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.