Blood bubbles and lymph dried like sap on my skin, an amber hue patchwork of dermal scaffolding. I run a fingernail around their peripheries, testing for pain and pliancy. Janey squirms matronly and bites her tongue, tired of issuing the same chastisement. It doesn’t matter, I tell her, but stop myself anyway. Nothing is silent between us, only unspoken, the sounds of the world vying in competitive susurrus, complimentary static. We each embrace our sketchy peace, retreating into stillness with armfuls of its comfort in mind. This time when the itch grows back, I will do nothing, for her.
Sweat drops from my forehead and pools between her bladed shoulders. I keep saying sorry, breathless, as though it means something, not simple sounds. ‘Slap me again,’ she demands. I relay my hand to the last beveled pink impression I left behind. She gasps in the brutality, beauty refined by pain, and pushes against me, fighting without violence. I weave my fingers down to the scalp and pull us together. Exposed, inextricable, skin flushed, sighing. Pressed to cheek, we breathe a syncopation. I close my eyes and plummet. Inside the darkness I can believe I am not simply myself.
I can feel myself in the contact, the curiosity of her fingertips moving upon my stomach, soft and exploratory. Pausing on my hip, the stillness telegraphs her thoughts, impulses at crossroads, a litany like forked lightening crackling inside a soundless horizon. For a moment I can feel what it’s like to want me. If I hold out my tongue I will taste the shape of a snowflake. She led me to this place, though with little summons, barely breadcrumbs. Now, wherever she turns I follow, always a step behind desire. If she removes her hand, I shall be lost.
She fixes things and loves them again. Beautiful, I say, like they were never lost. The feel of a secondhand memory brushes by me, repurposed and romanticised, the beach, under my breath. She catches me sliding and opens her smile, breaching playfully with her eyes even while trouble breaks behind their blue. Caught in a rip, I say, struggling seems wrong. She tilts a little, reflects and resets. Things can be different, she tells me, with effort. Later, I will lick my lips and hope for the taste of salt, I will remember and life will crash over me.
Practicing my slalom behind the stadium, weaving embedded plaques and light posts, threading suspicious onlookers and ill-mannered gratings, endorphins and other substances granting a loose and unusual stance. The movement centres me, grounds me in freedom and drives new rhythms through my heart. Bluegrass in my headphones but the music plays inside me, beat, push, kick, jive, I wing out my hands and stream through the breeze. When I swing too wide, I tuck away my core and find the balance in disarray. When I stumble, I don’t question starting again, the only thing I know is forward.
The butterflies are mating. I watch them dance in the hibiscus, their innocence seemingly assured, but their playground chase draws such an obvious circle around the cycle that it leads me into death. Are they consumed by the catch or does their meaning shift with them into an end? I wonder how long it all lasts. Selfishly, I want more for their lives, purpose beyond imperative, though, for all that I see wasted, there are so many yet that romp inside the fray. When my time comes, I hope I will be able to dance in the same way.
Judith knows I want to die, now every conversation orbits that fact as though moons were merely a symptom of planets. ‘If it’s intense enough to include the whole body and any attachment to physicality, then it goes beyond body dysmorphia.’ Her own being hovers in a place of passive composure, the particulars of our personal space navigated with seriousness and compassion. Inside the nebulous philosophy, I wonder if there’s not a sort of freedom in it for her, in charting the defects of others. Under the surface calculations, her voice is always smiling. ‘It’s the death dream again.’
Sometimes Caleb talks to make more room in his head. ‘They’ll find god one day and they won’t even realise.’ I picture the man who vents the gas chamber, distant eyes carrying heavy bags. ‘It’ll be an element or particle, an insistent function, something constituent and causal. Whatever existence needs to persist that can’t be seen or affected.’ I know this process isn’t for me, yet wonder if it continues in my absence. ‘In the beginning, a deity dying, its body breaking down into the natural order like cosmic fertiliser, decomposition composing life.’ Has it always been this way?
Pressing the sandwich flat with one hand, Sarah pinches the tongue of bacon hanging out between its layers and drags the meat from its casing. ‘It’s best not to think about yourself,’ she says, flipping it onto my plate. How generous, I tell her. She licks a grease spot from her fingers and wipes her hands under the table. ‘I love the taste but I can’t stomach the responsibility.’ I didn’t ask for this, I tell her, watching the bacon encroaching on my eggs. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘but you’re a stronger person than I am. You’ll handle it.’
With Dana in the corner of my eye, I imagine my own profile, a cutout two dimensions wide. She looks pleased, a face full of anticipatory judgement. Self-aware, my body devolves into rigid mechanisms. I take my pill dry. Dana smiles. ‘What you swallow,’ she says, ‘does it make you happy?’ My throat rasps, unprepared. I tell her that’s not what they’re supposed to do. There’s no satisfaction in it for her. She won’t let go. ‘Why do it then?’ Why do anything. To be like you, I tell her, like everyone, to make the lie more bearable.
Caleb pulls up at the stop sign and waits. Nothing happens in every direction. The engine idles with the aggressive portents of a pent menagerie, its rumble unmuffled since the radio’s death. Jenny, feet up on the dash, taps the windshield with a sneakered toe. ‘You can go,’ she says, but Caleb shakes his head. ‘There’s no oppositional command,’ he says, ‘how do you know?’ Looking through the glass, Jenny considers the crossroad and other symbols. We just agree to make it work, she thinks, it’s never going to change. ‘Look,’ she says patiently, ‘it’s time you moved on.’
We drove behind Lake Somerset and spent the night digging, deep holes inside the forest. Afterwards we shared a cigarette. I leant on my shovel like the councilmen do and watched Laura comb the night from her hair. Caked in blood and soil, she looked at the trees as though they were her peers. ‘He wanted to break up,’ she told them. ‘For no reason at all.’ There was nothing in the nature around us, silence. ‘Like being alone is better than being with me.’ Sunlight clawed through the canopy, striking her face. It was then she finally cried.
Jenny has a sphincter where her face should be. It dilates and contracts as she talks. I don’t know where the sound comes from. Behind the vaguely moist sphincteral folds is something more than blackness, a void where nothing should be. If she screams I will be swallowed by it. I am compelled to look. Disgust grows from the middle, assimilates my cells, leaves only the anguish of awareness. Jenny’s words become a howling sough, the torment of air being harvested by the gape in her face. I hope that she gets help, I know I am beyond it.
The skin is taut across her cheekbones and her eyes are diluted as though they’d been swirled together and left to settle, the pupil’s ink seeping meekly back into its well. She isn’t really smiling. I ask what’s wrong and she makes a rusty scoff, the sound of a bullet choking in its chamber. ‘Fuck,’ she says. ‘Everything, babe. Nothing’s right if you think on it enough.’ I put my hand on her knee and squeeze. Surely there’s some good, I tell her. She closes her eyes and stops not smiling, almost peaceful. I ask, what can I do?
Laying on her side like that, with her legs bent beneath the blanket and the flat of her feet pressed against my thigh, she looks like a diver made of felt, ready to spring from the couch without a splash. I’m playing games on my phone while she watches one of her cop dramas. The cameo commits the crime every time but she always acts surprised. After the arrest, she looks at me and says, ‘How come life is never that satisfying?’ I tell her it’s because there’s never any resolution, everything is just a middle until the end.