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.