I see how that boy of yours looks at you—like you are a hallway with all the lights blinking at once, jarring, confining. To me, you are a receiving chamber with the potted plants all real. The spice rack, the french press, the kettle-shudder. He thinks your eyes are marbles and I see only their dark framing, brows like lined pages, perhaps their luster in the light of early morning. Each of your joints is creaky-clean, and your collarbone is the calm removed from the storm, candy sweet, whiskey warm. I taste you for hours after you’ve left, catch myself drawing your name onto foggy windows with my pointer finger, and I want to say it’s not my fault that I do these things. You have an unfairly write-able name, memorable scent. You are neat books and careless smile and unheeded apologies. You are a deviant perfectionist with piano-player fingers, so do not be surprised when your long-discarded clarinet pops up in the living room—I hear the notes tucked into the spaces between your toes, sonatas composed by your locked-tight smirk, dancing creatures that tear as they sashay. You say you are margarine on bakery-fresh bread, but you are peanut butter-easy, breakfast at the kitchen table, awake without an alarm. All your prayers are love songs, and the staccato of your sleepy exhalations is church-pew conversation, whispers heard by no one else.
You wanted to be full so you put his hands inside you, but it turns out food and fingers are a nasty combination, and look at you now. Dry-heaving, bathroom floor, and the fucking toilet paper isn’t even on straight, its faux-metal ring caught on the wall, and some of this used to make sense, you swear it. You try to pace your thoughts, keep them slow enough to dissect, to bisect, but words had meaning until days turned dark and it’s dark all the time now and I don’t know what to do with my hands anymore, not since I stopped with the nails and the skin, not since I tried to cut every piece of him out of me. You want to create distance from this. Stop talking about myself constantly. You dream of half-size mirrors, the wood panelling on either side of the sink, the way the fluorescence of the stop-blink bulb hits the skin of your wrist. You have such small hands. You have small wrists and wide eyes and there are scratches on your side you can’t explain. You used to sleep on your back, but you are turning, condensing, making room for the places his hands loved, cleaning your ribs for his fingers, hollowed for his hallowed eyes. The moon is grey and falling and you are laying down. He comes to you in dreams with sharp nails; you focus on the gleam of the slatted moonlight off his incisors, settling in for another night of his world-worn attentions. You see Russia in his gaze. Wake up in a cold place, cold eyes, cold smile. You want to use your small fingers to palm his sides, shake some warmth into him, but his sternum is a pike, and it is grasping, straining, moving ever-closer, and, sitting aside from yourself in the darkened bedroom, you see that someone told the monster your name, someone wrote it onto his parchment-paper heart, there is a tattoo on his ribcage that means some part of you has bled into him, your name through his skin, into his blood. You bleed like old friends, tearing the shirt, the sheet, the bandages cutting off blood-flow, solutions, problems, his touch raising sores, reopening wounds you believed covered, opening you into a science-class spectacle, flaps of skin, arch of foot, sleight of hand. You would strike out at the palms that cause pain but you know better than to disrupt equilibrium. You have such achingly small hands.
Bones like hollowed homes, your eyes are the dullest of rooms, and you lose yourself wandering through deserted corridors. Wake up to find it is 5:52 P.M. on a Wednesday. The world is decidedly unglamorous, and maybe that’s how it starts—make a place where you can be alone. It’s not that simple, never is. You are pretty in a way that suggests dolls with porcelain cheeks and gingham dresses: long eyelashes, bow lips, a deeply held passivity, a touch of cool tolerance in your conversation—this is something men adore, hoping to route their hands across the maps of your rough-ribbed torso, wondering if they could lose themselves in the watery expanse of your eyes. You want to tell them that losing yourself is the easy part. You want to rifle through their bedside tables and meet their pets. You want to wake up in a comfortable bed that is not your own once the day has warmed, late enough that lunch is your only option; however, you haven’t slept past nine in years, and you don’t know what you want, not really, and you expected that upon reaching maturity, the mysterious clinking and groaning of this still-young world would set into place, prayed that eventually a sort of collective meaning could be derived from disparate tragedies. The dishes are unwashed and your bed is unmade. There is a woman in the apartment two over that walks with her shoulder blades warring one another, her body slashing itself to stay smaller, and you see something of yourself in her weary flinch. There is a woman on your floor that seems to know what it is to wander out of a foreign land after years of residency, to come back to a place that should be home but is no longer familiar. You want to put her hands over your heart, demand that she listen to its thudding, imperfect rhythm—if I can let this half-stop body beat onward, darling, so can you. It is dark outside already. You will never approach her; yes, you have your own body, and therefore your own quiet wars, the violence of your own skin. There is a war inside of your pretty torso and you are attempting to hire mercenaries, looking for a man that can change the tide of the battle, make you skid out of this terrible equilibrium. Either way you win. Either way you lose, your smile cracked, your teeth a row of discarded gift bags. You want to put something inside of you that your hands cannot rip out.
Standing at the top of the staircase in your tacky red sweater, you are needlessly lovely. I can’t explain it, but I’ve been waiting for weeks to see you like this, knocked out of your paralyzing, neurotic brand of perfection, no longer obsessively smoothing the hem of your pleated skirt, eating and chatting for a preplanned forty minutes between Calc and French. Through the window behind you, our part of this too-big city is unlit, shadows and empty space; the fluorescence of the hall is especially bright against the indistinguishable rush of buildings, harsh against your insouciant curls, your thin chapped lips. You look like you’ve been caught red-handed and perhaps you have. Back in September, your childhood best friend sat smoking behind the apartment complex and told me that some people fear cracks more than shattering, that avoiding fissures could become a way of life if you let it. You’ve got an arm wrapped around your torso like you are trying to hold the emptiness inside you, away from my searching gaze. I don’t know to tell you this, but there are places inside you no one will ever find or fill, nameless, gaping chambers whose dimensions you’ll never quite move past. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I am sorry. I wish I knew how to play the game of the savior, but I look at the skin on the inside of your wrist and think breakable, and you need salvageable. You said that sometimes all the words write themselves wrong when they leave your head. In fairness, you were drunk at the time, arrayed like a princess, swathed in cheap throw blankets, holding court like it was your born task; nonetheless, there is place inside of you that betrays your best intentions, and it throws a jagged edge into your grin, meaning that your humor is a sharp, painful thing to the both of us. Tonight, you are the royalty dethroned, you are Ophelia wondering what the bottom of the river holds, and you are more enthralling than I dared to expect in your despondency, jilted, skittish, but still frozen to the spot at the sight of me. There are fourteen steps between us, a tension that I can taste on the inside of my cheeks, something sharp and thick like licorice. With your eyes stuck helplessly to the half-lit dimensions of my face, I feel a creature stir inside me, evidence of the primal, petty part of me that responds only to your name.
You are a distended garment, a left-over meal, a tooth-gapped, knobbly-kneed excuse of a girl, all line and curve and nervous tick, a vaulted room with a bulging ceiling, a gasping, grasping creature with a cry like Rahab after the burning of the city—you’ve won, darling, so why the tears? You are rubble and rousing and limestone-rough, the cave walls glinting darkly, the doors of all the bedrooms that close by themselves. When it gets late, you sit around the back of the complex with your feet kicked up, curls tangled like cats and yarn, like something that huffs and kisses and soothes of its own accord. You can’t juggle and you can’t sing but in certain lighting, there is a cast of sincerity to your eyes, the quiet conviction that everyone in the room is just here to pass some time, and you are ready to be alone again. Pill-popping new-age Shirley Temple, you sleep in too late, you kiss like it is always your first, hip-grab, shoulder-shake, and in the aftermath, your voice is raw and soft and kind, a hum of a childhood lullaby, fairytales snug in your choking, indelicate laugh, the kind no one is ever quite prepared to hear. You are a big-spoon and a small sleeper, a reckless, relentless bundle of remembered departures, and there are names sketched into the rough planes of your form, letters you wrote from bone marrow, places carved and cut and compacted, parts of you taken, impossible to return. You are standing at the top of the staircase in your dark-pleated skirt—quick-open veins, knife-sharp grin, you would be so easy to love.
You love the boy that makes you blank. You love the boy that makes you blank, and you love him sad, and you love him with the blinds drawn and the street quiet and the bed sheets all crumpled by the door. You love him on sharp Chicago nights and in the strange, weak light of early morning. You love his scratched calves, his cheap-frame glasses, the way his voice catches on the last words of a chorus. You love the boy that steals the speech from you, and you love him wrong, and you love him with your feet stretched past the edge of the bed, waking to cold toes and sore arches. He tells you that stars are named for near-misses. You’re standing around the back of the apartment complex in your nicest jacket and he is terribly earnest, quick-flushing, slow-laughing, a half-baked good kid with a heart of molten metal, the type indeterminate. He leaves cigarettes on the bathroom counter and toothpaste on the sink, pressing his cool lips to the hollow above your collarbone, eyes clear and level: he does not need this. You love the boy that skims your skin with rough palms, and you try to drive your hips into his, want to hold him inside of you, but it is never enough. You love him wine-tipsy and Wednesday sober. You love him until the feeling scorches the words from your throat, a process now so familiar that you watch letters slip away from you all the time; emptied, you touch him without hesitance, your small, quick fingers ghosting across the planes of his back, hoarding his words in the maw behind your sternum. In the moment, he exhales your name in two quick-fire syllables—there are meaningless shapes thrown up behind your eyelids, and you will love him until he has taken even your vision from you.
Moving into autumn without you feels wrong—the ebbing of humidity, the city still languorous, but waking, stirring, a growing consciousness settled into each earthly rotation, something once light and firm held behind flickering eyelids, something now scratched, now heavy, darkened like an undefined regret—I could have—I should have—I never would have—and, you know, I never noticed the changing of the seasons until you, not really, because in this child’s-play land of strip malls and drying paint, temperature differentials don’t mean much, and what good is anything—anything at all—if you’re alone? Last Saturday, your dark-eyed sister sat behind me at a childhood friend’s funeral, poised and positioned as always, surrounded by a few simpering friends, holding court in her peculiar way. She said my name like she was ready for a storm, and I heard a note of your anxious posturing, the whisper of your unacknowledged conviction that my words could skim the skin from you. The service was in a chapel in the old part of town, the short, thin roads with their tangle of earthy names, neighborhoods snug against the outcropping of businesses from the heart of the city, a place where I could feel the cooling air like a seatbelt strapped too tightly, restrictive, leaving a mark. I count the days since your departure, a child with an abacus—wondering how to give those numbers meaning. As September presses onward, time rattles and curls, speeding, slowing; abandoned in the land of your ancestors, I sit still for hours, trying to map out the loss of leaves across this city, hoping I’ll somehow stumble upon where things go when they simply fade from sight.
“I saw your mother
at the department store;
she looked innocent
like a stillborn,
but all I could think about
was the sting.
Since you’ve gone,
nothing’s been the same;
the wind don’t sing
and the sky so dim—
I’ve seen her staring
up to it saying:
Don’t leave this world to me.”
– "Winter Is All Over You," First Aid Kit
The night I said your touch made me unclean, you splashed water onto my outstretched arm and pronounced me absolved of sin, even the ones we had yet to commit. Last week, I bared my body to the riverbed, sat on the lowest outcropping with my feet dangling, wondering if the act could cleanse my step of impurities. This morning, I returned. Slowly, I sank further into the water, the river stitching its miracles into my skin, embrace so ice-cold it seemed warm, so encompassing I don’t know how I ever felt safe in your arms. I was shoulder-deep when Horatio ran to me, grabbed me, pulled me inland, my ankles skinned by the rocks, fingers tremulous, gaze wavering. His hands are rough—workman’s fingers, steady, pragmatic—nothing like the artistic curve of your palm. He put his watchman’s jacket around me and steered me inside. I am washing you from me inch by inch. Recovering myself as I existed prior to you. In the water, the edges of my hair frayed and spread, darkened, glinting, dangerous like the distinctive tincture of your grin late at night, treacherous, something you would not risk aggravating. Those loose tendrils could have belonged to someone you loved. It is fitting that so many caught on the stones as I was forcibly removed, fitting that the strands were splayed across the riverbed like my hair across your too-dark sheets, fitting that the river takes as it cleanses, fitting that you are gone and my father is dead and still I hurt, like I had something left to lose.
Some days, I just held you. We were sitting on the precarious edge of something truly disastrous, skating past the end of the world by the thinnest of margins, but I couldn’t assign words to the scent of despair, couldn’t intellectualize the raw terror I felt walking into that shitty goddamn apartment after a numbed day of work, part of me convinced that you’d be gone, that I’d come home to something sadder than a crime scene, more desolate—that I’d be sleeping alone for the rest of my life. Improbably, impossibly, you were there—emptied-eyed, thin-lipped, doubtlessly a wreck of an individual—but waiting for me, shoulders bared, waiting for me, as if you’d made your own light in this world of half-dead bulbs and visceral darkness.