Sub-dermal

In the back of the store there was a jumble of personal affects: a few coolers and thermoses filled up with now-cold soup, tangled lanyards with keys on them. The break room was little more than a corner cubicle, its walls made up of squat metal lockers. A woman leaned up against one of these and smoked her medicine. 

From the front where the two sliding glass doors opened up to a vacuum sealed chamber came a small dribble of smog. Emma was annoyed- there wouldn’t be the smog if one thoughtless woman hadn’t lingered in the entry; half in and half out of the vacuum chamber, tripping every motion sensor while chatting on her Tech. Now Emma had to fire up the handheld sucking machine and go catch the bits of smoke from the air, until it materialized into a sort of sludgy silt she’d have to empty into the dumpster at the end of the night. All this, of course, in between every customer. Never mind that she looked ridiculous chasing whips of smoke and then dashing back behind the counter every third pace. 

For instance, now- there was another one. And their impatience was implacable. 

“I’ll be right up,” Emma said, shoving the Handheld down on the counter and appearing behind the register. The customer, of course, didn’t answer. Her eyes were cast down towards her Tech and she was frowning. They always frowned. What, exactly, did they have to frown about? 

“Do you have a Platinum Card?” Emma asked in her practiced drawl. 

“No thank you,” the customer said sourly, as if she had just had a salesman bust into her shower, shoving flyers in her face. 

I didn’t ask if you wanted one, Emma thought. The counter registered the item’s weight and shape. 

“I heard this one was nice,” she smiled dutifully. The canister was full of something Emma would never get to try herself. 

“Is this working yet?” the customer asked, and she gestured with her Tech towards the terminal incredulously. 

“Yes ma’am, you just have to wait for the chirp.”

“I have been,” the woman said. For the first time, her eyes rose to meet Emma’s straight-on. “I have to say, you people are getting ruder and ruder. If I had any time, I’d speak with your manager.” She snapped her Breather out of her purse and began fixing it on dismissively. 

Emma pursed her lips. Big talk. What opulent event was she rushing off to tonight?

“Enjoy your evening,” Emma said, and she placed the item on the right conveyer to be sent to the woman’s home. 

“Hmm,” the woman said, her mouth muffled by the Breather. She swished out of the store. 

Emma exhaled a painful breath. She hadn’t even thought she’d lost control of her tone. If that woman was surveyed on her kitchen-table-Tech in the morning, it’d be another long week of extra training from Emma’s manager. “Training,” of course, being unpaid. She ran her hand through her hair compulsively. 

“Damn it,” Emma shuddered. A strand of hair had pulled away from her scalp and now dangled from her fingertips. It shone blonde in the filtery light. Well, not blonde-blonde. Not the platinum, shining color some of her customers sported from their fancy heat-protect, smog-protect treatments. Emma could still remember being a true blonde like that. Her mother had called her “Toadstool” as a child. 

Thinking about her mother made a hard lump rise up in Emma’s chest, so she busied herself with the Handheld yet again, chasing the leftover smoke bit by bit. 

That was the way of her life: she got through it, bit by bit by bit. 

————————————————-

The end of the night had brought no less than four customers crashing through the vacuum chamber three minutes before closing, but at long last, their items had been registered, their Techs read, the counters wiped and the carpet sprayed. Emma straightened the canisters of clean air in the Platinum section; letting her fingers linger on the glossy nature pictures that set each flavor apart from the other. On this one, a jagged mountain range in icy blue colors. On another, a wide-open field. There was one scene she recognized as belonging to a Russian island, but she could never remember its name. 

Emma gathered her things and stood patiently at the door, waiting for her manager to lock the back bays first. In the reflection of the double doors’ glass, she studied the image of her face. Lines, etched in her forehead and all around her eyes. Rough, red patches which couldn’t be hidden by the company-provided cosmetics. The company liked to keep up appearances; as an upper-end provider of Breath; no one liked to buy pure air while looking straight in the face of smog poisoning. Not because it made them feel guilty, or empathetic. No. Focus groups had been conducted for the products, and the customers ticked all sorts of negative boxes when their salespeople had boils or burns. 

Emma was lucky, in a way. She got to spend all day in a sealed chamber where the environment was largely regulated. She’d had friends from high school who got jobs in Foundation or Waste, and had to work outside for long hours in unwieldy suits. They looked to Emma like the stiff domed suits of America’s ancient space program. Of course, the suits weren’t necessary to be outside. And Emma questioned their effectiveness ever since Ned, an older cousin, had died on the job at an outdoor road-laying company. All one really needed to move comfortably through the outdoor world was a host of special creams (for exposed skin), and a Breather- the sleek metal mouth attachment which replaced all incoming air with pure, flavored Breath. 

Emma’s breather was already a hand-me-down when she got it. The seal wasn’t perfect and every now and then she caught a lungful of smog. In the attachable canister usually reserved for Breath, Emma placed a sample of the air from her store. It was better than outdoor air, and free. 

She took the Breather out of her bag now and held it loosely against her mouth, considering it. She hated the feel of the metal bit pushing past her lips. And the optional nose tubes; which her mother always insisted she use, sprung up from the curved piece like insect eyes. It was painful to wear- not customized to the curves of her mouth, or fitted with soft rubber gum pads. Sometimes Emma even thought she’d prefer its alternative- a short five year prognosis. 

Emma held the Breather in place over her mouth; hovering it there, eyeing the effect in the mirror. In this version of her dress-up game, her face seemed gaunt and ugly. The Breather made her look like some sort of cyborg. And with the Breather dropped away from her face, Emma could see her eyes emerging bright from their sockets. She could focus on the rounded shape of her cheeks, or the delicate way her nose turned up on just the right sort of slope. 

Behind the image of her nose came another nose, wavy and far away. Emma stared at the features of her face so closely that she didn’t notice the boy’s face through the glass until behind her eyes came a second pair of eyes, peering in from the outside. 

“Ma’am?” he called through the doors. 

Emma started and jolted away from her reflection guiltily. “Hello?”

“Hello, are you open? Well, I know you’re not open, but, could you help me?” 

Her instant emotion was resentment. He had the smooth voice of an educated man and his clothes were tailored and clean. A rich boy. A typical rich boy, here after closing, asking for favors. 

Well, Emma was off the clock now. 

“No,” she said, trying to make the word as blunt as possible- a wall slammed in his face. She swiveled on her heel for dramatic effect and began to walk away. 

“No?” He asked. “No one’s ever said no to me before.” 

This made her pause. Her blood was starting to rise; from the bottoms of her tired feet (cashiers weren’t allowed to sit during their shift) to the core of her labored chest. This was a rich boy she could really rip into. 

“While obviously you’re unaccustomed to not getting your way, let me explain something to you,” Emma began, laying her palms against the inner glass door vehemently. 

“Wait, wait! I’m just kidding,” he smirked. 

He smirked. Emma’s anger was far from dissipated. 

“If you’re aware that we’re closed, sir, then I suggest you go home.” 

“Please, wait,” he shrugged, raising his hands in a sort of surrender. Emma had more time to see his face now; a very handsome face. The kind of good skin money could buy. Typical. 

“I’m sorry. It was an awful joke. I know that you’re busy in there—” he glanced towards the back, where her manager was taking an unusually long time to lock the product cases and the loading doors. Undoubtedly she had stopped to smoke more medicine, rubbing her sweaty palms against her legs, breathing deeply and expecting this little break to be on company time. “—I know that it’s the end of your night. But I’m desperate.” 

The way he said the word desperate was somehow quiet and pronounced at the same time. Emma swallowed. 

“What could you possibly be desperate for?” 

He raised one suggestive eyebrow. “I could give you the list… tonight, it’s Levon.” 

Emma wasn’t surprised in the slightest. The birth control chemical. The one they kept behind their counter and sold like hotcakes each day. He was an attractive boy; he probably had dalliances nearly every night. Why would it occur to him to be responsible?

“I’m sure someone like you could have thought to order some on the Belts.”

He shifted in place and looked down. “Ours is… broken, right now. They have maintenance coming in the morning. But the morning is too late. You know, you’re a pharmacist.”

She wasn’t a pharmacist, but she did know; she was a girl. Emma thought about his thin, beautiful girl, laid out at home on a settee, waiting. A girl who really was desperate. So she caved. 

“Hold on,” she said, casting a glance around the store. Her manager wouldn’t mind the extra sale. 

Emma reached up and flipped the lock back on the door, allowing the motion sensor to be triggered again. She stepped into the vacuum vestibule and reached up to do the same with the outer door. 

Now they were nearly face to face. He wore a small smile as he stood with his hands in his pockets. Had there been no glass, this distance would be almost unnerving. Like the distance between two lovers who, after a fight, stand nose to nose breathing angrily- just before they kiss. 

The switch was flipped and the door rushed open, and, there they were, exactly in that stance. Emma should have moved, but her heart was thudding strangely. It was the shock of the automated door— too quick. 

“The air,” the boy pointed, and he was right. Tendrils of opaque fog were seeping into the chamber and filling the space between them. She coughed painfully, then realized- “Where’s your Breather?”

He shrugged, stepping around Emma so that the doors could swish shut in the spot he’d been standing. He took her hand. Emma let him. He guided her fingers to his nose where there was a bump the size of a lima bean. He traced with her finger a small raised line all the way from his nose to the back of his ear. 

“What is that?” Emma asked. 

“A type of oxygen cannula,” he replied. “Implanted. My whole family has one. The Breath is inserted into a well near my lungs,” he tapped there, “where the lungs are cleaned with each exhale. And somehow it’s self sufficient. Self-purifying.” 

Freedom- Emma saw it for what it was. Not only was it discreet, and impervious to malfunction or leakage- but it protected the lungs. The very organ which was the most fragile; and the most lethal. The organ that killed her mother. The organ that was killing Emma now. 

The birth control chemical was the furthest thing from Emma’s mind, but the boy forged ahead into the store and stood at the counter expectantly. She wanted to prolong her time with him. She felt like if she watched the flaring of his nostrils or the rising of his chest for long enough, she would glean a bit of information about what his implant was- and how she could attain it. This is what desperation was. 

Her hands fumbled on the Levon, packaged tightly in a bright pink tin. The boy brought out a Platinum Card. “Can I use this?”
“Of course.” She scanned it. A name appeared in bright letters across the top: Fulton Abram. Abram, a name she might have heard before on the Tech-casts at home. 

“Now I owe you a favor,” Fulton said as he took the tin in his hand. His eyes fixed on her sincerely, studying her. 

“I did it for your girlfriend, not for you,” Emma said bravely. 

Fulton widened his eyes. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend. This is for someone… in the family.”

Emma nodded silently, unsure of why he had specified. 

From the back of the store ambled her manager, resting her hands in her pockets and with red rimmed eyes. 

“Emma,” she said. The name in her mouth was like an accusation. “I thought we were closed. I tallied the registers.”

“I know, I’m sorry. This customer was still in the store. I… missed him.” She looked at Fulton’s face. He smiled the barest smile, like they shared the most delicious secret between them. 

“We’ll have to add it to your training,” the manager said. 

“I’ll make it up to you,” Fulton promised. He took in her name tag. “Emma. I’ll see you soon.” 

And he left, without taking out any mask or metal, without a single skip in the smooth rise and fall of his pumping lungs. Emma watched his body working until he was fully out of sight. 

————————————————-

Fulton kept his word. Their first date was expensive, the same as the outing after that. He treated her to delicate foods as he courted her and movies at the causeway. He seemed to think she was beautiful, despite her thinning hair and her damaged skin. He promised to deliver a pot of protective cream to her house. When it arrived on the Community Belt, it smelled like lavender and seemed to contain little flecks of shimmer. 

When they first kissed, Emma thought to be careful of his implant. She traced its sub-dermal lines with reverence, pressing her lips faintly against his, until he took her hand and pressed it firmly on his chin, asking her to pull him closer, kiss him harder. 

Fulton promised her she wouldn’t have to work at that lousy job anymore. And she didn’t— he took care of that. She became a hostess at a restaurant in the causeway closest to her home. It tipped well and the men who walked in were often respectful. 

She began to wonder if she was in love. 

It certainly felt like love— her days were all work, walking, eating three ice creams in one day, hearing stories, taking him in. She was always taking him in, a sponge— and her love was like a dust which she breathed irregardless of machinery. That feeling, love, she thought of as a light, a shimmering cloud of spores or particles. It felt different in her body than her dying lungs. It started somewhere near her ribcage and proceeded to fill her whole chest like a vessel. And then it collected, until it formed its own vortex, as in a wind tunnel, which gripped her heart and pulled it straight towards Fulton.

More importantly, he seemed to love her too. He made love to her on the small folding bed in her bedroom, always gentle. He could last longer than she could; the heaving would set in, and she’d have to catch her breath in a small ball on the bed. He often told her he wished he could give her his cannula. 

As the months went by this dream became something like a promise. Emma felt Fulton’s ribcage with a fervid desire, feeling his body as she kissed him as if she could reach through the bones and extract the lungs he carried so thoughtlessly every day. She tried not to obsess about it. But her mother was in her mind— coughing. 

Five months since she’d become Fulton’s lover, Emma began coughing too. More than usual. More than ever. Bad news. 

The doctor Fulton had ordered to examine her was tight-lipped and dour. He told them, “the damage must stop compounding.” 

But how could the damage stop compounding, when the whole world got worse each day, bit by bit by bit? 

“I need the implant,” Emma told him. They were naked in her bed. She’d never gotten to see his home. 

“I wish you could,” he responded. 

Emma’s heart boiled and jumped. She felt jagged. 

“Why can’t I? You said your whole family got them. I know they’re too much, too much for you or me to pay for on our own, but if we ask your parents— if we pool our resources—” 

“What resources?” Fulton snapped. “You have nothing to pool.” 

Emma shuddered. Tears began to run in rivulets down her cheeks. 

“When we met, you promised you’d help me. You knew where I came from.” 

Fulton nodded, rolling to guard his body from her on the bed. “My parents don’t have money anymore.” 

“What do you mean?”

“They’re poor.” 

Emma felt like laughing. Poor. Poor was a joke to Fulton. Fulton didn’t know what that word meant.

“I love you,” she said. She meant it deeply. She meant it with the deep strong hope she’d had when her mother was in the death ward, and Emma bargained with her to hold on. 

“I love you,” Fulton said softly, and Emma’s heart rose. This was the moment. He’d understand. He’d get over his guilt or shame at asking his parents for help, and he’d see the necessity of it all. They had to get Emma into surgery. They had to, or there would be no Emma left. 

“So?” she said hopefully. 

Fulton turned to stare at her. 

“What do you mean? I love you, so? So what? I love you!”

“I love you too,” she encouraged. Her eyes were wide and manic. “I love you so much.

You were the answer I needed. You can finally save me, Fulton!”

He began to cry. She’d never seen him cry like this. 

“I can’t. Emma, I want to, but I can’t. We haven’t been making money for months. They’re going to be pushed out of the neighborhood soon. There are signs on the doors.” 

“That can’t happen. It can’t happen overnight. Your family is made of money.” 

“Dad made a bad investment. They’re in denial, but Emma, I knew you’d understand! Out of all of the people in my life you’re the only one who wouldn’t hate me for this.” 

But he was wrong. She did hate him. And her hate drew on the same strangling roots which had sought to cling to her mother, which had sought to cling to Fulton’s medicine. She felt acute loss in equal parts to her acute wanting. 

She stood up from the bed and pulled a dress on. She attempted to stop shivering. 

“I don’t understand why you’d do this,” Emma said. Her voice was low. The vessel in her chest that was made for him felt very, very empty. 

“Emma?” Fulton looked up at her with big doe eyes. Lying eyes. They’d been feeding her promises for months. In fact, they’d given her false hope on that very first night— when he let her feel his life-giver, and then forced her fingers away. 

“I love you,” Fulton said again. His chest was moving quickly. Well-oiled, ill used. 

Emma shook her head and stared at the long bump where she knew her answer lived, somewhere tempting— just beneath his skin. 

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In the hospital bed

We thought we loved each other

Thought and felt and knew-

And as our bodies touched we thought

The closeness only grew-

Each brush of skin and fragile

graft a flush of breath two lips which

crash and each exchange would cinch

the last ’til our bodies spliced together.

 

We hoped we healed each other

Hoped and tried and failed-

Each kiss we gave we tried to stop

Our faces growing pale-

One bite to make a rosy

patch one scratch to change the skin from

black a desperate thrust which served to

mask our pieces dying, losing purchase.

 

So we poisoned each other

Killed and maimed and bruised-

And for a while believed that all

Our ailments could be soothed-

Injected pain and sadness

passed through open sores a growing

mass of disillusioned joy; at

last we identified our contagion.

Two Strings

B: “We’d have to drill holes through the ceiling.”

A: “Well, that does it then.”

B: “Don’t be like that.”

A: “No, holes in the ceiling!

B: “Darling. Imagine.”

A: “I do imagine. A bit of sawdust, an easy patch-job. Unless you’d rather fly to Mexico. Their ceilings must already have the holes.”

B: “Nonsense. You think they walk around all day skipping over holes? They drill them, once the woman is pregnant.”

A: “What’s wrong with two little holes?”

B: “Imagine, if your toe slips inside!”

A: “A broken toe! Think of my vagina.”

B: “It won’t be broken, darling.”

A: “You ask the doctor, then. She said it may be torn all the way to my asshole.”

B: “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

A: “I want a little empathy.”

B: “This goes beyond empathy. It’s not about empathy. It’s about revenge.”

A: “I think it’s a beautiful custom. And the men in Mexico never think of it as punitive.”

B: “Of course they don’t. I wouldn’t say a bad word about anyone if I had my balls in a noose!”

A: “That’s ridiculous. It’s voluntary. They agree, and then they place their balls in the noose.”

B: “My brother thinks you’re crazy. He thinks I should leave you.”

A: “Ah, yes. The endlessly wise Mitchell. Leave your wife at nine months pregnant over a ceremonial practice.”

B: “I almost cried when I described it to him. I couldn’t get the words out. I felt ashamed, Astrid.”

A: “Let me hear what you told him.”

B: “What?”

A: “I want to hear how you put it to him. You didn’t even give it a chance, did you?”

B: “It’s quite straightforward, isn’t it? You want to rip my balls off every time you have a contraction.”

A: “I knew it.”

B: “What?”

A: “If that’s what you said to him, of course he hates it.”

B: “What’s to love, where’s the—”

A: “—if you only took care when you told people, explained the history. Women and men have been choosing this custom since before the Aztecs built their golden temples, when births were natural and the sky was clean and all around the couple were trees and…”

B: “We can have a natural birth. Darling, let’s have a natural birth. We can plop you right down in a meadow and make sure there’s lots of soft ferns and, I don’t know, let’s cut the umbilical cord with an arrowhead.”

A: “Don’t patronize me.”

B: “I’m sorry. Baby, I didn’t mean that. But let’s… let’s have that natural birth you want. Whatever you want. Did you think about water?”

A: “Yes, and have my baby’s first sensation be drowning.”

B: “Our baby.”

A: “I know. But that’s the whole point. The Huichol people use this as a way to acknowledge and honor paternal responsibility. It’s stopped infidelity, it’s reduced teenage pregnancy—”

B: “You don’t trust me.”

A: “Why would you say that?”

B: “You said it first. It’s about infidelity, is it?”

A: “No, don’t get defensive. I hate it when you—”

B: “I’m not. I’m not defensive. I’m scared for us. Do you think I’ll leave you?”

A: “Of course not.”

B: “Okay.”

A: “But you might.”

B: “Baby?”

A: “Once we have our kid. I mean, we don’t know what will happen.”

B: “Yes I do.”

A: “We can’t know.”

B: “I do. We’re going to be parents. We’re going to love each other. That’s it.”

A: “And what if… we don’t?”

B: “Don’t… have our kid?”

A: “Don’t love each other.”

B: “Do you—”

A: “Of course I love you. I’m not saying that. I just mean that everything will be different. Our lives will be upside down and we’ll be tired all the time, and we’ll fight, and we won’t have sex again. All of my friends have been telling me. And my mother, she’s like a direct dial line to my dismal future. When she had my sister, her vagina actually ripped—”

B: “Don’t tell me that. Astrid. You need to stop.”

A: “I- I mean, it’s true, we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought—”

B: “Darling. Wait. You’re spiraling. You need to stop letting them get to you.”

A: “It’s not all in my head, if that’s what you think.”

B: “That’s not what I’m saying. I just know that you’re so afraid, when you don’t need to be. You can’t think about those things. This is going to be the most wonderful—”

A: “Well it’s not happening to you, is it? It’s not happening to your body.” Her hands were on her chest. There was plaintive silence.

B: “Astrid.”

A: “I can’t recover from this. I will never be the same.”

B: “I know.”

A: “But you… you could walk away.”

B: “I couldn’t.”

A: “You wouldn’t. Because I know you. Because you’re a good man. But you could. And if you wanted to, you could start a new life, as if none of it had ever happened. You wouldn’t have the scars. Your penis would work just as well. You wouldn’t risk the depression or the psychosis…”

B: “That’s very rare. Darling. That’s not gonna happen to you.”

A: “Alright.”

B: “You’re right. It’s not fair. You’re right.”

A: “I’m just… afraid.”

B: “Come here.”

They whispered.

B: “You know that pulling on my balls isn’t going to make me stay with our family. It won’t be the thing that makes me a father. That’s… that’s going to be me. And trust.”

A: “I trust you. I trust you, but I can still have fear, can’t I?”

B: “Yes.”

A: “I love you.”

B: “Would the… would the ceremony make you feel better?”

A: “I’m not sure. I just like it.”

B: “We’ll do it. Then we’ll both be afraid together.”

A: “But I know that’s awful. I don’t want to make you feel pain, when you don’t have to.”

B: “You have to.”

A: “Yes, I do.”

B: “So we’ll do it together.”

A: “What if I… ruin you?”

B: “I don’t know. You won’t, will you?”

A: “I hope not. I don’t know exactly what’s safe.”

B: “Oh, god.”

A: “I mean, we’ll find out! I promise, we’ll be careful about it.”

B: “What have I done?”

A: “If only you knew, that day you kissed me…”

B: “I think it would still be worth it.”

A: “Do you mean it? We’re really doing this?”

B: “I mean it. Don’t let me change my mind.”

A: “Trust me, I won’t.”

B: “How kind of you.”

A: “My love. I can’t believe this is happening.”

B: “We need to stop talking about it, before I think it all through.”

A: “No, not that.”

B: “What then?”

A: “The kid.”

B: “The kid.”

A: “Ours.”

They looked at each other in contented disbelief. They laced their fingers together.

What does loving someone feel like?

What does loving someone feel like?

I asked myself this. Again and again. I was younger, not much younger, and I hadn’t yet felt what my heart was capable of. I have learned something since then. It was accidental learning; it was unlessoned learning, it seems like it is a knowledge which landed on me suddenly and from somewhere else.

I’m glad it did. I’m better for it. I never wanted to spend the rest of my life wrapped in the skills I had acquired hiding from pain and abuse. They came in handy as I sat cross-legged in the backyard with my brother listening to police sirens blare by our front door. I became skilled at receding, at ignoring, at crying without caring I was crying, at feeling merciless, a merciless daughter refusing to blame a father, refusing to hate a mother, refusing to feel for fear of feeling the wrong things. I was skilled at saving my pain up until the right moment, so I was never crippled, so I could always succeed, or appear to succeed. I was skilled at surviving. Watching my brother just barely survive. I could turn my love for my father off as if it were tied to a switch because doing so helped me turn off the self-doubt and the self-hatred which he insisted I keep. And I am skilled today, at rerouting my own emotions, as if my neural pathways are railway tracks. It is so simple for me to pull a lever and welcome anger instead of sadness. Apathy instead of heartbreak. I am still skilled at that. There is a process for it. I wonder if the process is unique to me, or how many others can understand it. It is like a wave; it starts in the back of my head, and then moves forward to where my forehead is. This stops the crying. The wave moves down my neck, easing the tightness, and into my chest, easing my lungs. This stops the feeling. The process only takes two to three seconds. And then I talk and my voice is normal and clear; and then I walk and my hands are not shaking; and then I can choose exactly when to reverse the process and pay the price for doing it.

I believe that during the worst of it all I went months at a time washed out like this. I thought it was funny how easy it was to exist in this state, and I congratulated myself on it. I thought my face looked funny in the mirror, a hard line at my lips and even, unblinking eyes.

I had a recurring desire to scream my lungs out. But I could never find the right place. If I screamed in the streets the lights in the houses would turn on and someone would call the police. If I screamed in a field a jogger would try to save me and stop me. If I screamed in my house, in my school, in a restaurant, I would never get away with it. Sometimes I tried- they were silent screams filled with air. My fists would ball and my mouth would widen until my jaw popped and wouldn’t un-pop, and the veins in my neck would bulge over the sound of a whisper. Other times I indulged in half-formed, nervous screams which could be muffled by my pillow. I didn’t want to be found out. I only allowed myself one or two good shrieks, grinded out between my teeth; toes curling. And there was the one time I guess I left my body. The screams left my mouth without my permission, without my command. My aunt was in the car with me. She must have been afraid. But I only felt regret, afterwards, that my consciousness had returned and stopped me from continuing.

But I’ll tell you something. I found victory, years after that. I used my body to carry me across a spit of land onto the point of an island; step after step along the caldera, until I reached a small white church on the top of a hill. And in front of this church was a ledge and I climbed that ledge. And there was no one around; no one around for a mile, and more perfectly there was a strong wind which battered my body and made me fear for my life on the ledge above the water. And I stood there- I stood my ground against that wind while the sun was setting and turning my vision orange, wind, hair covering my eyes, turning my vision black, and I finally did scream my lungs out.

I screamed and whooped and shrieked and was not afraid that someone would hear me. I heard me. And it was a sound I had been wanting to release for almost my whole life. No one could take it away from me. Only the wind; which did, it swept the sound far out over the sea seconds after it passed through my ears. And I thank the wind for letting me hear every decibel, and for being wise enough to know they shouldn’t be allowed to linger. Below me I could see a town called Oia, and I screamed and screamed and wanted them to be afraid, wanted them to believe there was a banshee in their hills by their church far above their houses, wanted someone to turn from their work to listen for a still second, wondering if they had heard something in the air. I wanted the cars winding by the coast on the other side of the point to hear me and know they could do nothing to reach me.

And I’ll tell you something else. I found victory, a year before that, over my heartlessness. I fell in love for the first time. And that love was a physical feeling too, but unlike a wave. Like a dust, a light, a shimmering cloud of spores or particles. It is a different process. It starts somewhere near my ribcage and proceeds to fill my whole chest like a vessel. And then it collects, until it forms its own vortex, as in a wind tunnel, which grips my heart and pulls it towards my lover. And that’s what loving someone feels like, physically feels like, which I regard when I look in the mirror, and see my rounded lips and kind eyes smiling back at me.

My old skills are vestiges of a life before love; and I use them without meaning to in the same way that people check their doorsteps for dead people. And I hate the wave and how easy it is to feel everything being washed away. It is so much easier to live with resentment than disappointment. But now every time I turn my feelings off I am more and more afraid I will get stuck that way, or perhaps, the worst fear of all, that this is my natural state and that love is the learned behavior. But I know which one I pored over and cultivated. I know which one I practiced over and over it again. It makes it harder to get rid of. But now I know what the alternative is- now I’ve finally felt it. Unlearning this will be difficult. But I’m in luck. Unfeeling my love can only ever be impossible. /

Don’t go where I can’t follow

I wanna go where you can’t follow

I want to exist in a vacuum of you

A crying, spinning, heartbreak vacuum-

but still- without you- still-

with me. I barely know who I am by myself anymore

Or who I was before. If I was anyone before,

but maybe that’s the problem.

I can’t wait to be free of you, while I’m missing you,

pining after you and becoming myself.

It’s not your fault, of course,

you couldn’t make me know myself

or not-make-me

You couldn’t stunt or confuse me, you couldn’t

enlighten or save me, you are just you;

who- I love with my whole life. You are

what I wanted when I thought I wanted

a soulmate. And I will miss you. I

just hope that while you’re gone

Something in me might change.

It took almost a year to realize-

Experience dictates that love is:

something that you must save.

/over/

Something you have in abundance,

ready to be given away.

A gift

/over/

Admission, an

Acceptance

/over/

Explosion.

Temptation, over

A tide, a

beginning

/A/

beginning;

Love

reveals how beautiful a love is:

which can make different people

be loved

in the same way that they are in love.

Shudder

When he died, it was on a corner near a dozing shopping mall, half-shelled and hulled of its meat, its people, filled only with caged storefronts and empty vats for melting cheese. The lights on the street-side had been dim for years but in morning they were nearly transparent. That morning he stood, and waited, with the lights to his back. He wanted someone to get there.

The whole thing had happened so early that it seemed it was the earliest it ever would be. I mean, it seemed like that hour had been specifically set aside for his death. Nothing else breathed or moved in the world at that time. There was only Andrew, and the car.

I don’t waste spare moments contemplating the mode, the method, operandi, operatory. It is easy enough to assume. Yes, there was alcohol. Yes, there was sidewalk. Yes there was blood on sidewalk yes there was.

That’s not what’s important here.

Okay?

I know what important things are.

For instance, I loved him- you could call that “important.” I loved him in a way that made my life different; and changed the shape of my body. I could feel the cavernous hole in my chest getting bigger to take in more love for him. I could feel it getting bigger and bigger, sucking my blood vessels into a whirlpool with a big wet smacking POP.

My love wasn’t a bad thing, though. It just took a lot,

and was very large.

Alright?

 

Andrew was known for his stories.

He was a writer in a way I never could be, always twisting and yarning and crafting his words. He loved to say we were different people, like the two scientists who were responsible for learning how to grow lima beans in space. Don’t ask me how he came up with this stuff.

One moment, it would just occur to him.

“Casp!” he’d say, “We’re inventors. We invented the first bendable stovepipe and now we’re millionaires!”

I’d laugh, and kiss his forehead, and speak with a fancy rich accent for the rest of the day. Our imaginations were the best part of us; they took us through a lot. I liked that he could always be in love with me, no matter what we did or where we lived or which millionaires we were that day. There was something comforting about pretending to be someone else. Maybe it was like falling in love with him all over again, each time.

Our sex became stories, too. The dueling warlords who fought with their cocks, the professor and the schoolboy. There were times when I missed the two of us, but it was almost easier that way. Our stories were exciting. Our lives could sometimes be plain.

What struck me through all this, though, was the time Andrew talked about his grave.

“I’m not shuddering, Casper, I’m shivering. I just get that sometimes.”

“You don’t have to have a seizure every time. You freak me out when you do that.”

“You know how they say when you shiver, it’s someone walking on your grave?”

“I guess.”

Andrew’s eyes started to sparkle, his writerly hands on my shoulders, he said “I think I’m going to have a very popular grave.”

He meant that he was going to be famous, of course. He saw hordes of pilgrims winding up a mountain road, bringing well-loved copies of his books and leaving tokens by his headstone. He saw generations of readers and literature-lovers kneeling in the soft dirt of his burial mound until it was reduced to sand and then dust. He thought maybe his place of death would be a point of interest, someday. I loved the way he could think.

It didn’t turn out that way, obviously. He was cremated, so I guess you could say his grave was where he died: where the wooden roadside cross sat spiked into the grass for exactly 27 days before it broke apart or disappeared. It was that corner, where he waited for a friend, where a friend just up and killed him. It got built over.

The drowsy mall became a vacant lot and the vacant lot became condos, and when the condos went decrepit they put trees and a park there instead. The park was slowly invaded by biking paths that became road crossings and a new mall was built around them, this time with elevators like drive-through bank tubes and shiny stainless counters over which passed melted cheese. It’s a busy place, a popular place, that brings new money into the neighborhood. There is no grass to spike in American flags, wreaths, or photos.

I miss him all the time so I go there, anyway. I buy the soft pretzel with a lemonade and cross the street to sit on a bench. The people passing are reading trashy novels and probably only smoke out of rigid pipes; they traipse back and forth all day and into the early morning. They stream into the mall and out again, and in, and out.

I wish it didn’t turn out this way. I am reminded that it’s really hard to love someone.

Andrew’s grave, it turns out, is a crosswalk.

Eleven (11)

I am closing my eyes to see you.

I see you with closed eyes.

You seem,

In pain,

My hands are holding your face.

I am kissing your forehead.

Nothing else matters,

Although all of you matters.

But my love is leaving my lips.

The minute hand turns and I

Cross myself

Did you feel it?

That was my wish.

Future Lover

Future lover

We are getting ice cream.

I see you in the crevices of light, little chinks of golden glow between the palm leaves.

You are the reds (of course)

And the greens

You are burnished copper.

I never thought that sunrises were as spectacular

But you did.

We’re with your family, and they

Tell me sunrise is better.

Future lover, I took you for tea

You fell in love the way I did with

Nostalgia stacked,

What I had left.

You saw all I had to give.

You loved me.

I am more than enough,

My family tells you,

Get married in the morning.

You nod your head and silently smile

You know some things

are better.

Ex Lover

Maybe I need to remind myself,

Future me,

How it felt to be with him.

I don’t want you to forget.

Maybe it would help to trace the outline

Of his face and ask yourself

What more you wanted than this.

I’ve only listened to his heart a couple times

But I’m sure it’s full of things complex and tired just like mine

I’m sure he wants the same from me.

I’ll tell you how it felt, then

To kiss him.

Felt like sharing our umbrella

Oxygen tank

Felt like melting at the same rate

Newton’s law of slow unconsciousness.

If only I could describe to you,

The shadows on his body shape

Those were the places

My mouth wanted most, maybe because

I related.

Remember:

The backs of his ears.

It’s an uncommon thing to be allowed to touch there.

Please remember:

The feeling of being clean

Of being terrified, but safe

Of feeling wanted.

No, I know I’m wanted.

This was more than

that.