want. My mom’s another story.
“This is the last time, Cleo.”
I’m pretty sure it’s an empty threat, so I grin.
“It will be. I promise. Now, can you meet me?”
“Where are you?” he asks.
He arrives about twenty minutes later. I grabbed a cup of coffee
for him, and a tea for me, from the café across the street while I
waited, so as soon as I spot him, I run over and push the steaming
cup into his gloved hands.
“Oh, honey,” he says as soon as he sees my leggings. He
straightens his glasses and pulls me to him. He plants a kiss on
my forehead and his bristly goatee tickles my eyebrow. “Why
did you want me to meet you here? You should have just come
“I want to build a snowman,” I say, hating that I sound like a
“Correction: I need to.”
He makes his Librarian Face—an
expression of both confusion
and intrigue. He makes this face when he’s cautiously interested
in or fascinated by a book, an idea, or a person. I’ve seen
him use it with patrons at the library where he works when he’s
asked a particularly strange question, and as he reads articles on
his tablet in the mornings. Since he moved out a few months ago
I’ve seen this face (and him) a lot less, but it’s still so recognizable
that I grin at his eggshell-brown
skin and dark freckles; his wide,
nose. “A snowman,” he says, and it’s a statement
and a question all at once.
“Yes,” I say. “I have a theory.”
He purses his lips to stop himself from smiling, and I know
what this expression means too: he has no idea what I’m about to
say next. “Okay,” he says. He puts his heavy arm over my shoulders.
We start to walk, strolling past people walking dogs in coats
and nannies pushing strollers. Snow is still falling and everything
around us feels a little magical and unreal. I inherited my dad’s
freckled face, his poor eyesight, and his dreaminess too. He never
rushes me to speak because he knows what it’s like to be easily
it’s like to get lost inside your own head. “I
think,” I say, “that I need to make some new memories. I think
that if I make enough new ones in the right places, not being
friends with Layla anymore will hurt a little bit less.”
My dad sips his coffee. I look across the park at the tall trees
and beyond them to where Layla’s walk-up
sits beside the bodega,
deli, and fire escape, and my breath catches. If I could erase
this whole block from the city, I would.
“And these new memories,” Daddy says. “They start with a
snowman in this park?”
I nod. “This is where I met her, remember? At that cookout
right after Gigi died? But if we do something else in this exact
spot, like build a snowman, maybe that will be the first thing I
think of when I come here, instead of her.”
“Ah,” he says, something like sadness passing over his features.
We build a snowman. When we’re half done, I throw a few snowballs
at my dad and he laughs and dodges them, making his own
between searching for stones and sticks to put finishing touches
on our creation. As we roll and pat and press the snow into new
shapes, I pray that my memories are just as malleable as the snow
in my hands. Hopefully my past is as rewritable as I’m pretending
it can be.
READY FOR BATTLE
“So you wanna skip school, huh?” my mother says that night, the
second she gets home.
I’m brushing my teeth, planning my next new-memory-
trip, when she squeezes into our tiny bathroom behind
I’m in pajamas, a satin scarf already wrapped around my
head for bed, but she’s still in the tight pencil skirt she wore to
the office this morning, her blazer slung over her arm. Her high
heels are hanging off the tips of her fingers (she’d never leave
her shoes by the door) and there’s barely any space between us
“Oh crap,” I mutter, pressing my thighs closer to the sink.
Toothpaste droplets land on the mirror. I don’t know how she
found out, but then I remember my father’s threat.
I spit and rinse my mouth out, getting more pissed with him
by the second. Some things, like secrets between a father and
daughter about said daughter skipping school, are supposed to
be sacred. I take my time settling my toothbrush into the cup by
the faucet. Not so long ago, it used to have three toothbrushes in
it. Now it just has two.
“Did Daddy at least tell you why I skipped?” I ask, slowly
“No?” Her stormy face turns even stormier. “Your father
knew about this?”
“Double crap,” I mumble. “No?” I try.
She rolls her eyes and sits down on the edge of our tub. Her
knees bump hard into my shins.
“Jesus, Cleo. I can’t even look at you. And your father . . .”
For a split second, she seems . . . hurt. Like we’ve ganged up
on her. Like our life together is a fight and she’s all on her own.
But then she’s right back to looking like she’s ready for battle.
“Give me your phone,” she says, holding out a manicured
hand. I snatch it from the counter, where it’s innocently playing
“Blue in Green” by Miles Davis, and clutch it to my heart.
I slip out of the bathroom and head down the hall, negotiating.
“Mom, no! Please? Anything but my phone,” I whine.
“I don’t want to hear it, Cleo.” She follows me to my room,
where I reluctantly hand it over. She pockets it and storms out,
slamming my door so hard the row of snow globes on my shelves
rattle. I flop down on top of my blankets, knowing I’m probably
grounded on top of losing the phone. When she yells back to me,
“Your father’s picking you up first thing tomorrow. You’ll get the
phone back on Monday,” I bolt upright.