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?
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.’