Ericka drew circles whenever she could. With a ballpoint and paper she would sit with her nose pressed to the page and begin to create sketched out circles, all of them with tracery, rudimentary boundaries comingling on the paper. Density. Elasticity. “Sometimes,” Ericka told me, “I think I just want something to do with my hands.”

“I guess that’s pretty normal,” I would tell her.

Ericka always shrugged. “Maybe.”

It wasn’t constant. But it was methodical; an exercise in Zen and neuroticism. She would spread one hand across the page, fingers fully extended. The other hand—her left—the dominant—would make the circles. A few cycles around and then another. Another. Always chaotically placed but so tightly packed that it didn’t matter.

I caught her at it once, on the train headed for the edge of the city. There she was—Ericka—drawing her circles on the corner of a newspaper, on the obituary page, little round rings overlapping with dozens of names. Daniel Roeburn—dead at 61, heart failure, too much red meat, mourned by wife Marion and daughter Sharon. Bella Crovat—dead at 9, car accident, mourned by parents Jill and Richard, mourned by neighborhood, mourned by the texting teenager who swerved out of his lane too late to stop himself. Chris Branden—dead at 24, a troubled soul taken off life support at four a.m. on Tuesday (mourned by longtime girlfriend Amy, sister Cassidy, and father Charlie). RIP.

“They look like molecules or something,” I said, pointing towards all the circles she had doodled. The train was empty just then. Just me and Ericka and the doodles and the obituary page and Daniel and Marion and Sharon and Bella and Jill and Richard and Chris and Amy and Cassidy and Charlie.

Ericka just said “Maybe.”

“Or maybe like bubbles,” I added.

Ericka wasn’t pretty. Not in that special way that young American girls are supposed to be pretty. She was thin and all of her joints stuck out in all the wrong places. Her face was always flushed. Her teeth were crooked in a way that nobody ever called charming. But her mother had always said that orthodontists were like the lying politicians of dentistry.

She didn’t smile all that much. When she did it was rare, a big unashamed parting of her lips to reveal nearly all of her teeth. Once, driving back to Albany in the back of her dad’s old pickup she started beaming out at the scenery of upstate New York. She told me how she liked how much calmer it was here than in the city. To her, it felt so much focused. Calmer.

Ericka had a brother. He lived somewhere out in Colorado, I think, but she never liked to talk about him. Whenever I asked she would get quiet and, eventually, change the subject to something else.

Ericka crossed her arms a lot.

“Do you ever masturbate?” I asked her once, walking through her cul de sac, low sunlight playing off all angles.

Her Chuck Taylors were tattered and the laces were too long then, but she never once tripped. Not once. Instead, she kicked haphazardly at a pebble. It took off, sporadically hitting each imperfection on the road.

Ericka shrugged. “Sometimes. Like, once or twice a month, maybe. At least I used to. I don’t as much anymore. Not sure I ever really enjoyed it.”

Her sweater that day had been very dark beige. It had a lot of lint. A lot of loose yarn. I could see a flash of her forearm through a hole in the knitting.

We kept walking past the old houses to the park and the swing set where both of us used to go as kids. But neither of us swung. We just sat, letting the swings support out weight.

And then I asked her, “Do you still go to church?”

Ericka was a little taller than me, back then. Her thin legs and big feet were stretched out across the park’s woodchips.

“That’s a very personal question,” she told me.

Once, when I was at Mitchell’s house in early August, he asked me if I had ever slept with Ericka. We had been drinking too much beer out of his dad’s mini fridge. I was leaning against the rough brown couch in the basement, listening to Mitchell confess that he had felt up Emily Carson after graduation when all of a sudden he was asking if I’d ever had sex with her.

“You and Ericka have always been pretty weirdly close, man,” he said. “If you’ve gotten with her, you’ve got to tell me.”

“Mitchell, I think you’re drunk,” I said then, my voice full of Pabst.

And Mitchell said “Whatever, I bet you’ve totally hooked up.”

And then I was uncomfortable and said that I had to go home.

“You’re drunk.”

Ericka left for two weeks that summer to go to Colorado. Her brother was in the hospital again, and I got the idea that it might be for the last time. I still pictured her in the waiting room. She would be drawing those loopy circles on the hospital’s copies of Vogue and People and Golf Monthly.

I like to think that maybe the janitors or the nurses wouldn’t have thrown Ericka’s pages away. Maybe they would’ve saved those sheets and those doodles for other visitors to see. Maybe they would pin Ericka’s circles up across the hospital walls—chaotic little structures holding things together.

And when I heard that her brother had finally gone I tried calling Ericka late at night, staring out my window at the distant glow of downtown Albany, dozens of random pinpricks of light.

Her phone rang but for once she didn’t pick up. Instead the call just went to voicemail. It was the automated kind, with the robotic female voice. Level and calm.

For the rest of that summer I could just imagine her, alone in her room, making circles. She would be ignoring the books on her bookshelf: the fantasy novels she always used to love, the old cartoons, the Bible we’d all been given as kids at church. Instead, Ericka would draw her circles—clumps of random sketches that would grow into structures—towers and towns made of sketched out spheres.

I just imagined her like that, page after page after page falling all around her. Those loose papers would eventually form chaotic structures of their own across her tidy bedroom floor.

When I finally saw her again it was the last week of August and we were all at the coast, talking around a bonfire, talking about our futures, throwing driftwood into the Atlantic, letting our feet rest on the cool stones of the beach.

And there she was, looking tired in the light from the bonfire, her long hair down her back and her face flushed. Her worn black jacket hanging lazily off of her bony shoulders. The soles of her Chuck Taylors flapped open as she walked across the soft grey stones of the beach.

And I didn’t speak to her. She just looked out at the wide expanse of the world’s second largest ocean.

And I didn’t tell you, Ericka—I didn’t tell you that, despite everything, you looked beautiful in the firelight.


About the Author: Leon is full-time student currently living in Minneapolis, Minnesota with poems published in various journals and a love for particle physics.

Story Song: "Skeleton (Everybody's Favorite)" by Astronautalis