Turning rejection into creative jet fuel, one couch fire at a time.
When I was little, I thought I was going to rock at relationships. All the celestial bodies were waiting to orbit around me and my male co-star.
While other kids were focused on their coloring books, I was envisioning a technicolor widescreen romance. I could see the grand establishing shot and everything.
But what actually happened was, I failed at them. A fantastical, zoom lens faceplant fail, looping over and over.
Let me try to explain, using illustrations.
and by ‘like you’ I mean someday I have a dickpic collection to call my very own!
Have you ever done drugs?
Then maybe you can understand how I got off track. I got hit by the gullible train, and it was packed with fuckable-men-who-didn’t-love-me-back. If you’re interested in that, it leaves the OKCupid station every day. If you set up a profile now you can probably catch the Fiver.
And when I say “drugs” you should know I mean “love”; and by “love” you should know that that shit’s definitely not love. It’s super attractive; it looks and feels like love, and everyone calls it love so it gets confusing, but yeah no it’s not.
Let’s call it intensity.
Intensity is like pyrite. As opposed to gold, which has to be painstakingly extracted with dredgmining, poverty and crushed dreams, pyrite is conveniently available in every polluted stream. All you need is a Dixie cup and some imagination. Loneliness works also.
HOT SINGLE LADIES IN YOUR AREA. No seriously, they’re really hot. They need water. And health insurance.
Let’s interject a little context: fast forward from the coloring book about 30 years, because you don’t really know what it means to be in love intensity until you’ve been single for a decade post-divorce while raising three or more kids alone, jobless and broke, thousands of miles from family, and with no unmarried friends.
That’s not the young fun wanna-smoke-a-fatty-J kind of single, where your tits get 300 likes because they’re #aloneandlovingit in #cabo #soblessed.
I’m talking about the kind of single where you’ve just been released from a #penitentiary made of #diapers and #ingratitude, and you find yourself swapping nudes with @MuffinThumper88 to resurrect some semblance of “fun” and maybe forget about the custody battle for 30 minutes, okay maybe 10, but you haven’t showered in a month because the babies have been sick so you try to escape the routine with your phone and a shitty app and a deep, hollow-eyed urgency that you yourself can’t face for fear common sense will prevail, so you jump JUMP out of the frying pan and leap into the fiery thermosphere of online fuckery and WHEEEeee it feels like you’re a FIREWORK! Or a SHOOTING STAR! Or living a teenage dream!
But actually no. You’re just, like, busted space junk.
and so so so so so so in love.
What I didn’t know then, that I understand now, was this: I needed independence and I couldn’t admit it. I didn’t like that about myself; assumed it meant that I was destined to be sexless and alone. So I did the next best thing to being alone. I chased Unavailables.
But since I was not ready to accept who I was, I didn’t chase these men consciously. I just had a Pavlovian response to being ignored.
That’s how it would start, every time. I sensed something in a guy that was completely wrong for me – slightly unattainable, non-communicative, potentially psychotic, something — and that something clicked in me like the pin of a grenade. Like the lock on Pandora’s box. Next, he’d bust out some heady compliments and throw down his pride and step 3, I’d throw down my panties. I wasn’t looking for long term so yeah, let’s skip the get-to-know-you part and fuck right out of the gate.
Problem was, during coitus with an Unavailable, something disgustingly special happened for me. I bonded. I saw his true self revealed. I didn’t burn up in the thermosphere. I stayed aloft, gloriously aloft. And in love.
Houston, we have love.
Roger that. Uh, this is Houston. Be advised, we’re gonna need you to find some underwear and stop living in a goddamn fantasy world, over.
It was so blissful. So true. And also the beginning of the end.
Worshiping an Unattainable felt like the way starving people might feel as they hallucinate about hamburgers. Or the way a junkie feels as he’s knotting the extension cord above his elbow, hurry jump jump jump on this slide feeling, a brief euphoric readout that says, you got this.
After all, intensity isn’t mild, it’s seismic; it doesn’t even need reciprocation or physical proximity to feel awesome. Between our stratospheric fuckfests the Unavailable would do what Unavailables do best – disappear – not just physically but emotionally too.
And in that insecure interim, my longing would unspool like magical kitestring woven from the fraying threads of my purple Walmart lingerie. Every love song would whip my brains into stiff, white, oxytocin peaks. I would masturbate to mental snapshots of his profile, and most importantly, I would project all my unmet needs onto his absent but caring face.
Trust me, she gets it.
Because hey, I wanted to be alone, right? This is perfect, right?
But he was ignoring me. He was keeping me in a mental compartment labeled “Fuck As Needed”. Worse, he was treating me like a second rate stand-in. I was not equipped to survive it. And my beloved Unavailables, they were clearly not concerned about my survival.
The intensity was potable, edible, transferable — but not at all sustainable. When I got woke, my string broke. I showed him who I really was.
Once, I told an Unavailable that I loved him (big no-no). I helpfully informed another that he wasn’t over his ex (oh lord no). Another time? I acted as if I was in charge and started setting the ground rules (BAAAhaha gerrrl, stop).
The endings varied but one thing was predictable. These dudes got triggered like Old Testament deities. Sometimes they slamdunked my head onto a pike and wiped out my entire city. Other times they would ignore me so long and hard that bam, I turned to stone. There I was, frozen on my hands and knees, forever begging for make-up sex.
You can’t win with an Unavailable. They will drag you to their level and beat you with experience; also sometimes they will break down your sliding glass door and waterboard you with Natural Light.
It’s like going to Six Flags one beautiful day, riding the fastest, highest ride in the lower 48 with the hottest guy in a 50 mile radius, and falling off the fucking ride because the attendant didn’t click your safety bar enough clicks. It was supposed to be three clicks. You only got one. ONE FUCKING CLICK.
Oh and also the attendant is you.
These season passes practically pay for themselves!
Boom. I hit the deck facefirst with all the lost visors and cell phones. I was broken, hungover, limping away with a Dollar General sack fulla of puke and an empty blood transfusion bag, ready to panhandle for more of him.
They say you grieve a month for every year of a relationship. But me? Nah. I grieved a year for every month because I’m retarded. A year for every day.
I’m wired wrong, y’all. My corpse rots in the yard like fermenting pears. Dogs and squirrels get drunk on what’s left of me, post-intensity.
My 2013-14 Sticker Collection!
Alas, what a rainbow of shitty fruit flavors.
But this THIS is where art saved me.
I got so supralow that I had no choice but to reanimate him in a story so we could spend more “time” together, finishing conversations left undone, living out sex scenes with zero repercussions. And that ex he loved more than me? Yeah fuck that. I was now poised to play all three satisfying corners of that awful triangle. I drew in the backdrop and set the stage and started writing.
But the true restraint was hard won. It was role modeled for me by wise women in a 12 step SAA program. They taught me foreign concepts like resting when you’re tired, having fun when you’re sad, and when you’re lonely, reaching out to people who actually care – and closing doors on those who don’t.
They helped me keep the door closed. They helped me abstain from dick, and I don’t just mean metaphorically.
If you’d told me back then that I was going to go three years without dick, I would have just sobbed. Just dropped outta the game and given up. But the thing is, once freed from the emotional quagmires that come with dick, I’ve been incredibly effective.
I’ve gotten so much shit done.
I’ve written my second book, then screenplays based on the book, and then I acted and produced a web series based on the screenplays – all that fueled by fantasies, failures and unfinished business.
I don’t miss it I don’t miss it SHUT UP BOB I don’t miss it
And that stratospheric high I was craving? I found it again years later, acting in front of the camera. True, I wasn’t getting laid, but I was having cake and it was fucking delicious. I was steady. I was a closed motherfucking circuit. Not only that, I was a better mother.
I know now what I like and what I ought not like. I know what I don’t like, and what I don’t like but should. I know what works for me and what doesn’t. What to watch for and what to allow.
During this period of sexual abstinence, I’ve been asked the same question on a couple different occasions by a couple different guys (with the purposes of convincing me to fuck):
“How many years do you have left?”
As in, you’re gonna get old and that pussy gonna dry up and fall off, so now that I’ve solved your problems, where’s the slot for me to insert my dick?
My reply is some version of: Listen, motherfucker, we come into this world alone. We go out of it alone. And so will you, with a pick up line like that.
Togetherness is nice, but not if you have to force it or settle for it. Further, despite what the songs and movies tell you, instant attraction can’t be trusted, period. If you start fucking someone you have only known for a month or a day (unless that someone is a blended cappuccino with freshly whipped cream), it’s just a honeymoon, son. It’s just intensity. And that might work for you bitches but, it sheared years off my life. I almost died in the name of not dying alone.
And yes while that is a satisfying rant, there’s another less satisfying piece to it. This is the thing I don’t tell those guys.
I may have taken it a step too far. I’ve told myself I don’t have human needs like other people. The truth is, I’ve been afraid that letting someone in would be like kryptonite for my craft.
Did I say my “craft”? I meant “my cat”.
Maybe it’s possible to have independence and a relationship. To have the fantasies that fuel my writing and real life fulfillment – at the same time. I think it’s time to take a look at that.
What have I been running from? And if I’m no longer chasing intensity, then what am I after?
One thing I’ve learned from acting is that the good stuff comes in the quiet between words, where I’m not delivering anything. I’m not cutting up or entertaining. I’m just feeling my feelings, here, while you watch. This is me, open for attack. Open for love. This is me, trying to get to the opposite of intensity.
That’s the way, I’ve discovered, to open up without fucking. You let people see exactly who and what you are, flaws and all, and trust them to not destroy you. You stand there offering nothing but yourself, in exchange for nothing but a shared moment of being alive, together. It’s terrifying. It’s exhilarating.
That’s not intensity. Let’s call it intimacy.
I’m working on it.
Ok maybe not COMPLETELY myself, but you get the point.
CROSSLAND web series releases soon. Click here to watch it.
From the fetid archives, here’s a 100% improvised amateur video I made last year on a smartphone. Never underestimate the power of crappy home movies. They pave the way for better projects. In fact, though I’ve penned 95% less blogs in 2016 it’s not just because of book/burnings/house fires/dumpster fires. I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the art of screenplay writing, film production and acting for my, ahem, upcoming professionally-produced six-season web series, “Crash Bang Burn” – due in early Spring.
So if you’re sick of hearing foul-mouthed rants from Cross and Braylee, ya best hunker down. This 3-ring shitnado fissin to level up.
Now that Bro-country rules the radio, songs about dirt roads, tan legs and tall cans have the monopoly on what Love in the American South is all about.
Crash Bang Burn, however, has a slightly different take.
In Georgia, family is supposed to be bedrock, and love a non-stop summertime—but it’s actually more like quicksand and a bad burn, at least for Braylee and Edie.
Nashville might have penned a song or two about the glories of mama, but nobody mentioned the indoctrinated apron strings that keep grown men tethered like pups to a teat. Which works out great for the Mother Knows Best types—not so great if you’re the “little tramp he married,” like Braylee.
And as for a country boy like Cross, sex is as easy as telling a girl to “slide on over” in his jacked-up truck. But what’s he supposed to do the morning after, when doe-eyed girls like Edie wake up with a case of the Post-Coitus Ties-That-Bind? Because son, those ties can cut off your air supply faster than you can say “chew tobacco, spit.”
Set in the ruralburbs of Nowhere, Georgia, and told through the eyes of three lovers, Crash Bang Burn is a dark, emotionally honest depiction of love and sex, birth and motherhood, divorce and revenge that deep fries the delusions peddled on the silver screen of CMT. Because it’s high time that those three-minute anthems about tan lines and tailgates got held up to the light—or got a firecracker stuck up their tailpipe—or both.
When the judge handed down the sentence I thought, this it it. But it wasn’t. That was nothing, just a little deafening combustion, just a freight train warming up its engine. After all, I still believed in things; I still believed in my savior, in the appeal, in the last minute witness, in the long-suffering nature of justice. Until the day he visited me in prison and brought my kids and his smiling head – until that moment I believed.
But when I took in the sum total of their little faces – their wheat-colored hair, their scent, their clear eyes against the square dirty grids of cage upon cage upon cage – I could feel what five years meant. Five years in an iron box was the end of us, it was the end of me, it was all lines converging into a tunnel. It was a sentence of slow suffocation, stretched out for two thousand days. I froze in the oncoming light and the steel beast took me out.
I buckled to a knee on the visiting room floor. I was a girder laced with explosives or worse, maybe just one faulty piece of steel that collapses the whole bridge. I was making awful sounds too, like the life inside me was being squeezed out. I tried to resist that shrill tea kettle sound, I knew what waited on the other side if I gave in and let it all empty out. There would be nothing left of me except a trembling molten shell, too hot to survive.
So I struggled up off the cement and found a chair, so the watchers would think I’d tripped. I rested my guts against my elbows, kept my head bowed. Still the whining in my throat kept coming, a coward begging help from helpless children, from a godless God.
“I’m going to leave if you don’t stop,” my daughter scolded in my ear, sitting thigh to thigh with me. But in her solid flank I could feel the opposite was true, that she would stay no matter what I did, no matter how I embarrassed her or myself. She would join me in here if she could, make due with life in a cell if it meant we could be together.
Don’t believe your eyes, I wanted to tell her. Don’t believe this costume they’ve put me in, just try and feel what’s true if you can.
Behind us I could hear him joking with a fellow visitor about a chair. Maybe they’d sat in the wrong one, or taken his, something so forgettable and so stupid but enough for him to boom with laughter like life was just the funniest gosh darn thing. He was the consummate game player, he knew how to size up a room and sniff out a weak link, he knew how to nudge it onto center stage so no one would suspect it was him. After waiting so long to see me take a knee, to have a peek at me in shackles, he could barely contain his jangling keys, his metallic chuckle, his tourist joy. He had the best seat in the house after all, and two thousand in cash, and my kids on his arm like three sacks of souvenirs.
K. Dawn Goodwin’s new book, Crash Bang Burn is available now
I fell asleep on his chest, but woke up to his back. Everything had been fine an hour before. But now he was as far away from me as he could get, huddled to the farthest outpost of the bed.
All up and down my body, a hundred shallow wells were pooling with that sick sick feeling. I sat up a little, my heart like a block of wood. He used to wake at my slightest stir and pluck me like strings, his touch overflowing onto every square inch of my skin, severe with tenderness. But now he was stiff and closed. His mind was on his phone. Each time it chimed, another distant siren.
When he left for work just before dawn, his eyes were as dark as the windows. I laid awake, following his truck in my mind’s eye. Ten, twenty, now forty miles outside of town. Beside me on the bed, he’d left not one single trace.
What’s wrong? I texted.
Nothing, the screen replied, and I tried not to shudder.
I remembered that night, driving together down the highway, his right hand curled around my two left fingers. He’d held them fast even as he shifted gears. Physical touch was his currency, but words were mine. I would replay and reorder them, pipette their meaning by the ounce and milliliter and feel them to the tenth power. But texted words were a different animal entirely, robotic and yet shape-shifting; blooming one minute and metastasizing the next.
Maybe that’s why the killzone of his message was so massive. It arrived in my phone like a drone, time-stamped at 9:15 AM, full of killer e’ s and r’s – ready and great and friends and relationship. Each one was a corpse stacked on another in a truck bed, a bag of grain dropped from a UN helicopter that couldn’t turn and bail fast enough.
I’m thinking more and more I’m not ready for a relationship.You’re a great person and I’d love for us to be friends
Inside the hemisphere of my body, the radar lit up super cell red, the kind where the core glows purple, exceeding all known wind measurements. It was the kind where you hunker down and pray because the smooth boards of your home are about to split and explode into jagged projectiles. The kind where you come to in the cheery sunlight moments later, walls gone, bleeding out where the picture frame of your loved one has embedded in your thoracic artery.
Men have a way of just turning off their feelings like a switch, I’d fretted to him a few days before.
I’m different…in all ways, he’d assured. Don’t put me in the same category please.
But that was at 2:58 PM, sunny and partly cloudy. At 9:15 the next morning, the purple eye was directly overhead, the white-hot fear howling like a freight train.There was no negotiating with a screen. Screens had no stake, screens made no judgment calls, screens were immune. Screens were there so people didn’t have to be. They were the weapon of choice for goodbye. Maybe that’s all I ever had anyway: a relationship with a screen.
But he’d lain naked on the bed, my lover in repose, my lover in the flesh. I’d taken a sliver of cocoa butter and rubbed it into his dry palm, down deep to his finger bones until the brown crease of his lifeline became glossy and supple. I’d brought the tips to my lips and kissed them as if there was nothing in the world to fear. I didn’t know I was in the land of frowning emoticons. I didn’t know he could simulate an act of god and issue an apology via SMS. I didn’t know his hand was just the periscope of a machine, scrolling quick past his brother’s demise and onto something more fun.
A man passes in the aisle and you shudder. He is the same height, the same hair, the same shirt. Your heart explodes and then collapses in on itself. Is it him? No, of course not. Ding dong, the hope is dead. But its carcass limps along.
This is the grocery store, and the first time you’ve left your house since he left you. It hasn’t been this bad for you in a long time. Maybe you’ve air-dropped into civilian life too soon. You don’t just notice people that pass, you cling to them with your eyes. That is a person, you recite. That too is a person. The fact that they’re not dead inside like you – it’s a kind of miracle.
You can’t go inside your own head, can’t visit your thoughts for long. Everything that inhabited you has fled. There are carpet prints where furniture used to be. All that’s left are pen caps and junk mail and the detritus that no one takes with them. So you keep your gaze outward. You put one foot in front of the other.
Random men keep triggering your parasympathetic reflex, so you brace for the surge and the prickling letdown. It feels like excitement bubbling in your chest but it’s not. Excitement is pink; pink like cotton candy in your brain, pink like the sunset when you drove to his house, pink like your lips going down on him. This isn’t pink. This is gray. The precise crayon shade would be “aftermath”. This is the graveyard, the homeless shelter for love. This is you, your dry lips parted beneath a gunmetal pipe praying for one last drop. It has to be in there somewhere. It has to.
You peer at a woman near the potato chips. Her hair is tied back, her skin has color and she is frowning at a paper list. Children fuss at her waist. Her life is just a life, but her back bends so capably through it.See how she moves and doesn’t cry? you marvel. See that? You used to do that. Before you met him.
.You are blank as plastic. You are the color of a fading bruise. Cords are still plugged into your heart and they drag along behind you like a busted toy, ends ripped off, wires stripped and frayed.
You open the glass door, reach into the cold for a frozen pizza and put it in your cart. The wheels turn and you move three paces toward and still he hurts you. His existence feels like a permanent injury. You cast your eyes onto a teenage girl as she passes. Pink shorts, brown hair, you catalog desperately. She seems fine. She seems nice. You take comfort in the lines of an old man’s face. He nods and smiles at you, a giver of mercy. But a young guy brushes by and you flinch so hard the whole world quakes. Your ears explode. No one notices.
As you walk to the checkout, you hear a child wailing pitifully for his mother to lift him out of the grocery cart. Let me out let me out let me out! he sobs, louder and louder. You look around but can’t locate him him. Please! Let me out! It escalates and pierces and starts a bleed in your brain. Please mama please! Let! Me! Out!Then the refrain changes and it guts you:
I’ll be good for you! he cries. Please! I’ll be good for you! I’ll be good for you!
Something about the order of those words. Now you are crying too. Almost automatic. Push-button tears. You wipe them on your bare arm and keep moving. I’ll be good for you. That was how you acted, wasn’t it. Desperate like a child. You tried so hard not to grovel. But you did. You begged. I’ll be good for you. I’ll do anything. Don’t cut me out.
In the parking lot you unlock your car. You’ve wedged your vehicle in a space between two big trucks that look just like his. It feels safe to park like that, flanked and protected, snuggled up against a lie.You take in the hot, dying breeze.He’s so close, you think. He’s just across town. He’s not even dead. Just a little dead. Just dead for you.
At the red light, you dream with your eyes open. You have a hundred flashbacks to process, all poisoned bait. Sometimes you get so starved that you eat one. You relive him from start to finish, and lick your fingers when you’re done. You can see him on your front porch that night, grinning down at you with those black eyes as he stepped into the lamplight. He was so good-looking, like some cocky high school crush. You let yourself crumble because you knew it, you already knew it. The pain of having him in your bed was going to be as bad as the pain of not having him at all.
Go ahead, remember how it felt to touch him. Slide your hand up under his shirt and take in his clean scent, so hard under his clothes. The TV flickers and there is mint on his tongue. Press down on the stiff denim and the metal buckle. Feel him grip you all over, watch him squeeze your nipples out of the lace and into his mouth. He pulls down your underwear and towers over you naked. He’s pale and slim like some virgin sacrifice you made up. It imprints you like a negative. That cross expression, that frustrated sweetness on his pursed lips as you spread for him, right before he goes in. Long after he’s done making you come it’ll haunt you. The way he shakes his head like too goddamn good. Your body is too soft and slippery inside like velvet and cream and he gives it to you rough and quiet like a man. You let loose all your secret, wicked cries. You let loose all your girlish dreams and hope he can’t see.
It’s just an animal act of course. Sex is just pheromones and molecules and blood and skin, but afterward you rest your forehead on his chest and he feels like the shore. You drowse as he strokes your hair. I don’t want to leave, he says in the morning, and your heart soars. Wrap that day all the way around you, sell your soul to it because it never will be again. And the lesson that comes next is the hardest: It wasn’t even true. It wasn’t even close. It was pretend. It was a very good game. Oh yeah, and you lost.
Text him. One more drink would make it so easy. You finger the latch. You know what he’d do, slip his phone out of his pocket and the light of your name would shine in his eyes. Maybe he’d write back. Maybe he’d make you wait, maybe he’d drag you open-mouthed through the mud again and not even notice. Are you up for that again? The vodka seems to be.
You circle round it, longing to come alive in his hand. You pull up his name, no bigger than a kilobyte at the tip of your finger. You’ve worked hard to get clean. Are you ready to rip yourself apart for a taste? The almighty send button. It’s the only thing between you and the hell you want so badly. You pause. You sip. The screen fades to black.
So you totter to your car and begin driving toward his house. Are you going? You’re not are you? You are? You sail through the empty streets with a loopy smile, freed from the shackles of self preservation. Just past the last traffic light the town disappears, and your windshield is as dark as the edge of the earth. You have a cigarette to smoke, so you pull it hard and blow it long, pluming toward him in the dark, your fingers sparking as they skid through the air. What will you do when you land in his driveway, crumbling into fragments like a half-assed meteor. Stumble out of the driver’s side, tripping over your shoes, banging on his unlit door like you’re crazy? What is it you think you’ll find?
Maybe he’ll yank you into his hallway and ragefuck you so hard the picture frames drop from the wall and shatter. Maybe you can tear his shirt and pound his chest and rake his face with your nails while he makes your body come, because that’s all you got with him. Fucking bodies. Bodies that fuck. Love is nowhere on the scanner. But you miss his scorpion sting, don’t you? The way it leaves you dazed and paralyzed and unable to function for weeks on end? Mmm. That’s sort of like love, isn’t it.
You never make it to his house. Your stomach is seizing, temples throbbing with blood like syrup. The nub of the cigarette goes out the window, and then the entire pack with it. You heave up the woozy dream onto the median, frothy and vile as poisonous raspberries. It feels so good to be so sick. It slaps you in the face. It empties out the pink fog, leaving behind the hard certainty of right and wrong, what will hurt and what will help.
You’ve got to replace the gaping hole in your life and the burning one in your bed. You can’t go back or you’ll have to start all over. So you pick a guy just like him. A little shier, a little softer, a little tamer. A grade B version. He ignores you a little and it weirdly turns you on. You meet him for a drink but he’s not as attractive really, or as interesting. He doesn’t say you’re pretty. He doesn’t say how’d I get so lucky. But he’s here for sex just the same. During a long silence you look over at the bar and see another guy talking to a girl who looks like you. Maybe it’s you in another dimension, you on a future date with someone who cares.
You look back at your empty replacement and realize you’ve made a mistake. You are sitting in the wrong chair, trying to fix a shitty feeling by eating more shit. So you take your purse and get up, as if your software has suddenly expired. You walk away from your date and out the front door and never look back.
Hey hottie where u go? texts what’s-his-name. You don’t answer. You don’t answer anyone. You go home and rub one out. You dry your eyes, smoke half a cigarette and wonder, is it time? But you know, deep down, it’s not. Not even fucking close. You crush the butt and contempt burns deeper.
When r we gonna hang out sexy? Numbnuts texts again.
How bout never, you say out loud, to the empty room. Because someday you’re going to have to recover. Someday pushing your broken heart around in a grocery cart is going to get old. Someday you’re going to have to make room for something good.
There was a little house in the dark. It was charred and on fire.
“What happened,” she said aloud. As if she didn’t know.
Flames had turned the dying window frames to sticks, devouring the seams of the attic, engulfing the scalloped roof tiles. It was all going down. The blackened chips of siding gave way in her hand as she rounded the corner to the front door, smudging her palms.
She mounted the crumbling stairs, felt her way along the dark smoldering hallway and into the center room where he was waiting. The ceiling above him was partly gone now. He settled back calmly into the remains of his burnt chair as if to say, of course. Of course this would happen. Of course the living room would be an inferno. Just his luck.
She looked around the place, trying to get her bearings. Was this his house or hers? Had she set it or had he? Probably her. She always acted like she had thirteen other houses to spare. The kitchen behind him was on fire. The pipes were melting. The momentos were ashes, nothing soft left, no signs of home. Nothing left but hard wood. Just fuel to burn. Fuel made of me, she thought and the excitement rose into her neck. Fuck the house. Her body was shaking with the thrill of seeing him. She consumed his closeness like tinder, like cigarettes, like curtains, and then when all that was gone, she turned on her own four walls. Nothing was enough.
He stood up, long muscled arms at his sides, eyes trained on her like an opponent. He paced the floor around his chair, in no hurry. The wood underfoot was light gray like barnwood.
“Messed up isn’t it,” he said finally, swinging his arms to present the blaze, like ta-da! Then that dry laugh of his, where all the glee had turned black. That I don’t give a damn laugh. That fuck a buncha this shit.
“Yep,” he said, taking in the scene. “This is pretty much what I get.”
It weathered her, the churning, grinding sound of his frustrated laughter. It felt like it was coming from her own guts, washing away pieces of her as it passed through. Since the first kiss, all her wiring had gotten fused with his, and half the time she didn’t know if she was feeling his pain or hers. A flaming rafter collapsed between them, and neither flinched.
“What was I supposed to do?” she said . “You and your silence. Hurt me worse than death.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” he snapped right back. “But what do you do? You done gone apeshit. Keep telling me to leave you. I told you I didn’t want to. What is wrong with you.”
You act like you want to, she wanted to say. But maybe he was right, maybe she was crazy. You don’t care how I feel, she wanted to say, you don’t care about my life. But how could he, when he couldn’t deal with his own. You’re hooked on disaster, she’d tell him, but she’d known that from day one. Known it and lined up for more.
She looked back at him, emptyhanded. Shrinking and rotting inside. Any second her floor would give way.
“I told you I would sacrifice what I wanted to protect you,” he said, each word separated so it would ring like a knife across steel. “You accuse me of bullshit on text? After what I been through, you think I’m gonna let you do that to me again?”
He circled her now, light and sharp, with eyes like a hawk. Sacrifice, she thought. The word had felt so soft when he’d laid it at her feet . Now pointed at her throat it was a very different sort of thing, and she suddenly caught the meaning. He’d throw everything overboard if necessary. He could sever all ties at a moment’s notice. He could snuff out her love in a snap and not think twice. All he needed was a reason, because he traveled hard and light and would not be trapped again. No fucking way.
I’m on your side, she wanted to say, to calm him. She was crying now, because tears were a way of life with him. Her sheets, her phone, her life was dried over with a tide of salt.
It’s just me. Remember me?
But she couldn’t say that because he didn’t remember her. He didn’t know the first thing about her. All he knew was that she’d hit a nerve and it didn’t matter why. Fuck her. And fuck this and fuck you. That’s what mattered.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I made a bad decision. Tell me what to do to make it right.”
She said it because she knew the opposite side of him too. She knew his charms better than anyone, the pieces were strewn everywhere. He’d toss her a handful of sweetness like bullet casings and saunter away, crunching them underfoot. He had no idea that she’d pocketed every word he had no use for, all the glimmering stories he’d ever told, as if later on they could all be glued back together and he’d remember who he was. But he spoke of the pain so much he almost disappeared into it.
“Welcome to my life,” he said, turning his back to face the fiery walls. “Same shit, different year.”
That was his chipped circuitry, shorting out at the same dead end, unable to power a clock, let alone a heart. It was the obtuse handiwork given to him by the iron machinery that’d raised him. Harsh training for a boy whose heart was made for speed and light and laughter.
She drew a step closer, wanting to get right up against his chest so she could anchor him with her wood-gray eyes. The gate inside her was broken too, missing, ripped off just for him. If he would just look down at her for a second he would see that he could reach into them like shallow pools and take whatever he needed. She’d tip back her head with the pleasure of it all because plundering herself was a drug, a quick bypass around reality, straight into the velvety core of what she wished this could be, even as it all went up in smoke before her eyes. That was the thing about her — if she liked you enough she could ignore the facts so hard they almost disappeared.
He can give back someday, she’d tell herself. He can fix the rafters and the beams and himself and everything.
If she could just get him to kiss her, he would melt, he would radiate that tenderness and play the sweet badboy and it would all fit perfectly with the story she wanted. She could forget the rest, she could curl up real low where the smoke wouldn’t cut off the air, and disappear into her dreams about him. Pull a version of him around her body like wool.
He looked down at her and softened, shaking his head. The fire boiled all around, eating the cracks and crevasses.
“What’s it like?” he asked, expressionless.
What’s what like?”
“Walking around being so beautiful all the time. What’s that like.”
But underneath the flattery was his pain. His honest need to know. How had she ended up with such dumb luck while he’d been dragged through the trenches. Where do people get these lives? he’d asked her once, with that unhappy laugh. Like maybe it was a checkout line he’d missed. A ticket he’d accidentally washed in the pocket of his jeans. Maybe that’s why his eyes glazed over whenever she talked. Why he walked out the back door or looked away or changed the subject. He kept her on mute. What right did she have to say shit anyway.
But she’d clung to his back for dear life anyway, hooked on the weathered rock of his body, the permanent fighting stance, the rhythmic cadence of his voice. Maybe she was just like the monkey in a lab cage, refusing food and water, clinging instead to the stuffed replica of another monkey. A false thing could keep you alive, so long as it felt like the real thing. So long as you overlooked the details.
He can never love you back. That was what the fear whispered when it crept in. It was there when It was in the way he’d dropped her off and rushed her bags inside. It was in the songs he’d played on the way home. Songs about the past. Songs about the pain.
He doesn’t have anything left to give you.
Bullshit. She could cook, couldn’t she? She could listen, she could shore up his supplies. She could peel off her clothes and coax his attention back to a full color spectrum. That look on his face while she watched him shower, my god it had seared her. He’d been hard as an arrow, hadn’t he? Looked and smelled so good as he dried off and shaved. He’d ripped off her shirt and fucked her by the sink hadn’t he. Grabbed her soft swollen tits with his rough hand, one palm steadying her face as he kissed her harder and harder and then just barely grazed her lips. We’ve got all afternoon, he whispered against her jaw, and lightning struck right outside. That wasn’t nothing, was it? The sizzling rain, the scorch drifting in through the open window, was that the moment the end began? She was so high on his tongue, on the way his eyes furrowed with longing while she rode him, killed him dead with every thrust. Oh the relief when he did it back. That pleasure, that can’t get enough, that was love, wasn’t it? What about the good morning sugar. What about her sink full of clean dishes. What about the, you better not hurt me. He’d said that hadn’t he.
Can a person be addicted to pain? She texted her girlfriend late at night, crying again. Does that make any sense?
Maybe for the attention, came the answer. Maybe they don’t think they deserve better.
He’s the former, she wrote back, uselessly. Am I the latter?
Her mind obsessed on him in fruitless circles. But what the fuck did it matter if she’d lost her grip. All she wanted to do was lay with him now amid these crackling walls, basking in the orange glow as they slowly burned down. Her drowsy lips were wet against his chest. She’d ask about it again. Tell me how how she broke you.Tell me how everything got so bad.
“Can’t never get away from it,” he’d despair, stretching each syllable across her like piano wire. And he’d tell her the story again, his voice low and rhythmic. Each detail crisp, each line spoken precisely as it had been said ten years before, each ending worse than the one before. She could listen to him talk til the sun came up and still it wouldn’t fix anything. Every molecule of air on earth could be dedicated to it, every ounce of sleep incinerated, and still nothing would fall into place. The telling left him empty and dilated, even as she stockpiled her chest with the traumas, busting at her own seams with adoration and jealousy and interest and still empty as hell deep inside.
“Let’s go outside,” she said finally, leading him.
The house was done. It couldn’t stay anymore. He followed her down over the blackened planks, outside where the night air sparkled with crickets and cold. She looked back at the blaze, imagining the whole thing sliding off its foundation and vanishing backwards over a cliff. All that would be left was an outline of ashes.
Or maybe she could push the rubble over just a hundred feet or so, just to be near it but not in it. She could put up something else in its place: some placid, dull, lacey-curtained kitchen where she could sit at her silent table by herself, beside an unbroken window , and finally stop weeping over him. But she knew what waited. Her ears would still perk for every engine that drove by, waiting for the one that would sound just like his, the one that would purr slowly into her drive. Her delusions would bloom in the night, laying naked in her empty bed, reliving his smile, wanting his body like a half-dose of morphine, writhing instead against a rigidly cheerful, plastic replacement. She’d sit up in the darkness, certain that shadow was him. Was it him? Had he come for her finally? And then she’d realize. And check her phone again. And turn over in the dark, sick from withdrawal.
If she could have him just once more. Just one more time it would stop hurting.
He’ll just punish you again, and next time? It’ll be worse.
“It’s all got to go,” she said out loud. One of his eyes was shadow, the other embers, just like the chambers of his heart. She seized the fabric of his shirt in her fist, pulling his chest toward hers. This hold he had on her. This fixated desire. These stupid ruined houses, her head full of phantoms. Everything had to go. She’d sleep on the wet ground if she had to. Anything to not be tattered and on fire.
But instead, she stood there clutching his shirt, her feet heavy as iron.
“Well okay then,” he dared, stepping free of her grip. “Go.”
Around here men and lifted trucks were like kudzu. The only difference was, now she noticed every single one, every bed full of machinery, every drop of mud on the chrome. It made her swim with hope like poison.
It wouldn’t even be him driving it, just some camouflage lid helping himself to the tops of her thighs, as if sex was a drive-thru rodeo or a box of fries. She turned away, serious as a heart attack. Sex wasn’t like that for her, even if her favorite songs said it was. Sex was a stolen briefcase shackled to her arm, glowing like Marcellus Wallace’s soul. You didn’t want something like that falling into the wrong hands. You didn’t want the whole reign down with vengeance deal. Maybe that’s why she missed his truck so much, because she missed his heart. It’d been heavy like hers, heavy like a trapdoor. It had felt so good slipping through it into the dark, so familiar and breathless, like a ruse she’d planned herself.
Most of the time she didn’t make a peep, she went home and perched up high like a spider, watching the town from the rafters, sucking off the blood of her losses. Years of solitary spinning had left untold volumes on her desk, her routine, her whole heart like a dusty cocoon. Nothing in real life came close to her recollection of it.
So that’s where she stayed. Mostly.
If I were a boy, she thought, looking his picture over from head to toe,I’d wanna look like that. What an empty notion. Buthis original incoming message, his hello, how are you? was so innocuous,a bird on the other side of her window. Two different worlds pressed eye to eye for a half second, completely safe from one another. But suddenly there was movement in the outliers.
His messages came in reasonably, like rations, once a day. He was playful, had good manners, and was unwilling to come close. She liked that unwillingness best of all. That was what she was good at: laying out love like bait, measuring the quivering strands to a satellite and two million miles of outer space and back.
I’ve seen a lot of bad things at work, he typed. I’m a little gun-shy.
She soothed him with her smartphone and her shorthand, as if his shyness could be patiently cured, and he lured out over time, a controlled burn. But she noticed, not without concern, the way she leaned away from her loom to check her phone. One thing was certain, his gun-shy wasn’t like any kind she knew, the kind where you just flinch a little. His gun-shy involved actual guns, and sleeping with an eye trained on the clock and the door, a head full of violent ends, fists on flesh, fingers wrapped around his forearm like a slipping knot, blood spraying on his shirt. In his world, car roofs were peeled like open heart surgeries in the middle of a freeway. In his world, love wasn’t just hard, it was cataclysmic, and he beckoned like cornfield full of ghosts. But she didn’t want sex that ended in a bloodbath. She just wanted to know what he looked like in the sunlight. Someday. And right then, right in the middle of enjoying the neverness of someday, he was ready. To meet. The way gun-shy people do: In a Kroger parking lot.
She left the web, she left the loom, wrote Tennyson. She made three paces thro’ the room.
This is retarded, she thought, scrambling to go.
The first thing she noticed was the lift kit on his black pickup truck, like something out of Godzilla vs. The Tarantula. He’d parked it ass first so he could survey the parking lot from the all-seeing eye of his towering, tinted cab. Maybe that was his rafter. Or maybe he was a brown recluse type, wanting to see his victim without being seen. But how could you not be seen in that, the ridiculous toothy tread on those sick tires, extended shocks glinting like the ribs and tendons of a great shell-shocked beast.
Ohmygod, she thought, taking cover behind her steering wheel. One of those?
But too late, he was coming straight toward her, a thin man, shaved head, worn collared shirt and jeans, black sneakers with fluorescent laces. She couldn’t breathe, what was it, the shoes maybe, or the sunglasses. He was intended for someone else. A Scooby snack for the local pussy, for cute young girls full of sunshine and down-home. Not for spiders. But here he was anyway, with that fearless gait, like he was ready to burst right in and tear all the lattice work down, and offer himself as sustenance.
A few feet from impact, he lifted up his plastic shades and his eyes were all she could take in, the kindness in them so palpable it pinned her back with the force of an arrow, a gentle smile and worried, opposing lines on his brow. Wiry arms like driftwood that had baked dry in the wake of some tsunami, and all that were left now were tattoos like scars.
“I just shaved all my hair off,” he said, running his hand over the curve of his skull. He was tall, but bowed himself a little, as if eager to come down to whatever height was required. “I didn’t know what hell else to do with it.” His chest faced hers squarely, a socket you could plug into. He was so wiry-waisted that the breeze rippled his shirt near the belt.
“I like it,” she replied, grasping for an opener. A silence filler. “So. You live in the same county as the Grand Dragon. That’s gotta be a great feeling.”
“Yes, he lived not far from me. The old KKK headquarters.”
“Wait what?” Hot June wind tore across the black asphalt and blew her hair into her eyes like straw. She tried to part it with her hand. “I was just kidding. You mean that’s real? I thought the KKK was like rural legend.”
“It’s gone now. But you can still see the old sign. Actually, I was the one on call when their house caught fire.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. Ma’am, she thought. Southern boys sure did know how to talk.
“Did everyone make it?” she asked, grinning.
“Dammit,” she kidded.
He looked away, stopping short of agreeing. His hands were on his hips.
“I don’t think like that. I’m trained to help everyone.”
She fell silent, soaking up the convergence of the two realities: one where she sat alone in her house, surmising about local life. The other where she intersected it like a bullet.
“I don’t know how I ended up out here,” he said finally, sweeping his hand over the whole town, as if it all just brought him down. “I’m not even from here.”
Her ears perked, now fully aware of the problem, other than his adorable bewilderment, like the south had him hostage. The actual problem wasn’t that, it was that minutes had turned into a half hour and they were still in the middle of a stupid parking lot, unable to follow protocol and just leave. She summed up the facts in her field of vision, eyes sweeping back and forth between the two: boy in the foreground, truck in the back. The front bumper had the plate of the fireman, the red stripe across the black rectangle. She’d seen countless plates around town — the Georgia dawgs, the Alabama whatevers — at least here was someone more interested in actual emergencies than staged ones. Someone who would run toward fire, while all the others ran away.
I’m a fire too, she thought. And there it was again, the sucking feeling in her chest, as if the doors were burgeoning and all the pressure and light on the outside was about to obliterate the seal.
“Well it was nice meeting you,” she heard herself say, eager to be good. She hugged his neck, all numb and nervous like. And then: 20 more minutes of small talk. It wasn’t the words that made it hard to leave. It was that exquisite feel of his presence, like honey and sunshine, all the things that spiders don’t need to be happy. It was all making her so happy. Happy like a fucking drug.
“Call me some time,” she said finally, “we should meet up.”
He smiled at the offer, but couldn’t be coaxed into agreeing to it. But whatever, she could wait. She drove home on the same road she’d driven for years, the straight shot, the one with no lefts or rights, and promptly took two wrong turns. In some right hand lane, blinker blinking, she forced herself to take stock. Okay, maybe this was cute. It was cute, right? Cute to get all flustered. But that’s how deadly things always started out: as super cute things, and then someone leans in to say awww and the next thing you know everybody is dead.
And that’s what she was doing one week later, sitting across a table from him at sunset, a string around her neck and tits pressed against the straps. It was macabre really, getting all pretty to get all dead.
“You got me.” he laughed, nodding at the outfit. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
“You like it?” she went back. “I call it stripper Barbie.”
Her heart was thrumming in a purse under the table, and above the tablecloth she was absorbing every last detail. He’d made her laugh more than once, and the sensation was so unfamiliar that her entire system recalibrated to receive more of this drug called hemakes me laaaaugh. But then, without warning, he switched over to a voice so quiet she had to strain forward in her chair. And all the laughing stopped. His stories dropped a wavelength and widened to a low level earthquake, to exploding meth labs, gunshots to the head, a trailer where a child had burned to death. His stories came in a torrent, one after the other. She could see it all too, his uniform rushing into black smoke, flames curling around the edges of a door, explosions imminent, more fearsome than the gates of her own heart. His was the world of actuals. Of actual pain, of actual work, of actual life. She could feel her life, so soft and virtual, disappearing in his stories, her eyes like two butterflies, wicking up the sweat and the mud under his tracks. He asked no questions about her, and even if he had, there was suddenly not much worth telling.
But it didn’t matter, because afterward he didn’t want to go home to his solitary confinement, and neither did she. He drove her through the town, around and around it in 10 mile increments, back and forth toward no particular destination. High above the cars, high on his deafening engine and his thudding bass, the clock scrolled forward to 2 am. She let her hand rest in the open window, the silk flying free. When was the last time she’d felt this at home? She couldn’t remember.
“Damn, this is nice,” he confessed. “Just being with you.”
“Same here,” she said, and their glances caught in the shadowy cab, and stuck.
A few days later, his truck was owning all the space in her driveway, sitting there like a mythical creature that needed hay or water. She came out the front door, squinting at it in the hot sun, knowing that this was somehow going to ratchet up everything until he disappeared, leaving nothing but blood and an oil stain. But for now, here he was, slim as a cross-tie, hard-boned as a piece of Georgia granite, walking toward her in a sleeveless shirt, shoulders popping like a teenage boy.
“Hi,” he said, bag in hand, smiling at her like he was her best friend or something. For a solitary moment she mistook him for a kindred spirit, miraculously unscathed from a trip that began halfway across the galaxy. He cut his eyes up and down her street, all the identical houses like cardboard cutouts, or a collage of a world he had heard about, but never known.
“People gonna be like, who that redneck?” His throaty laugh. His drawl had a lightness about it, like he was aware of it. Like he could lift it off anytime he wanted, maybe try on another. He did that sometimes, talked like a yankee, and it made her laugh. She took him inside, into her messy web of cords and laundry piles and anemic houseplants. She skated right over his disparaging self-appraisal, so endearing. Maybe it had been a warning, if only she hadn’t been so busy touching his skin, studying his tattoos like petroglyphs on a cave wall.
“What’s it say?” she asked, tilting her head to try and read the letters that scrolled down the length of his forearm. They were placed on the outside of his bone, as if to be read by an enemy in the final throes, right before the sword comes barreling down on your head.
“It’s a Psalm,” he said, suddenly earnest, and quiet.
“What’s the verse?” She mimicked his quiet now, eyes fluttering at this, the first of many impasses.
“The Lord Preserves me.” The quiet voice again, the one she almost couldn’t hear.
The Lord Preserves me, she thought, moving her fingers along the barbed font. Funny, seemed more like a warning than a blessing. It was all over him, this petrified tenderness. She moved to the firefighter tattoo, the whirling bladed insignia on the shoulders, then back up to the features of his stubbled face, back down again to scripture.
He went back outside he took the mower out of the bed of the truck, and showed her the hammer he used to drive the nails into the crossties when he worked railroad jobs. Almost the length of a man, he swung it high over his head and down into the green of her subdivision sod, good-natured entertainment for the privileged white people.
“An actual pickaxe!” she squealed, grasping the weight of the steel head. “Just like in minecraft.” There it was again: his life and hers, one real and one simulated, a disparity that could never be reconciled, but maybe it could. Maybe it could.
“On a job, we go through two a these a day,” he said, with that accent. “They just break.”
The thought of hammers breaking in his hands made her feel pain, like she wanted to own it by kissing him. She wanted to kiss him so bad.
But he’d come to mow the lawn as a favor. He didn’t know it was more than that to her. It was a sign. While he sweated back and forth through her yard, she paced in circles inside the house, wringing her hands around a rag, peeking through the blinds.
So sweet, she sighed, deeply perplexed.
Afterward he turned the mower upside down over a pan that she brought him, hot oil pouring out like cream soda. She crouched nearby to steady the sides, fascinated by all the boring mechanics of lawnmower maintenance, all the gears and drive shafts and bolts and springs that wouldn’t matter but for his human life, his sweet smile, the engine pieces in his arms that shone with stories, even if the roof above him was held together with his last piece of string. Droplets splattered, burning her bare legs but she didn’t move an inch. Another tiny sting, then another, and still: right there. Watching, awaiting further instructions.
That night the storms came, rain pouring into the open window. She laid under him, learning about his face. A first kiss and then another, his lips parted, setting history aside, allowing her to reach in. She thrashed like a filament while he pinned her wrists, eye to eye, downloading every detail until she couldn’t take anymore. The stubble on his face stung like needles, and she raked her lips across anyway, inviting more.
The rain came in sideways, filling up the oil pan until it overflowed the sides, seeping into the mossy ground outside the bedroom window. In the morning the blades of clover glistened like toxic gold, the ground saturated with the poison. She stood barefoot on the wet ground, looking at the oil spill, at the polluted green moss of her heart. Even the concrete foundation had soaked up the stain. The spiders didn’t stand a chance.
I get it, she thought, chest aching, black water coursing through her own veins. But that doesn’t mean I can fix it.
There’s a C-shaped stretch of highway that wraps around three sides of Carrollton. There is a neatly mowed median in the middle, guard rails and pine trees. There are a series of stoplights. There is a bridge. There is even a corresponding sky. These things never change. These things comprise the sum total of my world.
Where Newnan Street intersects this highway, there is a jail. I idle there at the red light and stare at it, transfixed. The green indicator in my dashboard flashes calmly west toward Wal-Mart, or east toward home. Route 16/27 lays directly ahead, but it can’t save me. I don’t go south anymore. All southbound roads contain the ghost of joy, the memory of speeding unbridled toward a low-hanging moon just over the next town. An escape hatch, an open window pulling in just enough wind and life to make me dream of that drive. I dream of it like a dying man.
No one is forcing me not to stay within my yellow lines. There is no string around my neck that keeps me swinging back and forth on my predetermined half moon of asphalt, and yet I do. It’s not that I’m not allowed to pass the jail and leave town anytime I want, it’s that I have no cause to — and it feels the same way. And there, the jail looms like a watchtower.
At least I don’t have a concrete ceiling. I can look up and take in the ambivalent and unchanging high-pressure cosmos as it parades past, suggesting that we are all truly free. All that hydrogen and oxygen. All the things you can’t reach when your feet are made of carbon, nailed to the earth.
The jail is a hive of towering containment and recycled air, with little slits punched in the side so all the stockpiled humans inside can peek out and see just enough of the world to stay sane. Jail, I say to myself, and shudder. Jail. I let the feel of the word resound inside my head, and all the while my blinker goes tick, tick, tick. Each beat, another year gone. Another year where I swore too, by this time next year, I’ll be free.
I imagine a prisoner looking down at me in my car, a faceless suburban packhorse. He doesn’t know that every time I pass by, I review his life all over again from the beginning. How does it feel to do time, to never be allowed to cross that line? Then I look around at my amber waves of dead fescue and shining sea of guard rails, and wonder how many trips around the sun I’ve spent making trips around the jail. The truth flashes, a solar flare of panic — just a touch. A core of rage that cools into a sinking feeling, and then, nothing but a grocery sack full of rocks.
A band released an album in 2009 that became, for me, a cross by the highway that marks the dead. Inside each track lurks a hologram of that summer, a descending fluorescent half-dome that yanks me across time and space. Suddenly, I’m driving away from John’s house on highway 16 in the dry and blinding Temecula sunrise, my retinas overexposed, my corneas zig-zagged with streaks of sun-poisoning. It was June and already my left arm was as brown as the finches, resting in the open car window, speeding past the strip beyond the dealership. I was hungover, I was spent. But after all that we’d been through, I knew we’d make it. After the wait.
The question, the song went, is the truth.
“Listen to track four,” he told me, handing me the disc through my car window. I knew his lips like my own flesh and blood, but these farewell kisses were worse than a stranger’s. Beneath his calm, I sensed the panicked division and transference of two men. One cold, one caring. He scrambled to toss me a lifeline as he slipped beneath the carefully remade horizon.
He always gave me something to listen to on the hour ride home. He liked songs that were unusual, little bursts of flavor and texture on a barren grid of four-way stops. I pocketed them all like gold tokens. They weren’t him, but they were. They were.
He was my world back then, back when my world was a series of meadow-lined routes between Carrollton and Senoia, each as smooth and sunbaked as a torqing synthesizer under ecstatic two-part female harmony, fanning out into a cryptically-worded cacophony of Artistic Integrity that sometimes hurt my ears. I tapped forward through the tracks like a patient searching for the right morphine drip. But even still, the passing song fragments of Bitte Orca absorbed into my bones like x-rays, saturating me with dreams and free radicals, neither doing me much good.
Definitely you can come and live with us, the lyrics went, as I passed the house full of abandoned yard toys for the hundredth time, behind the field of propane tanks. I knowthere’s a space in the basement, yeah. All you gotta do is help out with the chores and the dishes.
And I know you will.
I will! I will!
But I spent my weekends with my phone at the dirty lake beach, waiting for a call that never came, my Gatorades floating in long-melted ice.
The horizon bright and motionless, the song went. The EKG of a dying woman.
“What if I just snuck over?” I asked him one Saturday night. I hadn’t seen him in 12 days. Twelve days, 8 hours and 45 minutes. My tan lines were fresh, my heart as empty as a shell. “After your kids are asleep?”
“No,” he answered, and laughed slightly, as if I was just a kidder. “There’s no way.”
To him it was amusing that I’d even ask such a thing, but to me it was a red flag so big he could’ve wrapped my corpse in it. Hearing that, my right arm barely had enough will to live. I leaned against the wall, trying to keep the phone to my ear. I could feel the sand embedded in the metal seams, the residual scent of Hawaiian Tropic.
I wasn’t above begging.
“But, I could leave early in the morning, before they wake up?”
“I can’t, sweetness. I’m sorry.”
Is there someone else? I wanted to ask, but dared not.
“What are you up to tonight?” he asked, steering the conversation away. Don’t confront me with my failures, sweetness. Hot stuff. Wonderbucket.
I love you, I thought, but instead said, “Nothing.”
But that night I would be up to more than nothing. I hung up pleasantly, a terrified witness behind the arbitrary lines, and sauntered to the shower in a daze. I was used to the pain. I was used to letting my mind wander safely above the truth. It came in handy, since tonight I didn’t want to look too closely at anything. I shaved with a dull razor, dressed robotically and sent a flurry of text messages to people I barely knew.
An hour later I stood awkwardly in some stranger’s high-end kitchen, watching strange people mix drinks, lighting torches meticulously, twisting semi-naked with each other out on the deck, swapping partners, trading wives, reaching out their unfamiliar fingers to tug at the belt loop above the zipper on my shorts. I found my hands stroking the two-day stubble on some guy’s chest, fighting back the grief it left in my scored palms, his attractive face like needles in my eyes. I could smell the geranium nearby as he kissed me, like a failure. It was Saturday night, and all I wanted was John. John’s hands, John’s bed. John 3:16. John’s eyes like two doves. John the holy ghost.
I picked up my flip-flops and my keys and skirted the light, seeking the end of the driveway.
“Where are you going,” the guy called after me. “Whoa, whoa. Wait. Please.”
He was wiry, crew cut, tan, but with the slick and empty mannerisms of a man who gauges all his movements on their likelihood of procuring sex.
“I can’t,” I turned to face him, planted at the hood of my van, staring at my feet. “There’s this other guy I’m seeing.”
Seeing, I thought. That’s all I did. I saw him. In my mind. In thumbnails. In music videos in my mind.
“I don’t want to wreck it,” I managed. “I don’t want to cheat on him.”
Wreck what? I wondered. Wreck the illusion. Wreck the compartment I lived in.
I tend to keep things in compartments, John had once told me, in an email. I’m sorry, I guess it’s a guy thing.
A guy thing.
“If he’s so great, where is he tonight?” this other guy asked.
I know, right.
“He’s got his kids,” I said, which always shut every question down so nicely. Even my own. Is your boyfriend imaginary? No silly, he’s got hiskids.
“So, you’re leaving me?” he huffed. “You just got here. I thought we were having fun.”
He had me cornered, the back of my knees now against the bumper, my air invaded by his Hollister cologne. I just wanted my car. I wanted to go home and sleep so I could shut off the dirty projector in my mind, where my fantasies glowed inside the unfulfilled film reel of Track Nine:
When I’m ready for my whole world to open up and surrender, I’ll look for you. I will be searching the garden and the street, I will look into the eyes of everyone I meet.
“You can’t leave me with this,” this douchebag kept saying, taking my hand in his and placing it squarely on his hard-on. There was rage somewhere in that, concealed behind his puppy dog eyes, his drunken purr. “Baby.”
“That feels nice,” I teased. Sometimes I was the most friendly when I was the most frightened. “I can’t.”
I kissed him again, a reformed cannibal, and backed into the driver’s seat, backed out of the driveway, back into the safety of my memories. Back into my Johnsongs.
Call on me, it went. Call on me, call on me, call on me. But I couldn’t. Ever. Least of all now.
I sunk into the disappointment of my headlights, leading me around the curving two lane road, back home. I didn’t want to feel this bad right now, so I thought instead about how John and I had put the clean sheets on his bed that night, before crawling in them to make sick love. We hadn’t seen each other in so long. Fifteen days, ten hours. Twenty-two minutes. He’d been busy.
“Yay, we finally get to have a sleepover,” I’d kidded, standing in panties and a gauzy t-shirt on the other side of his bed, stuffing his pillows into their clean cases.
“Yay,” he laughed, doing the same on his side. “Sorry I didn’t have this ready when you got here.”
“I don’t mind.”
My thighs shook for him, sticky and hot, panting on the inside, while on the outside I played it cool and cautious, always afraid of somehow scaring him away.
“This is the best housework ever,” I added.
It was the essence of him that made me feverish. The arrangement of his words, his blue suede Addidas sneakers waiting by the front door, the way he sketched out football plays like boyish works of art, the way he washed all his pots and pans and left them drying neatly by the sink. He reminded me of someone I wanted to impress, someone I wanted to be, someone I’d never had. But most of all, of someone who didn’t want me back. And that was the part of him that I wanted worst of all. I wanted the push of his opposing magnet stuffed deep inside me, claimed and reversed, converted and annihilated into shining union.
“Can we have sex tonight?” I asked all at once, after the puffy comforter had been aligned into the corners of his four-post bed.
“Of course,” he said, in that polite understated way. My eyes rolled up into my head, imperceptibly.
He rolled back the covers and switched off the light, even though I’d asked him to leave it on. It didn’t matter. I didn’t need light to find my way up onto legs, his fingers, his lips, his cock. I could spellbind him blindfolded and backwards; just the thought of him made me condense into single-minded instinct with superhuman and slave-like talents. I wanted only to pleasure him into submission, into a decibel of need as combustible as mine. He responded to me in kind, with the same sort of ridiculously rough, hair-pulling passion.
I don’t know what I should be looking at, but I will look wherever I’m told. That was exactly what he’d said. Only, he’d used Track Six to say it.
Outside his bedroom window, the whole dim unlucky world seemed to lapse into second place, falling short of the prize of being me, being us. I stretched out across the bed, across his naked body, across the stratosphere, as far as the rubber band of my life could go before snapping back in the other direction. For a tight, straining, airless second, I was suspended at the farthest most beautiful outpost of pleasure, the other half of my life reduced to a speck on a dark sleeping planet.
But that’s where I spent the summer, banished to the outskirts of the galaxy, in Carrollton, with a copy of Bitte Orca like an instruction manual for a stalled spaceship. I memorized it behind my sunglasses, through Sharpsburg and then Newnan, past the cow pasture where I turned left, past the highschool and the second CVS, I played it past the gas station where I’d bought gas on the way in as the heat and the fumes shimmered on the asphalt, past the restaurant where we’d eaten on the patio, at the traffic light where the sweltering morning sun radiated with all the blistering promises of Track Four, and also a suffocating loneliness that seemed big enough to swallow an entire earth full of summer.
I know that I will always love you, from now until forever baby. I can’t imagine anything better.
“I’m glad you enjoyed the songs,” his email said. “But sadly, there wasn’t any kind of hidden message in any of those songs. They’re just random tunes I thought you’d dig.”
But, that song. It had already saved my life ten times. It was my only way back to his planet. It was the only thing I had that was real.
Don’t defend a silver lining, around the halo of what is already shining, when all the planets are aligning, for an afternoon that’s never-ending.
Not that. Don’t take that one too.
I closed his email and swiveled over in my swivel chair, clutched the arm rest for life support, and cried. The grief was so massive, like a huge animal that could only be expunged through my face, in a silent yawn of pain. One by one, the stars in my sky were blotted out, sucked through a straw into the black hole of cyberspace.
After all that we’d been through, I know we’ll make it. After the wait. The question is the truth.The stillness is the move.
I take pictures of pretty clouds because it’s easier than photographing what’s at eye level. I don’t want to put a camera in that woman’s face. She isn’t me, so she wouldn’t understand that sometimes I feel like I am her.
I parked my minivan in the Wal-Mart parking lot and stepped out, the hot wind rippling through my black sundress. It was really pretty – the dress, I mean – cut like a long sari with gold embroidery and feathered white panels. Sometimes a $30 dress can inoculate you to all the problems of the world, even with clashing plaid platform flip-flops, at least for three minutes or so.
I strode toward the bakery entrance; I was here to purchase light bulbs for a fish tank, and maybe a bag of oranges because I’d been fighting the flu. As I watched me and my flowing shadow pass over the oil stains like a low-lying cloud, I brushed too close to a car I thought was empty – a tiny gray coupe in the worst shape possible, something driven out of a nightmare or a junk lot, half its pieces missing and broken. It was double parked on the diagonal yellow stripes.
I didn’t know it was full of people until I was already upon it. Above the busted headlight I glimpsed the driver and realized she’d been watching me and my self-satisfied amble for quite a few car lengths. I diverted to give respectful distance to the nub of her rearview, but I was close enough to smell the stale upholstery, to touch duct tape holding her door together, the rust and the gashes and the mismatched paint. The engine was turned off, and the back window was closed. The glass reflected the passing orb of my T.J. Maxx purse, and also the faces of three babies inside – one sleeping in a hot car seat, two curly headed toddlers squirming in the sun beside her, an older one in the passenger seat. So many little bodies, like a pile of kittens nesting in trash, so trusting of the shitty world that apparently gave them life and nothing else.
The woman’s dark ponytail was gathered like a sheave of burned wheat. Maybe there was meth in her wiry arms, or desperation, how else could she let them all sit there in the baking sun, not going in the store but not leaving it either, not seeking shade or relief, just stalled out over a black puddle, hanging by a thread because death had not yet showed up. I didn’t just walk by her; I walked through her. I could feel her what the fuck, her must be nice, bitch and I entered the automatic doors of Wal-Mart still clinging to the squalor of those babies like a right hook in the gut. I slowed, as if to go back, but my heel wouldn’t turn.
What do you need? I would ask her.But I couldn’t ask her that.
It was this dress, my dress made it all wrong. It wasn’t the uniform of a fellow warrior, it was the beacon of naiveté, of free time and hobbies, of a non-addicted white girl who just paid $45 to have her oil changed AND her interior vacuumed.
Do you need any help? said the imaginary me, leaning in her car window with a sack of McDoubles and a mesh bag of Florida oranges. Here ya go, this should solve all your problems.
Who were they waiting for anyway, and would he kill me if I interceded into his demise? Maybe he’d follow me and rob me for drug money? Maybe she’d spit at me for daring to assume they were doing anything but being just fine, thank you.
But couldn’t I do something? I had $20 in cash.My minivan was clean and the AC worked and I had newish tires and a full tank. She could sleep in my bed and I could fill up the bath for her babies, I could pour their favorite cereal in the kitchen and make them feel what I sometimes felt when everybody was clean and fed and I had a quiet space to stir my tea: It’s all going to be alright.
But I kept walking straight, because it wasn’t going to be alright. I let her snap off behind me like a slingshot, out into the dusty broken-down distance, to a place I wouldn’t ever have to see or live in, because for some unknowable reason I was born here and she was born there, and that was a fact not made better by unwanted charity or free cheeseburgers. I bought a bag of oranges for myself instead and peeled one as I drove home. They smelled sweet and fresh, like forgiveness from a beautiful dying world.
At home, I hung up my dress, screwed the bulb in my daughter’s aquarium lid and watched her fish swim indifferently around in their dirty tank, their world now a much brighter shade of decay. I flipped the TV channels, pausing to watch a mother run to hug her small children, her edited happiness somehow coercing my tears– how good that must feel. I’ll take a happy feeling wherever I can get it, even a canned version. My life is full of dirty creature comforts, but my arms are well accustomed to a sterile kind of emptiness. A mother separated from her children is the cruelest kind of pain; a mother with no money to care for them is just as bad. A careless and cruel man well, he’s just par for the course. I’ve lived the former and grazed the latter, and my scarred up heart has a hair trigger response to the sound of a crying child, to a woman whose eyes tell you she is teetering at the end. I haunt the trenches where she is taking fire.
On a different evening, another young woman stood outside a different Wal-mart. I noticed her because her baby looked like my son— those fat little legs trying to stand, tiny hands grasping the edge of the cart like a captain on a sinking ship, it reminded me of those days back then, how hard it was. This was just a passing thought, and then I was onto the next thing.
But an hour and a half later, as I wheeled my weary bags back out the automatic doors, there she was. She was still there. Still there.
I slowed to do a double take. How could she still be here? It was almost 11:00 at night. The baby was wailing on her hip, poor tired thing. She was screaming into her cell phone, pacing, crying, while onlookers withdrew and whispered. In her cart was a new car seat wrapped in plastic. It was one thing to see an irate woman; another to see one so obviously desperate and struggling with a baby. Her distended stretch-marked belly hung over her jeans and drew my heart like a shield; the wounds of her birth were fresh and no one was protecting her, no one caring for her. I found myself staring at these bystanders, at their complete apathy and judgment, their pale unmoved faces like sacks of flesh in the sallow light, and suddenly it was just a microcosm of the entire earth, of humans who pick their teeth in amusement while a woman slides down the edge of a knife.
“Can I give you a ride?” I asked, pulling my cart alongside hers. My voice was submissive, offering no more than a sister in crime.
“No ma’am,” she sniffed.
She was so young. Not more than 19.
“You sure? I have a car seat. I have two.”
“Yes ma’am, no thank you. I just had to go and buy one.”
So I turned my back reluctantly, and retreated.
“Ma’am?” I glanced back to see her catching up with me, and my relief was palpable. “Actually, if you don’t mind?”
While she dried her tears we loaded my van and I cleared the junk off the passenger seat. I cooed to her son, though he would have none of me.
We drove in silence for a while, and she explained that her boyfriend took off with the groceries and the car, leaving her and the baby with nothing, and no way home.
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“I went in the dressing room to try on some pants,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “And he said I went in there to cheat on him.”
“What, with the baby?” I scoffed.
“I know right?” she laughed. “I love him, but he can be so…”
“Yeah, well,” I sighed, or growled, and then tried to soften it to a whisper. “Just so you know, he’s abusing you. Leaving you and the baby like that with no ride? That’s abuse.”
She said nothing, and I hoped it sunk into her arm like a needle. I pulled into the Best Western like she asked me to, and waited outside with the baby while she dragged the car seat into the lobby. I bounced him in my arms, trying to calm his crying. But he strained away from me, reaching his arms to the door where his mother’s shape had disappeared. He wanted her, only her. Only his mommy.
Sometimes I have a rabid need to to save every mother, to soothe her baby for her, to fix what can’t be fixed, to make right what can never be made right; I am besieged. But the babies don’t need my arms, they need hers, and her battle isn’t mine to fight. The only thing I can really do is see for her, to bear witness to every black stain underfoot in a Wal-mart parking lot, because each one is a mother’s leaking lifeline. I am beholden to her pain, but can only illuminate it from a distance. All I can do is know what it’s like. And in knowing, understand that I’ll never know how hard it really is.