I watch until she sees me, then lean into her space. Seems like dancing, I tell her. Looking out but not quite up, she leers through her bangs like a stakeout cliche. Finally weary, she acknowledges me, occupant with reticence. ‘Sorry?’ Don’t be, I say, smoothing the bar with my hands. ‘I don’t understand.’ But she looks too bored to be confused. It was like you were dancing, before, when you serve. ‘It’s a mechanical proposition,’ she says. ‘Any elegance is only a product of efficiency.’ When she takes me home, I know it’s not personal. I don’t care.
Often, when I’m home alone, I’ll go to the kitchen and take a knife from the block, the big one that looks like it was descended from Viking stock. I’ll take it to the bathroom, remove my clothes, and sit with it in the shower basin. Cross-legged with the flat upon my thigh, I use the nails of my free hand to map prospective incisions. I stay this way until I feel guilty for having wasted everybody’s time, time I should have spent on them. It doesn’t matter what I want, they still need so much from me.
I don’t really want to die but I have to listen to me think it. Wicks calls them intrusive thoughts, fancying up that my subconscious wants me dead. I doubt he knows what he’s talking about, though I like having someone be critical of me and it often sounds right. I’m sure he looks this shit up. I picture him sitting in an old leather armchair, trawling back-issue psych journals with a neon yellow marker. I once heard him say egregious in conversation, like he was eating the page right out of oxfords. Neither of us say suicidal.
I need you to hate me, I tell her. I don’t know why. I doubt it matters. I just, I’m not comfortable with love, it feels untenable, slippery. Hatred you can hold. You can mould. It’s elemental, material. I can be shaped from hatred. Love is like air with the oxygen sucked out, only atoms apart from suffocation. I love you though, now that I’ve made it sound hollow. So, maybe it’s an acceptance thing. Maybe I can’t accept other people’s feelings. I believe they’re real, only, there’s always going to be that distance, the unimpeachable distance of individuality.
Fiona looks at me with such a mixture of fealty and hope, I’m struck by how incompletely humane I am, how artificial. Stagehands use gel sheets on concert lights for visual effect, in this vein I colour my thoughts, sliding the idea of appropriate emotion in place. There’s too much calculation in it for me to call it genuine, and the knowing of it only shapes the disconnect. Fiona smiles and I slide something warm in place, tuning my face to match. It’s enough for her to see the performance, but I’ll always know how the production was staged.
Immediately, I felt bad for yelling, the sound still sharp in my throat, but I knew once the anger arrived it wouldn’t leave until it was fed. I would have to hurt her, tear out little pieces with my words in the way that only lovers can. It was that or face myself. Later, I would be forced to recount and recoil in disgust, not by her, not by my love and her passive stoicism, but by the showreel of failures I unspool in the night. A too familiar scene, another sizzling nail in the coffin I was building.
Waning crescents in tiny constellations dug into my skin, zodiacal passions. I ply my nails into their lines, seeking to reignite the pleasure that had lain beside them in the pain. In their incitement; the smell of gin, cool and sharp; loss and comfort; dark witticisms in chastising British lilt; soft violence willingly perpetrated; a deposed star fallen into my arms. How she would look beyond my grasp and say, ‘I want you,’ painting herself on the horizon. When I calculate the lights from heaven, most of them are dead, all that I can ever love are their ghosts.
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?