i’ve hurt you in a way that i can’t fully comprehend, but i am always just bringing a knife to a gun fight.
i’ve hurt you in a way that i can’t fully comprehend, but i am always just bringing a knife to a gun fight.
six years from now, it will still hurt.
you will grow older, you will grow stronger. you will stop writing unsent letters in your outlook drafts, in your daily planner, on the backs of grocery receipts, across the pages of books he used to read. you will have sex with strangers, friends, lovers. you will remember some of them, and call the rest by the wrong names. you will vacation in tokyo and go skydiving in kansas and grow your bangs out and smile more easily. you will feel lighter and breathe deeper and your hands will grip the steering wheel without drawing your knuckles white against bone. you will finally change your last name back, standing in long lines at the dps watching excited teenagers pretend to look jaded as they pose for their driver's license photos. you will stop watching the calendar for dates that used to matter, seasons he used to own, memories that used to burn deep. you will stop finding shirts in the back of the closet that still smell like him- and the ones that do you will fold up and donate. you will put those old playlists back on and learn how to dance to them without faltering, and spend your evenings drinking cheap wine and slowly falling in love with your life.
but six years from now, it will still hurt.
sheila eats a packet of peanuts m&ms at work, counting them slowly into her palms like jewel-bright tablets of prescription medication.
she stops after six, ruefully wrapping the crinkly yellow bag closed with the origami dexterity of a practiced dieter. she tells me she wants to lose fifteen pounds and i nod and smile and point at my headset to indicate i am on a call, but the hold music has been playing for half an hour and its tinny vibrato is still preferable to sheila's liturgy about her thighs. and i think she might have once been pretty or could still be pretty, but she sits in that ergonomic office chair with the posture of the perpetually defeated, picking her nails nervously and telling dana about another blind date that never called back. dana is 54 years old and her husband died two years ago of a heart attack during a secret trip with their daughter's french teacher, but she encourages sheila with parables about true love with this weird unhinged smile plastered across her face and i think her mind must be touching the void.
sheila recounts body language and unspoken signals, fiddling with the elastic waistband of her straining pencil skirt, and the dark red threads are worn shiny by the stress of being forced into an unintended shape. dana, greying and sagging gracelessly around her lacquered salmon lipstick, tells sheila vaguely that it's almost lunchtime and thank god it's friday and the two of them swap sad stories about weekend plans that i know will easily become arbor mist and seinfeld reruns. sheila unwraps a pale turkey sandwich so cold and insubstantial that it doesn't smell like anything, and i watch her eyes dart toward the m&ms bag winking merrily at the corner of her desk.
and i think i will go home today and this might finally be the day i break up with ethan. i think i could pack up his stray socks and boxers and put them in that reusable grocery bag and take off this engagement ring that doesn't fit and was never sized. and i will tell him that i am sick of his lies and my bruises. and i will finally use my pto and take a vacation by myself, get away from these fluorescent lights and conversations about celebrity bikini bodies. and i will be happy alone, without a boyfriend for the first time in ten years.
and then sheila finally dives back into the m&m's, ripping the bag apart with a frenzied urgency as she laughs and tells no one in particular, guess my diet starts tomorrow. and dana reassures her that chocolate is good for the soul. and ethan texts me again to ask me when i am coming home. and i type back soon with stiff, hesitant fingers.
and i think that i will wait until tomorrow.
one day you will come home and tell me you have met someone else- a new hire in your office, an old college classmate at the bar, a friend of a friend at a house party. one day, i will lean hard against our balcony and think about the weight of gravity. one day, we will have the difficult conversation and your hands will abandon my own to smooth the creases in your jeans nervously, over and over again. one day we will turn in this notice to vacate and pack our things and try not to notice that your socks cling static to my forgotten party dresses and that my heart clings desperate to your forgotten love letters. one day we will argue about who this saucepan belonged to originally and our anger will burst and bloom into bitter poison between our teeth. one day you will move out and she will wait for you beside the u-haul, wearing tight jeans and a triumphant smile. one day i will find synonyms for "over" in three languages and twelve steps of acceptance. one day you will text me awkwardly and tell me you will always care.
one day i will sit down at this keyboard and finally exorcise your name from my mouth.
one day i will sell the story of our nights spent sweating, my incisors at your neck.
one day i will replace you with paper and ink.
i want to believe in it, you know. the greatness, the all-encompassing massiveness of the thing. the unsinkable, unbreakable, unchained, unkept and recklessly inconvenient enormity of it. i want to believe that i was shipwrecked and storm-tossed into your arms, your island, safe harbor in an unforgiving sea. that love- true love- really does transcend life and death and space in ways that has our bodies meeting in different forms, different cities, different centuries until the end of time. and your fingers will always trace my cheek the same way, in this smoky bar, in this leather chair, in this studio apartment, in this hospital bed, in this cold coffin. that each time i will find you over and over again, and nothing will ever possess the power to come between us. i want to believe that love triumphs destiny, that we will move mountains with bleeding, slippery hands to bring you back home to me. that this is real- unknowable, untamable, untouched by cynicism or restraint. that i will wage wars and set fires and rewrite history to keep you safe. that it will only ever be you that i feel this much for.
and it will only ever be you who's worth this much and more.
when i was young i discovered how to not fall asleep. don't lie down. you never learned this lesson; you are asleep now beside me and your jaw is relaxed, unclenched, that face in beautiful repose against this worn-out futon. and i am always awake beside you, tracing the bones in your hands, wondering how i can dismantle you in pieces. waiting for the backlash that never comes.
and i tell you a bedtime story while you sleep.
the one about the dimly lit house party, cheap rum mixed with off-brand cola in grimy plastic cups worn slick with sweaty hands, a collision of cigarette butts and confused bodies, coaxing little blue ovals into my palm, a man's voice in my ear and his hands on my waist in the upstairs guest bathroom, his tongue in my mouth- probing, hungry, then his cock in my mouth- frantic, urgent, then your name in my mouth, head swimming, vision blurring, as my hips matched his in a rushed and graceless tempo, drumming a miserable beat across cold, relentless tiles while your messages lit up my phone during every gasping breath.
these are the words that undo us and you are not awake to hear them. they pour out of me in toxic relief, and i have honed each syllable to hurt. you stay asleep, curled up beside me, one hand clasped between mine. defenseless, dependent, alone. and so i tell you the next story. and another one. then several more in unrestrained succession, these things i have done, these things i will do, these things that will wound you with every waking breath-
- these things that spill out, a tapped vein welling to the surface.
it occurred to me last night while i was waiting for the train- it's been since the 10th of last november that i've kept my arms clean.
and i think this could be growing up, growing old, growing better- but i have never forgotten the memories of years spent sinking into that sticky black couch with the duct-taped corners. you eased the needle under my skin like you were lowering your body into me, so careful, so slowly, a heartbreaking magnet into my veins. and my skin was paper; your arms were summer; the carpet spun gold for miles to oz, and someone greater than god cradled me and crooned promises of infinity. we spent those hot summer nights sweating against each other, sticking skin-to-skin with your mouth pouring smoke between my lips or tracing patterns on my bones or stretching the syllables of my name for hours, days, years.
- and they tell me that it'll get better, that time heals all wounds, but i am finding your face in the bottom of shot glasses every single night and i think the next drink could take me further from here. and your parents call to check on me, and the counselor writes dates on business cards, but i am tasting your lips on strangers' cigarettes and i think the next inhale could bring me closer to you.
closer to that place with my back shoved against craig's guest bathroom mirror, your fingers digging into my thighs, prying them apart on that cracked porcelain sink and your teeth at my neck (always, those teeth at my neck) and we are laughing or gasping or moaning in that dizzying amber light and i am falling asleep beside you on a stranger's futon, in your childhood bed, on our living room floor, on blankets in the wild- my head cradled in your arms and you are stroking my hair and whispering stories about all the lives we could live together, you are saying mimi, i am going to love you until the day i die- and then i am clutching you from behind while you are sweating, shaking, coming down hard, and i am wiping the tears from your face when you grind your teeth and beg me eloquently for just one more fix to get you through the night, and then we are driving thousands of miles cross-country in your dirty grey jeep stealing packets of peanut m&ms from gas stations and eating burnt hash browns in late night diners or we are running through rain-slicked streets holding hands and laughing breathlessly while the wind whips through our jacket hoods and you are flushed with whiskey and pushing me hard on the kitchen floor and my head is snapping back from the force of your blows and i am finding your name in my mouth like a speech defect, catching on my teeth and tongue over and over and over again while i choke hard on the sobs and you are telling me, baby i'm sorry, and i am believing every single word and i think i could live like this with my red lipstick stains on your clavicle and your smoker's cough across static phone lines and our hands locked in this perfect destructive grip but we are crashing through that guardrail spectacularly and your face is washed in brake lights and cold fear and i am waking up in a hospital bed alive with plastic tubes and rubber hands and they are reading me the coroner's report they are running toxicity labs they are telling me stories about funeral homes and in lieu of flowers i am digging hard into my arms to bring you back to me-
- and i think i will find myself running back to your grave, over and over again every night, feet pounding on slick grass and carbonized corpses. and i will find you beneath layers of dirt and sediment, i will find you and bring you back with every clawing handful deeper and deeper down until my fingers brush your bones again. and then i am awake on my bathroom floor, naked and shivering against that full-length mirror, staring wide-eyed at these pale legs covered in bruises-
realizing that i never knew what my body looked like before you shaped it with your hands and mouth.
and i am thinking of you- how i could have loved you.
he bought me drinks that night, and i remember the glasses lined up one after the other- vodka with vodka with vodka with vodka. he took me home that night, and i remember the fuzzy pounding in my head, my contacts drying, my lipstick smudging. he turned on his tv that night, and i remember hearing ross say rachel's name during the wedding from across the living room carpet. he pulled my skirt up that night, and i remember pushing his hands back, tell him i was too tired, too drunk. he pressed hard on my throat that night, and i remember his fingers tearing down my underwear, tangling them in my heels.
don't worry, this won't hurt, he told me, a stranger's lie against my ear.
and the protest caught as a scream in my throat, my breath coming ragged and hard, my face pushed down deeper into the couch and his sweat-slicked skin a distant force behind me as the laugh track on tv looped over and over and over again.
and i am thinking of him- how i should have fought him.
then they call my name, and lead me to this cold room with sun-faded posters of better landscapes. i change into the gown and think of blue skies and white beaches. the doctor stretches on her sterile gloves and instructs me to slide my feet into the stirrups. the nurse beside me grips my wrist to source a vein and starts my IV.
she tells me, don't worry, this won't hurt, a stranger's lie beside my table, but i can hear the suction start and i am laughing so hard that i can't stop crying.
i could have named you rachel.
i had that nightmare again. the one with the brake lights, the wet road, the vice grip of that seatbelt against my shoulder.
sometimes i think these memories don't belong to me, and that you never really existed. that you are just a mid-range tombstone in september soil, a relic of a relic amid world war II vets and hypoxic infants. that i am just a girl with bruised knees, bleeding lips, and too many words in my mouth. and this could just be a funnel for my anger, for my mistakes, for a heartbreak worn like a badge of honor and polished to a blinding shine.
and you could be a collection of bones compact beneath earth, a collector's item for archaeologists, a boy who never really belonged to me at all.
it doesn't hurt anymore.
and i think sometimes that maybe it never happened, and i never met you, and it was just a nightmare that lasted longer than both world wars-
-or it was just a moment in time. it was just a calendar date. it was just a long disappointment. and it never meant anything at all.
i'm sorry about your eulogy.
your mother wanted me to write it. her voice broke when she asked me, catching in sobs across that long-distance call.
mimi, you're a writer, she told me tearfully. you could write a beautiful eulogy.
fiction, i thought dully after we hung up. i only write fiction.
so i sat for hours staring at a blank screen. i wrote for no one but you for seven years, but somewhere along the way i ran out of words.
that sunday came suddenly, and i stood beside your gravesite reading a eulogy that did not belong to you. in a stranger's voice that did not belong to me. i invented anecdotes about the person you used to be, creating broad brushstrokes of a caricature i once used to know. your friends and family watched me speak with wide, guileless eyes, searching desperately between my sentences for measures of comfort. i gave them hallmark sentiments and it might have been enough.
your father thanked me after the funeral, told me it was a poignant speech.
you're a hell of a writer, he said quietly. your mother nodded wanly in agreement, her face ashen and glittering with tear tracks.
fiction, i thought mirthlessly, after all the funeral guests left. it was only fiction.
and i think about what i should have written, the last words i could've ever said to your face. that even though my bed is cold and i have missed you like a visceral absence in this space between my heart and lungs, that i have never once forgotten the real memories you left, the ones that kept me up at night. and it wouldn't have been pretty or delicate, not a carefully crafted speech about your love and bravery. it would've been an ugly stream-of-consciousness with no rhyme or reason, spat viciously between choking sobs because the only thing i could think of when i looked into your casket was how you had fucked me over for the very last time.
she comes to my register and she is all soft curves and freckled shoulders, a cascade of strawberry curls spilling to her back. and i think that she is beautiful- the most beautiful girl i've ever seen- even under these buzzing fluorescent lights that carve hard shadows and skeletal masks out of every face beneath them. and at first i can't tell that her stomach is swollen under her faded grey tank top, straining the thinning fabric as she lines up her purchases on the conveyer belt with shaking hands. and i'm so mesmerized by her long eyelashes that i think for a moment they cast blue-black shadows across her cheekbones. but those are bruises on her face. and bruises around her wrists. and bruises across her throat. then her items come tumbling through my scanner, three little bottles with a silent story. i ring up aspirin, covergirl liquid foundation, equate personal lubricant. she does not look at me, does not even speak, and pays with crumpled dollar bills. and i am trying desperately to find my voice- i have these words on the edge of my mouth- but the next customer is pushing a rotisserie chicken onto my scanner and she is walking away with an awkward, pained gait that collapses my heart completely.
when i was younger, my parents planned christmas with nearly indecent enthusiasm.
i loved every minute of the holiday- the decorations, the food, even the rather stale gingerbread house we would dissemble and devour on the 26th. i never fully understood why my mother committed to the tradition as fervently as she did. christmas represented many things she hated; spending money, excessive sweets, and distracting me from winter break homework. but not only did she encourage my fanciful wish-list scribing, she also devised my favorite part of christmas morning.
instead of wrapping presents and placing them under the tree on christmas eve, my mother decided that they would stash all of my gifts (unwrapped) in a giant trash bag and hide it somewhere so well-concealed that it would take me nearly an hour to find. once discovered, however, i could reach into this magical plastic goodie bag and relish the spoils of the hunt with no fussy packaging.
reaching in and pulling out one gift after another represents the most blissful memory of my 28 years. maybe she just wanted me to work for my gifts, but the ploy worked like a drug by heightening my christmas morning anticipation to nearly unreasonable levels. i would wake up at 5 a.m. and jam on my sleuthing cap (a santa hat), rolling up my pajama sleeves to prepare for the search.
“you never find,” my mother would chortle, snapping pictures with a disposable kodak while i felt under couches and crawled into closets.
one year, she hid the bag in the dryer. it was the longest hunt in history of christmas, and i remember bursting into tears when she suggested cruelly, “maybe this year i not buying gifts.”
“she’s just kidding, princess!” my dad said hurriedly, bending down to scoop me into a hug. “we just hid it too well. i can show you where it is.” he glared up at my mother while i clutched and sobbed into his flannel.
“no,” my mother scowled back. “she have to working for it, otherwise take all fun out.”
she took a few more pictures of me crying and rubbing my eyes. her goading finally drove me to run to the point of our house that was furthest away from her- the laundry room. my delight in finally uncovering the bag of presents was unmatched by any other christmas in my ten years of gift-hunting.
the year i turned 13, i woke up at nine and walked downstairs to see my father watching a christmas parade on tv and my mother knitting. she glanced over at me, put down her half-finished scarf, and reached for something beside her. i thought it would be the ubiquitous disposable camera, but i was wrong.
she tossed me a chocolate orange and said, “merry christmas. i got you SAT practice book but it not coming in mail yet.”
i got lost on my way to the morgue.
you'd laugh at me, chalk it up to my inability to decipher maps or directions. you used to chide me for being unprepared for our dinner dates, eagerly buckling my seat belt and jamming the key in the ignition without even knowing where the restaurant was located. you'd look it up for me, half-exasperated, half-enamored by my relentless flightiness. i'd back out of my parking space clumsily while you twiddled through maps on your phone, accidentally turning right when you tell me left.
and you'd always say, remind me to drive next time.
i should've looked up directions to the hospital on my phone, but i dropped it after that call. the glass shattered against the concrete sidewalk, and i think the battery case cracked and split with an ugly sound. i left it where it landed, and pushed mechanically through the crowd. somebody behind me said miss, you dropped your phone, but it became white noise through the rushing in my ears. and it seemed i couldn't get to my car fast enough, as if every air molecule became a grain of sand and my legs wobbled as i fought to move through. a dream sequence running, torturously slow wading.
i made countless u-turns to find the place, scraping my tire against too many curbs because of my car's awful turn radius. several people honked at me as i lunged across lanes or cut sharply through traffic in my confusion. a man in a silver audi tt rolled down his window to berate me with a shout. asshole! he barked at me, his sunburnt face livid with road rage.
i thought about his face for several more hours. i only caught the briefest glimpse of a receding hairline, hawk-like nose, straight white teeth, and sagging jowls. but it was this face i saw when they unzipped your body bag, pulling away the crinkling plastic as brusquely and effortlessly as peeling a banana.
and it was you, but it wasn't you. your face was more still and expressionless than i had ever seen it. even through the nights i stayed up to grade papers, watching you sleep on the couch, your brow was always wrinkled with dreamscape concerns, twitching fitfully through the hours. but in that bag, on that shelf, underneath those eerie fluorescent lights that were just as stark and sickening as they looked on television crime dramas, you looked like a waxwork of your former self. an unreal artistic rendering of the person you used to be.
i didn't want to remember your face like that, so i closed my eyes. and all i could see was that angry man who glowered at me from his rolled-down window. and i thought that it could be him, and not you, here in this hospital morgue. and that i could drive home and find you back in our apartment, standing in the kitchen in that ridiculous apron shaped like a chicken that your mother sent us last christmas. you would be starting dinner at this time in the evening; you were always the better cook. and i'd take my shoes off in the hallway and call out, baby i'm home.
and i could tell you about how i got lost on my way to the hospital, and you'd roll your eyes but hold me in close for a hug and say,
remind me to drive next time.
my mother never had a routine physical. most of my childhood memories took place in hospitals- the astringent, clinical scent of antiseptic, the tactile pressure of latex gloves, the calming voices of diagnosticians distracting me as cold hands moved forward with hidden syringes. but my mother never so much as filled a prescription for herself or scheduled a doctor’s appointment. once, a triage nurse jocularly suggested an EKG for her. i remember the flinty, darting narrowing of my mother’s eyes, the fierceness radiating from her sunken scowl that blanketed the rest of our intake procedure with silence.
she was a sharp, neurotic woman, both in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices. she spoke to my father in a voice constantly pitched at an anxious bark. over the years, i saw her truculence wear on him, a slow and steady grinding that filled our recycling bins with sticky empty bottles. one night towards the end of my 7th grade year, he checked over my geometry homework with bleary, bloodshot eyes. mom wants me to stay home from school tomorrow, i whispered conspiratorially. she thinks i’m running a fever. but i hear there’s going to be a pop quiz. i shouldn’t miss it; i don’t want to stay home. i confided in him, a plea for parental intervention. but he just swayed where he sat, his gaze slightly unfocused as we looked at each other for several painfully long moments.
she wasn’t like this before you were born, he finally said, a flat accusation. you did this to her.
i was quiet then, i was always quiet. as i was docile and obediant when she flitted around me like an anxious insect, haraunging doctors and nurses who rapidly tired of her hypochondria. i was only 7 years old when i came to recognize that constant exasperation, the way medical professionals rolled their eyes at each other in mutual understanding when she dragged me into waiting rooms. i was only 10 years old when i became embarrassed by the size of my medical chart, humiliated when physicians’ offices sent letter after letter addressed to my mother, formally severing our provider-patient relationships. i didn’t know what it truly meant, only that she would stalk angrily to the weathered yellow pages sitting dog-eared on the kitchen table and start flipping through for new doctors. pediatricians. hematologists. cardiologists. endocrinologists. i recognized more medical specialties than disney princesses, spent my summer vacations watching vial after vial of blood withdraw from my body. my classmates came back to school with tan lines and stories about theme parks; i came back with the telltale mark of pressure bandages and three more dispelled diagnoses.
there’s nothing wrong with her, the doctors all told her with barely-concealed impatience. she’s perfectly healthy. you can’t bring her into the ER every time she gets a bruise.
it could be a symptom of hemophilia! my mother would counter, eyes widening. she could be hemorrhaging internally, you need to find out!
but i was fine then, i was always fine. and my mother neglected her own health in favor of her weirdly transferred, chronic hypochondria. she finally succumbed to a brain anuerysm during my freshman year of high school. my father broke down crying during the funeral, weeping into his wrinkled suit sleeves with unrestrained sobs. and our family and friends patted him awkwardly on the back, tracing their own demure tears away with kleenex and subversive swipes.
i did not console him. i was quiet, as i always had been, as i always would be. a statue in a sea of mourners. and when i looked down into the open casket at my mother’s face, i saw it was finally smoothed of its perpetual anxiety by careful embalming. and then the only thought running through my head was finally, no more goddamn hospital trips.
and if i was ashamed or appalled by my own feelings, no one could tell.
take one intense emotion you've experienced and give it to a fictional character.
you are standing in front of me, eyes cast heavily towards the floor, magnetized to your shuffling feet. we stand juxtaposed in the frozen food aisle in whole foods, a ridiculous still life of domestic repose as i clutch a box of amy's organic tofu scramble in my hands and your head turns away from me with studied aversion. an angular blonde woman in a tracksuit passes us on her trajectory towards soy ice cream products, stares with careful concealed curiosity. and when i finally find my voice, it is alien in my throat. a struggling, stillborn thing that escapes with deadened finality.
are you leaving me?
your response comes slowly and hesitantly, and you never once look up. you have obliviously cut and polished them to hurt, honing them with years of practiced lies and neglect.
you have never loved me, not even for a minute.
as the frozen dinner thaws and wilts in my unfeeling hands, you tell me that we are moving in different directions, that you no longer feel the same way about me, that you have met someone at your new job and he took you out for drinks last friday. and i think to myself dazedly, struggling to recall with genuine curiosity what i was doing that night while you texted me haphazard apologies for working late yet again.
i was booking a hotel room for our anniversary, i realize silently with dawning wonderment. to celebrate our ninth year together.
i'm sorry, you say pointlessly, your fingers wrapping endlessly around your ponytail. the part of me that has known and loved you since my earliest college days recognizes that you are nervous. that you have failed to prepare for this moment. and so bizarrely, with the deftness of the blind and desperate, you have chosen this moment in time to sever our relationship with naked truth. your engagement ring gleams mockingly, caught in the cross-section of overhead fluorescent lights, reminding me of every step paved towards the ten thousand dollar promise on your finger.
the numb, fetal pain in my throat claws southward into my chest, a pleural wave of panic and nausea. there is a physiological threat of overflow, a frantic pressure building behind my eyes that is hot and stinging. i am lightheaded in this moment, still clutching onto this defrosting boxed dinner as if it is a life preserver. as if i can regain my footing, step back in time.
back to nine minutes ago, when i opened the frosted freezer doors and asked what do you want for dinner, honey?
back to nine days ago, when i woke up with my arms around you, my face in familar repose against your soft, raspberry-scented hair. and you turned in my arms, eyes still closed, lips finding mine with the practiced ease of lovers with intrinsic muscle memory.
back to nine months ago, when i knelt down against hard rock and wet grass in the park where we first kissed, beneath the clearest night sky i had ever seen in nashville. i remember the words nearly catching in my throat, the feeling of my pants sodden against my knees, as i looked up and said i want to spend the rest of my life loving you.
back to nine years ago, when i first saw you in our introductory english class, arriving late in jeans so tight that multiple rows of otherwise sleepy freshmen swiveled in their seats to gape. and you slung your lean, long-limbed frame into the farthest corner of the lecture hall. and i was lining up my pencils in descending order from longest to shortest, then again by color. and we locked eyes for just a moment then, but it set my chest on fire, bathing me in nervousness and excitement.
that same chest is heaving now, holding in the dizzying feeling of titanic pressure that threatens to collapse it completely, as you say, you have no bearing on my life.
as i hold this frozen box pointlessly, and something inside of me finally breaks loose.
as the other grocery shoppers avert their eyes with embarrassment, or gaze openly with awkward curiosity, or hurry past completely oblivious.
as you back away with uncomfortable avoidance, your eyes desperate for any contact point that is not me, this broken man, this savage stranger.
as i am crying in the frozen food aisle of whole foods, hands shaking with cold and pain and heartbreak.
when i first met you i remembered the women i had seen on the streets and in my building. i rehearsed their bright, uninspired laughs and you were pleased with my pantomime. i took you home and we read books together. one night your hands found a home against my skin and you bit my neck whispering, god is dead.
you already know how this will end.
we sit side-by-side on this bed, eyes forward, untouching and unfeeling. as you tell me you have met someone else, or else we are moving in different directions, or else you no longer love me, or else it is you and not me, or me and not you. and i flinch when you touch me one last time, a conciliatory grasp of my fingers or else a palm against my cheek, one final gaze between a pair of irises that have been magnetized to one another for years. and i push you away, hot angry tears spilling down my face, or else i drop to my knees and beg you- eloquently and desperately- to stay with me. for just one more hour, one more night, one more lifetime. or else i lash out, a wounded animal striking ferally, smashing anything and everything my hands can seek out in this room. in this room where you once laid me down against the floor and told me you would be gentle. in this room where you once kissed me on the cheek and told me you would love me forever. in this room where we sit now, strangers distant as parallel lines as you tell me we can never intersect. as you tell me we can stay friends, or else we should not stay friends, or else you want your things back, or else i can keep them all as memoirs of a time when my fingers interlocked with yours.
i find a perfume that is not mine, was never mine, rolling with a glassy amber wink below the bed. and i confront you, throwing it against the wall with a terrible, anguished velocity. dismayed when it doesn’t shatter because the bottle is plastic, a cheap replica of desire. or else i hide it in my sock drawer, returning to stare at it with indeterminable sadness and loathing through all the nights you don’t come home to me. or else i throw it out in the trash, feeling nothing but numbness thawing to relief when you call me from the office to tell me you’re working late again. and we fight endlessly as the calendars peel off the walls, conversing through broken dinner plates. and sometimes the neighbors call the cops and i answer the door with a brilliant smile, bruises blossoming silently below my shirt. or else we eat quietly, separately every night. me in the kitchen, you in the dining room, an ocean of white noise between us. stretched out through the house like tripwire, silence. and we sleep back-to-back, or else you sleep in the guest room, but we wake up early enough to hug and kiss in pantomime for our children when they tumble downstairs sleepily for breakfast. and then we sign these papers, with our lawyers sitting stony-faced across from one another like chess pieces carved out of horn-rimmed glasses and leather briefcases. or else we do not sign papers- do not even discuss them- but live two separate, pained lives in this house that is not a home. or else one day i come back to your belt as a noose, strung up in the guest room closet, a suicide letter in your hand – i have had enough. or else one day you come back to an emptied, ransacked bedroom with a hastily scribbled note on the bathroom mirror – i am leaving you.
they come to me in that hospital waiting room, my nerves frayed thin by hours and hours of fluorescent light bouncing off sticky linoleum and the same dirty, frayed tabloid magazines shuffling from one tired grasp to another. and i know how i must look, half-dead with lack of sleep, my hair in disarray, my hands arthritic and shaking with fear. and it is the doctor himself, not nursing staff, not some patient care advocate with a sickly, placating smile. and the doctor’s face is a study in stoicism, giving nothing away as he says you were given power of attorney in his advance directive. and he does not need to elaborate, does not need to tell me the tenants of your living will. we wrote ours together, your beautiful script at odds with my sloppy one. reflecting, in our old age, what it meant to prepare for the worst. and we are here now, at the end of the storm together, but you cannot hear me or feel me. you have been gone for half a year, and our home is empty with you- a museum enshrined to your memory as our daughter calls funeral homes and makes arrangements to displace me into a retirement home. i follow the doctor to your bed, a lonely corner of the intensive therapy unit, and they give me papers to sign. sheet after sheet of legal responsibility, to decide here and now that your life will end. that our life will end. that we will never know another anniversary, another photograph, another conversation. and in this moment, in this bed, your face is worn unrecognizable by time and triumphs and disappointments, a road map of a life fully lived. but i remember you as i first saw you that thursday afternoon forty years ago, in the golden autumn sunlight. you were beautiful to me then, as you are now, as you always will be. and i kiss you and say goodbye, and they disconnect your life support. your chest heaves shallow breaths, your bones nearly avian in their hollow lightness as i hold your body close to me. as the nurses avert their eyes in embarrassment, as the doctor grimly notes time of death, as part of me dies here as well, beside you for the very last time.
your skin fills my fingernails. i am the greatest sculptor of the 21st century; the way i carve symmetrical ridges and statuesque patterns into the pressure of your flesh. of your heartbeat pounding like drums through my ribcage, spliced between fragments of sharp oxygen intake. our tongues are smudges of watercolor. pure prismatic streaks dampened on this canvas of curves in our mouth. brush over me. desperate painting. hands tied with satin; this is a fashion trend, this is a culture stake. this is the feeling of charcoal irises burning me and white chalk eyes just blending me and black ink eyelashes sketching me; this perfect stare, this arsonist's dream. we are the ruinous artists with xray eyes. we are the free-falling magnets in a glass full of sand. we are the only people alive in this world- in this second, in this bed- where we lie and kiss like we will fall apart. all we have is this moment, these six minutes of biting your lower lip. all we have is this instant in which perfect strangers with analog watches guide each others' hands to aesthetic masterpiece.
is it worth it to love someone you can only wake up to by chance?