“Sometimes what you want is to be somewhere you do not belong.”
Kio Stark’s lyrical Follow Me Down (Red Lemonade) is a densely packed novella that wanders the projects of New York City capturing the lives of the people that live there in glorious detail—photographs melting into still life paintings, fingers smudged from handling wet paint that should have been left to dry. Sometimes you get a little dirty when you dig, and sometimes people need to disappear. Our protagonist, Lucy is unwilling and unable to turn her back on a mysterious letter that has been freed from the dead-letter office by unknown forces—a picture inside lost for twenty years, the echo of her long lost brother murmuring in the empty corners of her apartment. We follow Lucy as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery. She sees the world for all that it is: dangerous and heartbreaking and kind. The characters of her gritty neighborhood streets—the people she sees on the subway as she commutes to her dull job in an office high up in the metal skyscrapers—they are her muse. These people embody her every waking hope and fear. They are her touchstone and lodestone—her dysfunctional adopted family.
Early on in this story we get a sense of Lucy’s mental state, her unique point of view, and her sense of wanderlust and fractured personal history, running from secrets and pain:
“There was a knock at the door and I didn’t answer. The same knock, over so many years. The same man on the far side of the door, looking for redemption we both know won’t hold. When his footsteps faded, I packed a bag and boarded a bus. Disappearing was easier than I thought it would be.”
These opening lines set the tone for the words that follow, a heavy setting filled with emotional turmoil—a balance of numb loss and childlike wonder at the beauty that still exists around her. More of her past leaks out a few pages later, shedding some light on the darkness that shadows our heroine:
“I had a brother once. The last time he knocked on my door, I didn’t answer. He had been the light in my eyes, an earnest and unprotected boy, foolish and charming. I lost him to the city. The last time he knocked on my door was the day I left him behind.”
As we explore the world around Lucy, the misfits and delinquents around her—a mix of jealous girls, predatory suitors, and protective thugs—she captures these moments in lush, vivid details that reveal the eccentricities and mental instability of everyone she encounters:
“On a crowded corner there’s a young man with tight shoulders and clipped hair. Tourists surround him but he doesn’t see them, he’s staring out across the street into the far distance of his imagination. His hands are moving in a pattern that repeats, it seems for a moment like the signs of the cross: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. But it’s not, the motions are more intricate and subtle. He flicks two fingers at his chin, and suddenly I see that his fingers are talking, it’s sign language, and by the long stare it is clear that his hands are talking to himself. He says the same thing over and over until at last the light changes and his hands drop to his sides, his fingers still moving like pistons, muttering at the sidewalk.”
On her subway rides the fellow commuters are exposed, her eye drawn to anything that doesn’t blend into the metal and glass:
“The train is tense again this morning. There’s a man sitting near the doors. He is handsome and his clothes smell like money, but something is wrong. His eyes are stunned wide open, he never blinks. He has a slight smile that hints at severed neural pathways, inert violence. He wears a woolen hat on a warm morning. He speaks to the backs of the Japanese girls standing near him, ‘You’re not listening,’ he says, over and over, varying his inflection a little with each repetition.”
Lucy is hesitant to get too close to her lover, Jimmy. She keeps the secret of the photograph, and her amateur sleuthing, hidden from her girlfriend, Natalie. In many ways she is alone—a ghost haunting the lives of those who embrace her, never able to sit still and settle down, afraid to push her roots into the soil. She allows the locals to look out for her and at the same time, is fearful of them: “All I can think of when men offer to carry things for me is: and then what would I owe you.” So Lucy keeps her walls up and shields herself from the growing paranoia, caging her heart in metal and twine. As she digs deeper and asks uncomfortable questions, she continues to track the man in the photograph, stirring up trouble and bringing unwanted attention to herself—the streets closing in around her.
When Lucy finally gets her answers, solves the problem at hand, she realizes that she has been kidding herself, buried so deeply in her own denial that she has lost track of her own truths and realities. She has violated those around her, abandoned her own flesh and blood, and it is more than she can handle. The city she has loved has now turned against her—she only has once choice left.
Kio Stark weaves a poetic tapestry of the streets of New York City. By the time Lucy has ended her story in this slim volume of dense prose, we are part of that neighborhood, a history has been created for us and we mourn her losses as our own. This novella is not only a fascinating character study but also an immersive journey into the center of what it means to be alive—and the eternal chances we are given to reinvent ourselves and be reborn.