Requiem by D.G. Geis

For GW

It wasn’t the first time

I’d seen a cowboy pole dance

in a whore house.

But you did it so well

even the naked ladies clapped. 

All the drunken bull-riders

from Del Rio howling

for you to “take it off.”

Dancing with the topless

prison psychologist

on the bar at Ma Crosby’s--

Goddamn, poor Ciudad Acuna

would never be the same.

Three years later

the sicarios and narcotraficantes

had run off all the decent folk,

meaning the half decent drunks

and college revelers, ranch hands,

and high school virgins

out for their first poke in Boy’s Town,

that Zona Tolerancia

of rutting adolescence

and sparkly badlands

of the teenaged heart. 

I imagine you now

in your high blind looking out

over the South Texas Brush Country,

so choked with thorns and mesquite

that chaps were de rigeur

and our stirrups had tapaderos.

Wondering how you’d ever managed

to rope that wild boar,

and being dragged like Jesus

through a crown of thorns,

the bemused look on your father’s face,

not able to quite decide

whether it was just high spirits

or a deeper freedom

that meant having to rein you in.

The feral sow we shot

and tracked half the night

through the bloody brush;

she managed to get away

but left her right leg to bloom

there under a persimmon tree.

And how we laughed

when two years later

she showed back up

three-legged and oblivious,

limping along with a full litter;

and we decided

that life was like that—

not the deer tick

that finally poisoned you

forty years later,

or laying incontinent

in the ranch house

you built with your own hands,

but going down on a good horse

in life’s tangled reins

and leaving the better part

of yourself somewhere

still worth leaving.

You Will Be Extraordinary by Nicole Baute

It was winter. Always winter. We were restless between the sheets. Too cold, too hot, never the right amount of blankets. He’d turn, drop his weight on the mattress. I’d bounce. I was never awake or asleep. I was wandering the hinterlands, looking for the soft animals of wool and dreams. He was dreaming of pirate-ship real estate, at the crossroads of adventure and domesticity. What would the mortgage be on a pirate ship? he wondered. I’d wait. He’d turn. I’d bounce.

After university, I got a job telling other people’s stories because I didn’t know how to tell my own. Once, a man ran over his toddler in the driveway. We’d been taught not to use the cliché “every parent’s worst nightmare.” Strangers liked to blurt out things they shouldn’t. The middle-aged couple who lived next door weren’t sure if they should trust me. The woman appeared behind her husband in a powder-blue housecoat. Henry, she said, we agreed not to talk to reporters. Henry’s eyes were brown and soft. This girl isn’t going to hurt us, he said. I was twenty-four. I wanted to tell him she was right, I might hurt them; it happened all the time. Instead, I gave the sad smile that is appropriate after a death. The boy loved Dora the Explorer, they told me. The father drank.

My editors asked me to write a profile of a Nigerian-American woman who’d moved to Toronto and fashioned herself as spokesperson for families of murder victims. You could see her on TV, six feet tall in various wigs, sometimes talking about herself in the third person. She had a blog from the U.S., filled with photos of her with Snoop Dogg and Garth Brooks and the mom from Everybody Loves Raymond. In the course of my reporting, I discovered she’d skipped bail in Tennessee, where the sheriff had six outstanding warrants for her arrest. Turned out he didn’t watch the Canadian news. When I asked the woman to explain all this, she lied, and then she threatened me, and then she called the police. A local detective came to the newsroom. I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, he said, keys jangling in his pockets. I just wanted you to know. The woman was extradited a few months later. The thing was, I had nothing against her personally. I hadn’t learned how to make mistakes yet, and she had made so many.

Being good at something can ruin your life. One year went by, then a second. At parties, strangers were impressed by what I did for a living. I didn’t want them to be. During the third year, my insomnia came back with a new ferocity, and I spent my nights on the couch watching the shopping channel, wondering if a vegetable slicer could make me happy. Instead, I convinced Tony we should get a cat. His name was Wasabi and he slept when I couldn’t, with his front paws tucked tight under his chest. I read on the Internet that insomnia can shave years off your life and when I looked in the mirror I saw that it was true. My face was growing gaunt, hardening around the edges.

Then, one day, it happened. What the doctors call a psychotic break. Break as in break-through or break-open? There’s a distinction. They found me by the lake. I’m not going to say if I was wearing pants. I don’t remember going down there but I do remember running out of a 24-hour grocery store, shouting. Honestly? I just needed to be alone.

The paramedic was built like a paperclip. Around his head was a faint orange light. In his work, it wasn’t possible to save everyone.

Sitting at the back of the ambulance, I leaned forward, bent my arms into jackknives, and covered my head.

“Charlotte,” said the paramedic. “Is there someone we can call for you?”

Call me maybe, I thought. Call it off. “Tony,” I said. “My boyfriend.”

“Can you look up, please?”

I couldn’t.

“Charlotte? I need to do a quick check.”

“You’re too loud.”

The paramedic lowered his voice. That wasn’t what I meant, but I appreciated the gesture. “I promise I’ll be quick.”

People were starting to gather on the side of Lakeshore Boulevard. I heard whispers, a dog panting. It was dawn on a Monday. I sat up and let the paramedic check my eyes for signs of god knows what.

What I saw in his eyes is what broke me.

 

 

There were things I wanted to say to the paramedic during our short drive to the hospital, but he’d made me very sleepy. I suspected he’d given himself the same thing he gave me because he leaned back and let his eyelids droop. I understood.

The colours in the hospital were muted. A nurse, grieving her father, pale pink. A patient who’d fallen down the stairs, robin’s egg blue. I was feeling better already.

Tony came. He’d been out playing a show and smelled like bourbon and fear.

“I called everyone looking for you,” he said. “You freaked me out.”

“Is Wasabi okay?”

Tony narrowed his eyes.

“I’m going to work from here,” I said. “As long as they can give me more of whatever they gave me earlier, I’m good.”

Nurses spoke in clipped, hushed tones. Machines beeped behind curtains. When I looked back at Tony, he was rubbing his face in his hands. “No, babe,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

They put me in psych.

 

 

I drifted in and out of sleep for a long time. Thick cloying taste of fluoride at the back of my throat. Swollen baby hands unable to make a fist. When I woke, Tony was reading a history book in the chair beside my bed. He kissed my forehead and said my parents were on their way.

“The window’s open,” I told him.

Tony looked at the window. It was closed.

I moved my hand like a speedboat darting out onto the lake.

Tony shook his head and returned to his book. He knew how to love from a safe distance.

The doctor came to see me. She was in her late fifties and gentle as a baby fox. Tony left for a coffee and she sat on the chair beside my bed the way I imagined a benevolent fairy queen would sit on a toadstool.

“What do you think is happening right now, Charlotte?” she asked.

“I’m a clairvoyant?”

She smiled. “Possibly. Probably not, though.”

“I’m crazy, then.”

“Everyone is crazy. It’s more a question of how.” The doctor smiled. She was empathy contained.

I smiled too.

“So how would you describe the last few weeks,” she asked. “Before what happened last night.”

“I was floating,” I told her.

“Like a…raft?”

“Like a cloud.”

“And what you would prefer to be?”

“An eagle. Or maybe a kite.”

She nodded, writing something on her clipboard with a purple pen.

“Has something been stressing you out?” she asked. “Work, maybe?”

“Work has always stressed me out,” I told her.

“And why do you think that is?”

I knew exactly why. Because my work made the unknown known. I couldn’t protect the people I wrote about from getting hurt, and their pain might as well have been mine. Only a person uncomfortable with power deserves to have it, but it’d be easier to be naïve.

 “I see,” she said, although I hadn’t spoken aloud.

We sat in silence for a long time. A cart passed in the hall. An attendant called out to a nurse, something about Ativan. The doctor gazed casually around the room, a faint smile on her lips.

“Well,” she said eventually. “I know how much you want to keep your job.” It was a challenge, that statement.

I held her gaze. “Yeah,” I told her. “Isn’t that funny.”

 

 

“Hit send,” I told Tony. He was holding my smartphone. We’d drafted an email to my editor, explaining I had the flu.

I fell back asleep wondering if I could trust him to lie.

 

 

My parents arrived, my mother over-caffeinated and my father weepy.

Purple, everywhere.

“That apartment,” my mother said, fluffing my pillow. “It doesn’t get enough natural light, I told you.”

“She isn’t taking the supplements,” said my father. “The Ayurvedic ones. Charlotte, they don’t taste like anything.”

“Or exercising. Are you exercising? I should have enrolled you in swimming lessons, I don’t know why I listened to my mother.”

I closed my eyes. “Guys,” I said. “Chill. Please.”

My father put on a smile. “Look me up in the dictionary,” he said. “I’m the definition of chill.” He chortled until his voice cracked and he had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom.

When we were alone, I looked at my mother. “I think I’ve made a mistake,” I told her.

She brushed my hair off my face. “What mistake, honey?”

“I can’t be a journalist. I’m going to work at a coffee shop. Or at the zoo.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. You love your job.”

“Aspects of it,” I told her. “That isn’t the same thing.”

Mom fished around in her purse and offered me a piece of gum; I waved it aside.

“I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Susan Willcocks loved your piece about the school for the blind children. She even emailed me. She was wondering if they’d applied for Trillium funding.”

Mom was obsessed with Susan Willcocks. She was our member of parliament and had a daughter my age; my mom knew her from long-ago parent-teacher nights.

“I don’t know, Mom,” I said, picking at a loose thread on the bed sheet.

She put her purse under her chair, folded her hands in her lap. Breathed in sharply. “That’s inappropriate right now, I’m sorry. I’ll ask you later. Right now you need to rest.”

My dad came back and we watched the Cosby Show on the TV in my room, my parents on either side of me, my mom holding my right hand and my dad holding my left. It was the episode where Denise makes Theo a shirt.

“Did I ever tell you what you asked me when you were four?” my mom asked when the show ended. “We watched the one where Rudy starts kindergarten and you”—here my mom started blushing—“you asked what colour you’d be when you started kindergarten!”

“Oh dear,” I said.

“Yes, well, you know how white our town is.”

“She told you you could be any colour you wanted,” said my dad. “Then you were really confused!” They both cracked up.

I wanted my parents to go back to the hotel but as soon as they left, I missed them. I watched another episode of the Cosby Show but I had a funny feeling about Bill, so I turned off the TV and looked out the window. There wasn’t much to see, just the edge of a parking lot, a few crows on a roof.

I thought about those blind kids, though. I wondered what they talked about over lunch in the cafeteria. I wondered who read my story to them, and how it made them feel.

 

 

I was happiest when I was driving. I had a 1999 Toyota Camry with a dent on one side and dirt and crumbs inlayed into the upholstery. That car was loyal, like a collie or a Clydesdale; it understood me better than anyone.

Whenever I ached for a smooth straight line, I’d get on the highway, trusting I’d turn up where I needed to. I’d sing and talk to myself and listen to the rhythm of the tires pressing against seams in the asphalt. If I got tired, I’d pull onto a side road, lock the doors and nap, just a girl in a car, skin sticky in the sun. Maybe that was who I wanted to be. Contained, untouchable. Porcelain or plastic, anything but real.

 

 

Coming out of a dream, I remembered what happened in the grocery store. I say remembered but it’s possible my subconscious mind rearranged the facts. It doesn’t matter.

Our apartment was in a brick-and-concrete bunker built to withstand a nuclear holocaust, but every now and then we could still hear the neighbours upstairs. Usually fighting or fucking, and sometimes both. The night I was admitted, Tony was out at a show I hadn’t wanted to go to, and the neighbours started shouting. The woman’s voice didn’t carry very well, but I could make out some of his words. Only think about yourself…how many fucking times do I have to ask... Something about a frying pan.

I wasn’t trying to listen. I knew it was average as far as domestics go; Tony and I certainly had our moments. I turned up the TV. There was flooding in Mississippi, the streets had turned to rivers, and there was an uprising in Egypt, crowds of angry young men with flags and gas canisters. I covered my head with a red afghan knitted by my grandmother. Under the blanket, everything was musty and lugubrious, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever come out.

Eventually I decided the only thing that would fix me was an avocado. It had to be the perfect avocado, ripe, but not too ripe—that ideal creamy green where the pit pops out under the slightest pressure. My understanding was that avocados have the good kind of fat, the kind that buoys you up, giving you energy and hope. If I ate a perfect avocado I knew my heart would stop racing. I was quite close to having a heart attack at that point, and hadn’t slept for five days.

It was late so I put on my winter jacket and walked to the gas station, where the attached store had a small selection of vegetables. They lacked structural integrity. Soft potatoes sprouting limbs, celery that could wiggle. There was a burgundy light behind the counter with the attendant. I had the strong sense that he missed someone who lived on another continent. When he turned to face me, he startled. “I hope you see her soon!” I shouted as I cruised back out the door.

They say insomniacs shouldn’t drive but I believe the power of four cylinders at your feet will make anyone feel better. I sped down to the Sobeys on Dupont where I ran over a garbage bin in the parking lot.

The store was flooded with light. A bath, a baptism. As I passed the apples, the cabbage, the leafy greens, Kenny G crooning on the speakers, I realized I was on the precipice of something. Something incredible, horrible. Chemical, structural. My heart rate quickened as I found the avocados. There were so many! And with promising purple-black skin. But as soon as I picked one up, pressing its flesh tenderly between my fingers, I knew. The sticker said the avocado was ripe, but it was not ripe. It was not ripe at all. If someone cut into that avocado right now, their knife would have to fight for it, and the fruit would be acrid against their teeth. I removed the sticker, set the not-yet-ripe avocado onto the floor and squeezed another. Also not ripe, yet there it was, the same sticker. It wasn’t right. I’d had my disappointments in the past, I didn’t want anyone else to suffer. What about those people who haven’t learned how to use their sensory receptors to predict their future pleasure, or lack thereof—what then? I removed that sticker too.

There was a pile of about twenty, maybe thirty avocados at my feet when the manager came to see me. She was shaped like an avocado herself—one of the round, asymmetrical ones. Her short hair was blond with some memory of pink. She wore running shoes.

She faced me and cleared her throat.

“Hi!” I said, too brightly.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave, miss,” she said.

My face flushed. “Oh, no,” I said. “These were incorrectly labeled? I’m just tidying up for you.” I added a perfunctory “sorry.”

The manager’s eyes drifted down. “Miss, we have a ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service policy’ and pants are really implied in that.”

Oh. Well. Shorts and underwear are so similar nowadays, I was surprised she’d noticed.

“Semantics,” I muttered, continuing with my work.

She stepped closer, reaching for the avocado in my hand with a meaty claw. As soon as our fingers touched, there was a sticky alchemy, a sad, cloistered yearning, and I felt so overwhelmed that I shrieked. The last thing I heard was the manager on her walky-talky, calling security; I was running through the grocery store, hands empty, eyes moist, heart racing. “I was doing a public service!” I shouted at a group of teenagers holding bags of Ruffles before I darted out the door. They stood stunned, wondering how much time they had before things stopped being fun.

 

 

Tony used to say that I, perhaps more than anyone, needed a vice. Cigarettes, marijuana, Manhattans? Or even a baby, a helpless blob to direct my overabundance of feeling towards (poor baby). He meant all this theoretically, of course; he wasn’t offering.

I don’t want to say we were together by accident, because there was love there, but it was the kind of love a person has for a place they’ll never see again. Yet we held on for a long time, neither of us sure what, nor whom, we were supposed to carry with us into adulthood. I now know you’re supposed to find someone who thinks the broken parts of you are beautiful. Tony knew those parts, and he tried to help, but he never saw the beauty.

 

 

My last day in the hospital, the doctor came back, wearing a cream-coloured cashmere sweater that brought out the yellow in her hair. I was happy to see her. I needed her to sign off, to let me go.

“How are you feeling, Charlotte?”

“Never been better.”

She gave an all-knowing smile. Her cheekbones were peaches. “Great,” she said. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to do a brief assessment.”

“Let’s go.” I sat up straighter in bed.

With one hand, the doctor put on her reading glasses, funky blue frames covered in stars. She flipped a few pages. “Okay. When you arrived, you told the intake nurse you were seeing colours. Are you still seeing colours, Charlotte?”

I bit my lip. The doctor was white light, nothing more.

“No.”

“Okay,” she said, checking something on her clipboard. “You also reported—” here she read off her page—“hearing the feelings of others and sometimes even their thoughts. Would you say that’s still the case?”

“Not their thoughts,” I said, too quickly. “Their stories. It’s different.”

The doctor looked at me kindly.

“But no, that’s all finished,” I added. “Great drugs, doc!”

“Okay…” She smiled. “On a scale of one to ten, how optimistic do you feel about your future?”

This was a difficult question. The answer was either one or eleven. I tried to read the doctor’s mind to determine what she wanted me to say, but there was a gentle wall around her, a force field.

“Seven?” I asked.

She grinned. “Seven is good,” she said. “Seven is great.”

We decided I’d keep coming to see her, twice a week. She had things to teach me, but it would take time.

 

 

While I was getting ready to leave, I heard someone in the hall talking about eyewash. We used it all up on the kid. The paramedic. I’d thought about him all week. He carried the suffering of strangers around through the world.

I ran out of my room. The paramedic startled, stopping mid-stride.

“Hey,” he said. He looked around, like he wasn’t supposed to talk to me. Slid his hands in his pockets. “How you feeling?”

“Better,” I said. “Sorry for being difficult.”

“Ah, you weren’t.”

His face was as angular and serious as the side of a canyon. The orange light was stronger than before, and I realized it was part of him, not something he’d acquired along the way. He was the ember; there was nothing to be done about it.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked.

“Go for it.”

“Why do you do this work?”

The paramedic’s face seemed to twitch. He glanced down at his large feet, then up at me.

“Because it’s who I am,” he said, squinting. “Urgent, sensitive, ninety percent adrenaline.” He smiled. “Nobody’s asked me that before.”

“Cool,” I said. “Thanks.” I blushed.

Before walking away he bent down, his head close to mine. His breath smelled like spearmint and cigarettes. “The way I see it,” he said, “as long as you’re honest, you’ll figure it out.”

I never saw him again. That afternoon I left the hospital and discovered it was spring.

 

 

Back in the newsroom, I told my editor I didn’t believe journalism made a difference. I told my editor I hadn’t slept without heavy medication for a very long time. That was good enough for a resignation; there were dozens of young people waiting for my job. The line snaked around the building. When I left, I took a mug that changed colours when you put hot liquid in it, and my favourite pen.

As I walked to the subway, background music started playing, something funky with a big brass section. I was twenty-seven and the best years of my life were ahead of me. The hot-dog vendor gave me a thumbs up. The sun winked. In the subway car, everyone offered congratulations.

“Yeah, Charlotte!” said a kid in a trucker cap emblazoned with the word cheese. “Way to stick it to the man!” We fist-bumped.

“Congratulations, young lady,” said a man reading the newspaper standing up. “You have refused to live an accidental life.” The train shifted but he kept his footing; he’d spent many years honing his balance.

“I wish I’d had that kind of courage,” said a middle-aged woman holding a dog-earned copy of Tuesdays with Morrie. “I’ve been working in human resources for twenty-two years. I wanted to be a dancer.”

“Do you dance now?” I asked her. “For fun?”

“Never,” said the woman. “It makes me too sad.”

They all looked at me, their eyes brimming with expectation. “What will you do now?” they asked, clutching their belongings to their chest. “What will you do now that the world is yours?”

“Everything,” I told them. But I had no idea what that meant.

What Accumulates by Jackie Connelly

I

Bacteria in a loofah. Eyeliner residue in the crease below your lash line. Plaque between your back molars and the wall of your gums, because no one ever informed you that you have to floss there. The taste of cigarettes. Clumps of deodorant in the tufts of hair under your arms. Toenail clippings in the cracks between your bathroom tiles. Dog fur on your vibrator. Shit in your dog’s anal glands, which will cost you sixty dollars to get professionally “expressed.” Unbudgeted bills. Sweat, tension. Expectations.

I’m watching her grope around for what she wanted to tell me thirty seconds ago, when watching me walk away made her bold. She called, “Can you come back here for a sec?” and I obeyed, but now I can’t guess what’s coming—all this time, it never occurred to either of us that we might be concealing the same appetite, or that one day we’d finally crack it open.

Even if we did, how could it be anything other than a couple of grape sodas on the roof of the office after everyone else has clocked out for the day: saccharine, refreshing, sun setting rosy down the street?

I’ve always had a knack for delayed gratification. It’s a relic of my eating disorder—a dysmorphic conviction that you can one day earn your mirages. Deprive now, revel later. Sit patiently with your hands folded long enough, and time makes you worthy of everything you want, just by default. Pay no mind to the casualties lining the walls of the waiting room, while you’re busy saving the best for last.

When she finally finds it, it doesn’t bother us that the timing is wrong, this culmination of so many subtle clues laid out like bread crumbs. Neither of us mentions the woman who shares her bed, or the person I loved for five years and dumped unceremoniously two days ago. It starts in the stomach and spreads outward, relief like the first sip of bourbon: Finally, the water boils. Finally, the toothpick comes out clean—dig in. Finally, we’ve waited long enough, and all this passive persistence makes us worthy of something real, substantial, something that will make us full.

Later, when I’m packing this scene carefully into the freezer, I’ll scour it for the undercooked bits murmuring, “Keep walking, you asshole—she doesn’t actually expect you to come back.” I’ll press them into my long-term memory like I’m pleating up a pie crust: every moment that unfolded itself, startled, after the ding of her confession, a collection of signs that she never expected me to reciprocate anything, that she only wanted to remove a piece of food that’d been lodged between her front teeth for nine months, preventing her from smiling open-mouthed around the woman who shares her bed.

But for now, I’m oblivious, and it’s too late anyway. We’re already brewing a fresh pot of this stale information, we’ll let it steep a while, as we fail adorably to sustain eye contact over the boundaries dissolving like sugar in microwaved milk. We’ll spend the next several nights parked on back streets where few people venture, false sense of security from the dreamy glow of the streetlights, backs pressed up against opposite door handles, as if a center console containing a few mix CDs could block two traitorous mouths from what they’ve been eating their own tongues not to take.

II

Books you want to read. Film on the walls of your cooking pots. Crusted pasta in the holes of your colander. Fruit flies feasting in the uncovered trash bin. Plastic bags under the kitchen sink. Soggy leaves on your windshield, in the gutter. Weeds in your mom’s garden, so many that one day you rip out a particularly big one, beaming, and realize too late you’re actually holding a prized hosta, now dead, trailing filthy, useless roots. Experience. Grudges. Weeks and months, and years and years.

I wake up in a hotel suite in Times Square, her head tucked between my neck and collarbone, a toasted knot of limbs and firsts, one drowsy pulse between us. Carefully, she unravels her body from mine. She dresses in her suit, winds her bow-tie expertly around her neck. She closes the door quietly behind her, off to charm her way around the conference, still hardly out to anyone; it’s not yet worth the consequences.

In a few hours, she’ll order me chocolate-chip blueberry pancakes from room service, have them delivered bedside where I’ll be lolling under the covers, grinning, temporarily transformed. Naked, twenty pounds heavier than I was when I met my ex, I’ll devour the offering. I’ll lick the chocolate from my fingers.

To exist inside a good memory would require nothing happening: a moment sustained, bloated with promise, which never gets a chance to crumple in on itself.

It seduces you, an eating disorder. It makes a scary world small. It’s your way in, out, up, down, home. It forgets to tell you that time trudges on, the world outside this one keeps turning, while you stop being alive. Blurry now, neither here nor there, you forget to ask.

The whole time we’re dancing around each other, I’m holding my breath, not asking her too many questions or reading between too many lines because somewhere I know how precarious it all is, how if I turn the corner too fast or look up at the wrong time it will spill out all around me: this precious, private universe. I don’t want to be the clumsy one, to slip and split open the first fracture, the first slow leak at the bottom of the way we feel about each other. Or at least, the people we are when we’re together—people I’m certain we could digest, fully inhabit, someday.

We don’t discuss her relationship, not beyond the logistics of betrayal: scheduling, plausible cover-ups. We don’t discuss my ex, who is still lurking around the edges of my new life, scorched and devastated, who keeps saying, “I deserve an explanation,” “I deserve to know who what when where,” “I deserve to know why her,” with such principle that “deserve” dilutes into something watery, flavorless, I can’t even remember what it means. How much do you have to give before you deserve to own another person’s choices? How many years earn you the rights to their life? Two years? Ten? How many sacrifices? How many silences?

I wait several hours, drag my body into the shower, fire off a few emails, draft an article about marine insurance. I check us out and take our luggage to the valet. I wander the city. I wait and wait until nightfall, spellbound by inertia, christening it possibility.

III

Unopened junk mail. Jeans that don’t fit you anymore. Kangaroos dead on the side of the road when you’re studying abroad in Queensland. Little tchotchkes people buy you on vacation that end up in shoeboxes under your bed because you have nowhere to put them, but can’t gulp down enough of your sentimentality to throw them away. Dust, rust, sand in your clothes, salt on your skin. Mold. Snowbanks. Sediment. Mountains, continents. Anxiety. Space, and lack of it. All the things you should have said. Everything bitter.

“I don’t need you,” she’s yelling at me. “Why did you make us leave? I paid a hundred dollars for this shirt. I look so good tonight. It’s not even one yet. Why did you make us leave? I don’t even need you. I’ll just go back by myself.”

The Uber driver furtively turns up the volume on the radio.

“You do look good,” I slur, patting her well-dressed thigh, whiskey-steeped head wobbly, teetering. “That’s true.”

“I don’t need you,” she won’t stop spitting, over and over, a tomcat in a tiny cage, deaf to distractions like ill-timed flattery. She won’t look at me. She won’t stop pulling on the locked door handle of the moving car. “You don’t control me just because I love you. I don’t need you I never needed you I never will not ever.”

You’re something else’s doing, inside an eating disorder: batter poured into a size-two mold. Maybe it was buttered first, or maybe not. Maybe you’ll come out clean and they’ll ooh and ahh, delighted and envious, or maybe you’ll stick to the bottom of the pan in charred ugly splotches and they’ll have to scrape you off with a knife.

I’ve loved her protectively, ferociously, for what must only be a month or two; absurdly, it feels ancient, timeless, as if I’d been sleepwalking through every other human connection I’d assembled over 24 years. Perhaps it’s because it never occurred to me that I could love a woman before the first time we made eye contact, or that it would be so ruthless, so much more complete. Perhaps it’s the quiet softness of our skin, or how she kisses my eyelids, listens to me with her whole body. Perhaps it’s simply the way her scars and teeth remind me of my own.

But we’ve never said these words before, and they’re soaked in such hostility that they almost slip right through my ringing ears: a greased-up confession, evasive, something you could never cradle in your palm. I sit frozen between her and my roommate, who is clicking through her phone, silent as a tray of ice cubes, leaning so subtly away from us she maybe doesn’t even notice she’s doing it. I thought by now we’d be together. It’s not how I expected to feel: warm beer in my gut, motion sickness, and still, the yawning hunger. Still, the lips pressed tight against it.

IV

The slow-cooked demands, steel pots full of them, stacked and looming. The fictions we forced into her mouth, laced with decay. The decisions, vindictive, that we assumed would be forgiven, just by default. The infected words that could have so easily been different words, uncorked different worlds. Those alternate universes staggering drunk, homicidal, around the empty space between my sternum and my spine. Those nights that refused to end, after, or maybe it was one long night, because regret is when you haven’t eaten in days but nothing tastes good enough to bother.

Back at my apartment, I hold her head in my lap while she sobs about a recent headline—another teenager who walked in front of a truck because of their transphobic, homophobic parents. Behind her eyelids, those last moments on a loop: the fundamental rejection, that recurring ache in her teeth. The headlights blazing, the inevitability. At last, the crushing relief.

Caressing the thumbprint of white hair behind her ear, I think: I will be your family for the rest of our lives. I will swallow it all and I’ll keep it down, too, the inherited riot and the howling guilt and the hollowed-out words and all your tiny fists. I will let you scrape out my insides until you make yourself whole. I will never have regrets, wish I tried harder.

I’ve been waiting to wake up next to her again since that first night in Times Square, but she never stays in my bed long—she still has obligations to her own. I will finally get my wish in a few hours, when the January sun elbows its way through the slivers between my blinds, my salt- and mascara-caked eyelids, the black drapes of her hangover. It will never happen again.

What if I could hunt it down, that reckless, stubborn clarity in the face of inevitable ruin, find it lying there amid everything else that accumulated? Would I close my eyes, open my lips, place it gently on my tongue? Recall and savor the taste in my mouth when I was ravenous, indulgent enough to mistake it for sustenance? I couldn’t resist. My mouth, the traitor.

But then, I would kneel, bow my head, open my lips. I would release what’s lingered, watch gravity draw it tenderly to the ground alongside so many half-eaten worlds, spinning slowly to a stop in the dirt. I would slide my tongue across my blunted teeth, spit again and again until my saliva broke down the quinine aftertaste, because it wasn’t about me at all, because some cravings we can never feed. I would rise, brush off my knees, squint into the distance, where the flies would be swarming madly, gratefully, around the inedible bulk of all my patience, rotting somewhere far beside the point.