Jack smoothed the front of his button down in the standing mirror; turned his head right to left, left to right, examining his sideburns and the shade of his haircut: short and then less shorter and then longer on the crown with a spike. Leaning forward, he growled silently to check his teeth, inspecting especially the spaces between his incisors for any spinach.
He walked through the tight doorway, from his bedroom to the front of his apartment, where a dinner tray table stood by the door covered in randomness: leftover coins from the subway toll machines; half crumpled business cards he’d homemade himself, offering music lessons and editing assistance, anything really to pay the bills; a stack of pictures of Emily and him that his mother delivered to him shortly after his father’s birthday party; a lost button; a half-empty bottle of water; keys; a pack of smokes. And a stack of mail fanned out horizontally in some places to almost resemble a star.
Jack shrugged his shoulders, popped his arms out, shook around a bit. He picked up the stack of envelopes like cards and plucked the first four off like he was about to start a magic trick: make something disappear, make something else appear.
The name on all: Janet Stockton, 17 Whisper Woods Drive, Apt. 2D. The address where they arrived: Jack Rutland, 17 Whisper Woods Drive, Apt. 1D.
Jack had seen a glimpse of a flowing skirt up the steps and at another point the glint and shake of a tendril of hair out of the building door since Janet moved in, perhaps two weeks ago. But he heard more than he saw. Showers taken at night, and brief. A hairdryer. A trashcan lightly beating the thin linoleum, being shaken for the full bag to pop. A vacuum cleaner; a horror movie, somewhere in the middle with only one character screaming; a closet door.
Jack had held off, hoping to run into her on the steps, on the front sidewalk. Hey, hi… I have your mail.
But with four now stacked, three more than one, than an accident, the anxiety was getting to him. He didn’t want to stand in the way of Janet Stockton and her bank statements, her credit card statements, her bills. She must be anxious already, he thought; hoping she didn’t forget to change her address for all of her mail, hoping she followed the U.S. Postal Service’s instructions on moving, on uninterrupted service.
Jack had to see her anyway. He needed to know what she looked like. He prided himself on knowing every face in the building, every car in the parking lot. He was that type – he paid attention and stayed connected to his world in order to navigate it. Surprises, strangers, inaccuracies, anachronisms – things he couldn’t measure or brace for made him shiver, made him shy.
He should be a friendly neighbor anyway. She may need some help and would know who to ask.
Shuffling the mail against his thigh, he exited the apartment and climbed the stairs, counting. Counting, and turning, stepping up, counting, turning. In front of 2D, Jack stood. Shuffled the mail against his thigh. Licked his teeth. Pulled the collar from his neck in the front.
He struck the knocker three times, lightly, instead of knocking on the metal door.
He heard steps. The same deadbolt he had unlatched sounded, like deja vu. The same handle lock clicked and then suckled and then opened. And then presented a woman, a Janet.
“I have your mail.”
It’s a weed that attracts more weeds. It’s a gangly arm shoved from the right of my body, with my hand straight out, all attached to a torso, attached to a neck, attached to a head with a face that scrunches up in discontent at the tone of your voice, the diversion of your eyes, the word, that word, on your tongue.
It’s overgrowth, stretching to cover hard emotions that aren’t so hard, but can be buried in soft ground and covered by more shoveled sand and silt and dirt until no one else would know. Or rather, I believe that they can be buried, like my head in the pillow, going to sleep under covers in the middle of the day to avert a crisis of worry, a non-existent possibility that consumes my brain.
It’s those defense mechanisms I’ve held on to for so long to keep from healing. Weeds still need rain and sunlight, they still need to be nurtured in order to stay alive, to thrive. I tend them with my ignorance; I tend them by still using them and not asking why. Walking away, when I feel defeated or attacked; drawing myself inward, limbs tight, face averted; becoming quiet, misinterpreting your words. Or rather, interpreting your words the way I would 15 years ago, when I felt trapped and lonely and unwelcome.
Without the anxiety, without the mechanisms, I’d have to breathe and listen. Without the weeds, I have to assess the situation, I have to analyze what overgrown tomb of emotional and psychological haunt these actions are coming from.
Those weeds are wizards, they’re warlocks, disguised as growth. But just because they’re alive, it doesn’t mean they’re immortal. Weeds can die a death that’s slow and painful. But the more they sink in, the more painful it gets, the more those roots wrap around and cling. It’s a Catch-22 that’s not magical or paranormal or unimaginable. It’s well within in my hands to turn those reflexes over, to shake that overgrowth and soil in the pan of my life, to discover the gold nuggets through introspection and acknowledgement.
It’s only in my hands to stop watering those weeds, to pull them out slowly and to thank them for a job well done.
The night was dark in places Janet had never seen before.
Perhaps the black sinkholes on the right, boxy and straight and stacked, where the wall should be were book shelves. The deep oval corner – striated like muslin at the ends in grays and dark black golds – above the door (this much she knew) was the spot where light dissipates the most, an ominous black nothing where fear could creep in if you stared too long. This is the hole through which she came, muddled and unsure and stumbly, locked by arms, or lips, or hips with the sound behind her back now, rising and falling like the tide of the ocean when the moon was new and she had stood on the coast all those years back, wondering where the sand dried and the water wetted with each swell.
Janet knew the sound in her ear was resting, rested – unlike her body, the legs especially, twitching with mismovement, restlessness. Looking about the room, eyes darting sporadically, surveying the corner and side she could see without moving from her back indented into mattress soft, Janet looked for a clock and instead found numbers floating where sleep should have come so many hours before. Invisible numbers… but tangible, reachable, decipherable – 4:30 a.m.? 5:15 a.m.? 6:00?
She waited for a faint hint of dawn on the ceiling. She waited for a bird singing the new day’s first song. She waited for a thwap, a thunk, a whack on the floor above her to signal what to do next in this still dark world.
We share kisses like handed-down recipes,
covered in scribbled notes
and spills of former loves and lusts.
We modernize old dishes:
add the hiss of steam,
a gurgle of hunger,
the sweetness of cinnamon,
a dash of salt.
Licking each other’s lips, we test the temperature,
improvise the seasoning.
Hands knead the pulse of me, squeezing and guiding,
flattening and rolling.
Soft pecks and slight tongue,
the backs of knees,
palms on cheeks.
From where we’ve grown, life lines of ingredients
formulate our mixtures – they comfort and warm.
They reminisce of campfire cookouts,
coal stove winters, stovetop holidays.
We learn balance:
when to hold back,
when to add one more pinch.
Improvising and substituting,
bettering what was already made better,
we ready these instructions
for our own childrens’ melting and cooking,
fumbling and burning.
I want to tell a story with full words and slight stops, but it’s too high in the throat. I have to throttle it out into full drive.
Where it started I can’t say- a silent stare into your eyes, a touch that tattooed my skin, a laugh that jumped into the air and never broke. I sing the songs I’ve hung onto for so long, downcast and depressing, and they have lost meaning, they fly into the background, crash, lay flat, and deflate. The music of vision and purpose, one step in front of the other; a defined path and a case for setting it right on foot, out of the wilderness.
Where it starts- a morning yawn that mouths your name, a stretch that shakes of you, a sound that mimics the crisp Spring.
Lost and grasping, I need to refresh this blank page and start writing, but the blank page collects my imagination and pushes it to months of growing older, to hours of talking it over, to seconds of hanging on.
I want to tell the story with full words and slight stops of who we’ve become to each other, of old eyes seeing new again, of old souls finding home. Of saying good morning and meaning it first, of stepping off this brake and enjoying the ride, of turning fear into life.
This story gets written from here, our tongues in their proper places, our lips pursed to start, our throats clear and ready to scream.
I still feel that syrup stain
Of sweat and time hanging
On my body; hands smoothing
Skin, feeling out the way;
We work. The twirl of sheets and
Fingertips, catching glimpses of skin;
Small etchings of sound popping
From our lips. It’s the harsh and flow
Of it, the temperate weather gone awry
To welcome unloneliness and sound
In the beating heart.
Scraping the ice from my windshield one morning: “You know, this could be the rest of your life.”
Spending my first Easter away from my family, I drove with Alan to his parents’ house in Skylar, Virginia. While Alan’s parents lived most of the week in Baltimore, running a successful graphic design firm in an old brownstone – the top floors of which had been Alan’s childhood home – they spent elongated weekends from Thursday to Sunday night at their hundred-acre homestead.
On the way there, we had dinner and some beers at Ruby Tuesdays to shrug the week off. Alan was driving but the few beers shouldn’t have fazed him, considering the amount he drank normally. It was actually the two Sparks he purchased at the first convenience store we found over the Virginia state line. Virginia sells beer and alcohol in single servings next to ice teas and sodas, unlike most of Maryland. Sparks is a malt beverage energy drink in a tall can that could be mistaken for an Arizona ice tea can in a moving vehicle.
I was aware that once Alan started drinking, he couldn’t stop. So instead of making a big to-do about my fear in the convenience store, I kept grabbing the can out of the car’s cup holder and taking the longest chugs I could. I wasn’t supposed to down any energy drinks, since I had a history of heart palpitations but, still decked out in my business suit from work, I didn’t intend to show up with him drunk. By imbibing, I figured I could ease the blow to his father, who Alan had mentioned on multiple occasions, didn’t agree with Alan’s drinking because his grandfather died of it. We could be similarly buzzed and pass it off as okay.
Alan’s parents were barely awake when we arrived at 10 p.m. They barely paid attention to me and luckily left us to ourselves, but not before showing me to the separate quarters where I would sleep. It wasn’t until the next day while touring the house that I would understand the size of the home. Alan and I stayed in one wing of the home, while his parents’ wing seemed easily the size of my parents’ modest two bedroom single-family home. The bottom floors of Alan’s parents’ house were transparent glass, surrounded outside by fertile beds of flowers, ferns and rosebushes. (I later learned that the care taken with the gardens earned it a feature in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens.) The library spanned two-times the size of the downstairs of my rental row house in Baltimore and featured a sliding ladder. The house also boasted a projector room, a sitting room, a living room, multiple dens, two kitchens, a greenhouse, a game room, multiple offices, more than seven bedrooms and probably more bathrooms than I can count. While I walked around with my mouth agape and in wonderment at the luxury of the home, Alan mentioned that he wanted nothing to do with the house and hoped his parents would leave it to someone else in their will, although he was an only child.
Once Alan’s parents’ went to bed that night, we changed into jeans and fleece jackets. He pulled a 24-pack of Miller Lite cans out of his trunk after telling me we were going for a walk. I didn’t want to drink and disrespect his parents whom I just met, but he shoved beer cans into my pockets anyway like I was a pack mule after his own were full, telling me if I didn’t drink them, he would anyway. And anyway, it was a long walk around the lake.
The full moon lit up the night and we were able to make our way without flashlights. We walked and walked and at some point, to show how far we were from his house yet still in the middle of nowhere, we howled at the moon. We made our way around the entire lake, making slight detours up craggy paths, as he pointed out the camping ground his father rented to the local boy scouts; to the limestone quarry where we would go shoot guns with his father on Easter (a tradition); to the archery range in a tiny grove; to the cottage where his father’s gardener lived during the summer and fall.
By the time we returned through his parents’ garage, we were still drinking, finishing the 24-pack. I figured if I couldn’t beat him, I might as well join him. Alan was doing his little dance, walking forward and backward as he did most of the time when he had surpassed his limit, like a lunatic in an asylum. He picked at his beard as his voice rose louder and louder and as I tried to turn the conversation away from politics and to the notion that we should probably go to bed. And that’s when he said it.
“I mean, I don’t know what you expect of me, Ann. I can’t even fall in love. So if you’re hanging around thinking that’s going to happen, it won’t. I mean, I’m an addict. It would take me hitting bottom to stop and I don’t want to stop. I mean, I enjoy your company but you should really walk away. I mean, I wouldn’t blame you, even if I might cry a little. Really, if you’re waiting around thinking I’m going to marry you or something, don’t hold your breath.”
The next morning I woke without Alan, dressed quickly, and slunk down the steps with a book. I said good morning and Alan’s mom nodded, but his father stared at his newspaper on the other end of the 12-seat feast table. I downed coffee and read until Alan came down. Alan’s father still made no motion towards me at all. He uttered no words, asked no questions. Wondering whether our late night had angered him beyond our own redemption, suddenly a young female voice peeped, “Good morning.” It was Nina.
I cringed, upset that Alan hadn’t mentioned she would be around for the weekend. She was technically Alan’s adopted sister, but not legally. Alan’s parents had taken her under their wing as patrons, this daughter of their drug-addled gardener who couldn’t get his life straight. Still in her early twenties, they paid for her fiddle lessons, her living expenses, and her horse training and grooming classes required for her job on a local farm. As if I didn’t feel enough of a ghost, Nina and Alan’s dad started a hefty conversation full of energy and purpose about music and tone, topping it off with an impromptu fiddle jam at the breakfast table.
Soon enough, Alan announced we were driving to Charlottesville to visit the University of Virginia campus, about an hour drive from Skylar. I, naively, was excited to check out the shopping in Charlottesville and actually visit the UVA campus. Instead, we ended up on a bar hop through the open-air Downtown Pedestrian Mall. We bought hats at an outside cart vendor, ate oysters shucked fresh at a local joint, and drank too much to have driven so far. I was ready to leave once Nina started trying to pick out college kids with backpacks who might have some drugs she could buy from them.
None of us were in any state to drive anywhere, but we didn’t want to be late for dinner, so we stopped at Harris Teeters after Alan convinced me to make my signature squash and zucchini sauté. Speeding the back roads of Virginia, we screamed Hank Williams III songs at the top of our lungs like transplanted country kids with nothing to lose– “Because I’m drinkin’, druggin’: I’m havin’ lots of fun./ I always carry round my loaded shotgun./ If I think I’m gonna have a bad time/ I got a little bit of smoke an’ a whole lotta wine.”
Whipping around country turns at almost 100 miles an hour, it’s only a matter of time before the law takes notice. When we heard the siren, Alan slowed to a crawl, but parked on a straight stretch, the car sticking out into the lane by a good few feet. His tactic prevented the rookie cop from coming to his window to question him, since that would endanger him to other fast cars curving the bend. Lucky one of us was thinking – one whiff of our driver and we would have all been hauled to jail. I looked down at the empty floor mat as I rolled down the window, and Alan’s deep voice turned into a Southern twang.
“Ah shore em surry sir. Ahm not frum ‘round here, but ma parents just moved ut hure. Ahm still nut shore ‘bout the speed limit, so ah shore do ‘pologize. Ah didn’t reelahze…”
Alan was bursting out of his seams to tell his parents about our close call and bond with his father over the wit he employed with the rookie cop. They pretended that we weren’t completely inebriated. It was undeniable through the meal that we would be hurting the next day – Alan drank all of the dinner wine, practically out of the bottle, and I put so much pepper in my sauté, since drunkenly I forgot that I had actually added it, that the food was inedible. Unimpressed and angry, his parents spit the squash and snap pea pods out, making no motion to hide it.
Alan’s parents invited us to the projection room to look at slides of their recent month-long trip to Cambodia, probably to keep us from drinking anymore, and Alan passed out snoring on the couch. I excused myself to my own room, but woke up hours later to Alan in bed, waking me with kisses and slowly trying to take off my clothes, whispering that his parents would never know that we shared a bed.
Easter morning: After a breakfast of croissants and assorted fruit, and a multitude of expresso shots to make us human again, Alan’s dad took us to the gun vault in the basement, picked out an array of shotguns and revolvers, and led us around the lake to his water-filled limestone quarry. The sun was still warming the day up and Alan’s father threw a few corks down thirty-feet to the surface. This was corking: you aimed to shoot the bullet between the bottom of the cork and the surface of the water, hoping to break the boundary and pop the cork up into the air.
Alan and his father shot for an hour without much luck, before his father reluctantly handed the shotgun over to me with a side eye. He stepped back with a slight smile on his face. Without saying a word, I loaded the bullets into the chamber, aimed and shot. The first cork of the day popped nearly ten feet into the air, and I abruptly handed the gun back to Alan’s dad. Alan exclaimed, “Good shot, almighty!” Alan’s dad looked at me and nodded, “I don’t know where you learned to shoot like that, but that’s good corking.”
After a light lunch, we packed the car for the three-hour drive home. Alan’s mother brought me out yellow tulips in a crumpled up aluminum foil vase, like some kind of consolation prize for showing up. I thanked her for the hospitality already sure I’d never see these people again. Alan and I drove home silent as the sky darkened. Laughs peeped from our mouths as we began listening to old comedic radio shows broadcast on NPR, but we were separate in our amusement. The tension followed me as I jumped out of the car, saying a quick goodnight and carrying my own luggage up my porch.
When a friend called the next day and asked how the trip had went, I muttered a subdued “fine” and changed the subject. He knew not to ask anything else.
One late night, in bed, in the dark: “You know when I first met you at the AIGA event and Matt said you two had dated, I told him I was surprised: that I thought he could do way better than you.”
I wore the low-cut halter dress: the one with the black and white two-tone Hawaiian flowers and a hem that rested on the floor when I wore flip flops. I didn’t start the day in it: Drinking on Friday had started at three p.m., slipping out of work to “shoot the castle” – our code phrase for rounding the corner and meeting within minutes of each other at the bar with the pinball machine. Those times were like flight and time travel – days of dried brain active enough to respond to simple tasks and forget them almost instantly, followed by nights of soggy brain, too oversaturated by drink to register anything but the pleasure, the beat, the churn of life.
Changes of venue – signaling the transition from afternoon drinking to serious night drinking – called for a change of mood. During the day, I wore jeans and T-shirts typing out financial advice for a do-it-yourself investment newsletter for men wearing JoS. A. Banks suits and Rolex watches; but at night I preferred to sex it up a bit – black dresses, messy hair, black eyeliner. I started to remind myself of one of those shallow girl magazines, which when not dispensing wisdom about how to give your guy an orgasm six different ways, doled out advice about modifying your “day look” into a “night look” with a sparkly blazer and a pair of slingbacks. Time traveling the five minutes through the city in a steady straight drive to home, I tidied up around eight p.m. and traveled back down the winding artery of the city to park in Canton – party central for college kids and adults who weren’t ready to let the college days go. As I walked through the square toward a bar I still don’t know the name of, I knew what I was doing. And maybe I even knew what I was going to get out of it. It’s only a matter of time before a fragile, fractured girl takes some man up on his offer and goes home with him. It’s only a matter of time before a girl, no longer in possession of what society views right and wrong, takes the ugly turn to give up her body for the sake of being seen as beautiful, even if it’s just for a few minutes in the dark. Of course I knew what I was doing – walking the square, pretending not to pay attention to the men staring at me as I sexily diverted my eyes. The true question was who I would choose to roll around in the muck with, arms over legs, after shots of whiskey.
What we knew about each other: he was an artist and I was a writer. He couldn’t walk straight and I kept tripping over my dress. He sat on the front steps and I on top of him. His fingers were thin and soft and my skirt was inching higher. He filtered out the people walking down the sidewalk and I didn’t. He didn’t turn the light on in the basement as we tried to sneak past everyone passed out on the couches and I almost fell down the steps. He wanted to get out of there and back to my place and I had the keys. Fingers fumbling claim on his body, I felt free. He thought he was in control but I really was. Even in the morning, even before our eyes opened. He didn’t ask my last name and I didn’t care about his.
We drank a pot of coffee in a daze, I sitting on my small stuffed couch in the back of the living room and him on the old teak chairs I snagged from a salvaging project on a local theatre. My legs were tucked under me, coffee cup on my knee. He looked at me and we spoke spaces in between small talk. Finally he admitted – he needed a ride to the light rail station.
I dropped Ted off and didn’t ask for his number. He didn’t look back as he slid into his car and doubled past me out of the exit. I immediately called my gay best friend Jason, boasting hungover nonsense about the arms of a Greek god who held me, about animalistic man and cunning woman, about the weight and noise of the shuffling of sheets.
If you could see who I just let out of my bed…
I forgot if you burned and itched my lips and tongue
when I first kissed you years ago,
so I tested by holding your
in my palm
and lifted you to mouth,
not to kiss you,
but to smell your
nature-bred gashes and scars.
You smelled like
when I held you up for me to see
the invisible teeth you used
to feed on spring day breezes.
I remember tasting the last drops of your
lightning-seared plumpness when
we passed around the dead harvest
after a rain-soaked and thundered day
that swept you halfway around your mother
after splitting her trunk
and sinking her to unhinged burial.
I mashed and smoked through your juices
of burnt sunset in orange and golden,
listing on my tongue your devoured sweetnesses and pleasings.
I wanted to roll and shake with you, sleepily within dreams, and
lick and chew your meat until it rotted out my tastebuds so none other
would sweat or spit or juice my cheeks
I didn’t remember if you burned and itched my lips and tongue
when I first kissed you,
but you came in slow and steady and scholarly,
showing me how to love
without a stinging sound.
In winter, there is too much
of rubbing elbows
and knocking knees
without making love.
Our bodies, rusty and frozen from stale winter
drain, click and bang;
our coughs, tiny and half-voiced sentiments,
rise as vapor and disappear.
Cramped, we air out our grievances
like two soggy papers
drying in the sun,
curling in at our sensitive edges.
We share this argument
like a cup of tea,
hot on the tongue,
but comforted to be speaking again.