She asked me what I thought about food, and I told her I didn’t. I couldn’t remember if I had eaten or not: food was splitting my brain in half. I was sweating through the paper gown, and I wrapped my arms around each other to stop from shivering. I was listening her talk about melatonin in a way that complimented the dance of heart machines from the next room over. But in my head, I was back on that carpeted basement floor where we had met, being passed a bottle of Jack Daniels with his tongue saying pick your poison in my mouth. I don’t know where his hands were, but the blinds painted black and white stripes across my face, and I wanted to remember something else.
Who did this to you?
I made a wager with god that no one would think to ask me that question, but I never collected on it. I imagined god had hand-picked all his poles and bait and gone fishing; I was the fish.
She talked to me in milligrams then: 25s and 50s. Sometimes 75. If 25 was that faded gray t-shirt from an ex-husband with bullet holes and the word marines fading off of it and 50 was the afternoons spent looking at the popcorn ceiling above me when food did not split my brain in half, then 75 was the worst I knew; it came alone. 75 milligrams came in the flash of an iris when the judge realized that there was just a little more truth to what I had said than what he originally thought. And still, I wondered about 100 and 125 and the color white. If red was a mouth on a shoulder, white was the other half of clomipramine that wasn’t Van Gogh yellow, and the absence that took over hospital walls that tasted like suffocation. Emily had told me once that there were six songs she listened to about being 17, and double as many songs about being 18, but I didn’t count my years that way. This was the year of 50.
When she’d worn out the sound of numbers, she switched back to words, but I had all but memorized them. I don’t remember if I said it out loud, but I thought about that man in the restaurant that one Sunday morning when the sun was a peeled tangerine. He could have been thirty or fifty, buying discounted pints and boxed burgers. His skin folded over itself and I didn’t know what I thought about it, but I don’t know that I had a thought about anything in those days. When Dale tripped over himself and his brain did somersaults, he called to tell me that nothing had actually mattered, and I had taken his word for it. And so, it was the third time I’d written deluxe no tomato on my lined writing pad that he told me I had beautiful brown eyes. They remind me of my son’s, he said and the rest of the morning he called me kiddo. I was sick but I wasn’t horrible. He told me about his son and how he hadn’t seen him in decades. I thought about the plateaus of the Grand Canyon, and how one goes on living after feeling that deeply. But even gaping survival was beautiful to me then in the only way I understood it, and I imagined the man’s son had told his kids that his father had died many years ago, even though he sat in front of me, drinking black coffee. I said healing was like the way some people flash-roast espresso beans and the man told me about his wife, Tara, packing all of her clothes in a vintage suitcase. She had left her phone but kept the ring and he thought she might’ve tied it around her neck. It isn’t a story of fault, he told me. Some things just don’t work out. I was—I am a deeply flawed man.
I wanted to know if what had happened to me was sin or flaw, but I figured god might still be fishing. So, I thought about the word wife instead; I wondered if she kept that suitcase in the black of her closet, as the thing that marked her last days as someone else’s anything. When he asked about me, I set the pad down, closing the worn leather binding down on itself, thinking about how people used me like a scratching post. Now I thought about 75s and 25s and the numbers threated to evict me from my head. I was sick, but I wasn’t horrible. When I handed him the check, he said You know kiddo, you have eyes that have seen the world, and they’re kind that way. But there’s something else there too. Your eyes — I’ve never seen ones so deep inside themselves as yours.
I looked at her with those eyes, but she didn’t see me. She wrote something down in her tiny scrawl, came up behind me and ran her hands down my spine, and asked me to breathe in and out. That’s when she told me about the rest of the numbers. With the first breathe in it was 60s and 10s, and with the last breath out it was 300s. And I had been wrong: 75 was just scratching the surface. She said she’d see me in three weeks, but to call if I needed anything before then. Even, she said, if it’s just a little extra help staying alive. When I put back on my shirt, I saw how red the skin between my collar bones was and I remembered that when we’d met, he had told me he would teach me how to hope with his hands around my neck.
Walking down the steps, the world all around me was dirty. We were alike in that sense, each of us and the world and I were covered in a layer of dust. I had noticed in my weekly visits over the years that the tinfoil sun sometimes hit the tips of the icy tree branches just wright and they looked like glass. I thought that when god tired of fishing he’d breathed those trees of glass right outside the Catholic Church—just so someone knew he could make something that was meant to shatter. Those days when I walked, my pockets rattled with drugstore pills and it reminded me of the shifting pens on his desk that day I had asked him if he thought I was crazy.
I mean… isn’t everyone a little bit crazy in their own way? He’d said it like he wondered it of himself too, but I knew he fell asleep on cotton sheets he cleaned twice a month and smiled at his wife from across the dinner table. I knew he never felt like his thoughts were steam clinging to the lid of his body. Red was not his mouth on her shoulder, because he’d never wanted like that. To him, red was just red, and sometimes orange was green. But white was always, only white. He’d said it was possible to only love someone with half a heart, and I was sure he was a little in love with me, or at least as much as anyone could be when they slept to a different person at night. He was a little in love with me—that’s the only reason anyone had for not just coming out
and saying it. He’d say When I see you, all I can think is ‘good god.’ And I told him god went fishing because he didn’t want to fit into any language; he didn’t want to be a footnote to anything with a name like ours. Love made everything else small, even god, but I don’t know what half a love did. And then, the world was cold again.
Maybe we hadn’t met at that house party. Maybe it had been the day on the stairwell. I said is this real? Is this real? like a chorus, and he assured me it was. It was before the year of 25, even, and the day was perfect. His wife had just found out about the baby, and I was sitting on the corner steps reading a title-less book, where sunlight kissed the floor haphazardly. He could’ve missed me by a minute and a half, and he would’ve but in a hurry to get home he’d forgotten his keys. When he came back he laughed at me, sitting on the floor with all my notes in the margins and I mistook him for a man in love the way he said I never thought I’d be this excited for a Thursday. Later, they told me he no longer had a wife, and I thought that meant she had finally
I’d been learning that a lot could happen in a minute and thirty seconds, and he reminded me the way his hands left bruises on my arms. I started to lose my breath in the mornings, like a steel hook was lodged in between my ribs and I called to ask her about the 75. They told me to drink water and it was all afterwards. When I hung up the phone, he punched me square in the mouth. I started to think about 100, and the ways it would move around in my body, if I could hide behind it. It was too clean of a number and unlike the numbers before it, I didn’t have to wonder if I’d settle on it; I knew I wouldn’t. My jaw locked sometimes after that, and when it was windy, I dug the heels of my boots into the ground, just so I would not fly away, but I no longer wore that paper gown. That was two years before I met that man in the restraint and he told me I was too smart, but he never said for what.
I wondered about that wife of his long after I’d stopped wondering about him. He’d taught me about sex, but I was sure she had taught him first. He didn’t like my body, but it was impossible to put a mouth on a mind. I drank boxed wine that year when god went on his annual fishing trip and it was bitter and a bruised cheekbone purple. I still went to see her sometimes, but I kept my shirt on. It was the year of 100 and sometimes I got blind and angry. It was odd, the way anger stopped all of me, but it was beautiful the way I hated. I fell in love with all my rage until he pulled me by the hair down a flight of stairs, and then my anger was subordinate, and I learned to not cry. When the weeks were strong, I thought about us in bed together, and he said it was all in my head with his fingers mocking me the way they ran down my face when he said god, I love that wild mind of yours. But mostly, I thought about that word wife and I wondered if he kissed her with the whole of his mouth. I was sick—that’s why no one would tell me I was also horrible.
When we drove down the highway, my hair would dance around my face, and I would laugh until the wind had stolen my breath. It was the only time he looked at me like I was the whole universe stuck in a body and he said we are living. I told him I was merely reacting. He was teaching me spite when he wouldn’t touch me, I went skinny dipping, and he held my head under the rushing water. That day the ocean seethed, and his wife sat at home in the
armchair by the window waiting for his car in the driveway. Before he took me home, he kissed me behind gritted teeth, and I asked him if he believed that someone could be completely ruined.
He said that was what love did, and that one day he’d kill me. But to me, that would not be ruin.
When my mother saw the bruises around my stomach, she clicked her tongue. I would’ve left a man who didn’t care if I lived or died. I told her this love was furious and the only thing I knew for sure was that when love hurt the only thing to do was press in. I said I used to kiss him when he hit me, because before any of it, he told me he liked how my brain worked. We had met in an art museum and his hands had cuts like birch trees. I took him to the bookstore in Champaign three blocks over, where books were jammed in every spare space and he hoisted me up on the rolling ladder. His hands held my waist as he pulled the ladder down the long aisled and the clerk slept at the glass desk. He waited until I was drunk to say: I’d read you…If you wrote something, I’d read it. And if you really wanted, I’d tell you what I think about. That was the year where colored sticky notes were on every surface of my bedroom. I like the way your brain works; he’d said every month that first year. I wondered now, how he was so sure it did.
I drove out to the park with the orange smiley-face painted on yellowed-white cinder block walls and smoked 8 cigarettes the day he said his wife had lost the baby. I imagined her body had the same colored patterns mine did, and it was the last thing I remembered of that year. A little while later, she talked to me about fault. It was the year that the fishing line broke and god came back early. I made up stories for all of the scars that stayed, and I often wondered if he was afraid of falling into himself. She said it I didn’t think so much life would start to make sense again. But I wasn’t sure it was supposed to make any sense. I wasn’t sure if it was a kiss or a punch, the way she dismissed all my thinking, and before then, I had never known them to be different things. She wrote down in a pad when I said these things, but she wrote the most when I asked her if she had ever felt inhaled by another human being.
If he had cracked three of my ribs instead of breaking them, I would have won that wager with god. Or if he’d hit me so hard, I hadn’t been able to breathe because my bones were on the verge of falling down and rattling around inside like cheap plastic, they wouldn’t have asked for a name. But they did, and I gave one, and god went fishing. In the courtroom crossword—a 25 type of year, he’d look me in the eye like a stranger and then I didn’t know if it happened or not. My life felt like the sting of a tongue after pomegranate seeds, and the only word I said for months was wife. They told me she didn’t matter, but I knew that just meant they couldn’t find her. In that office, she talked to me about fault once more. I wondered if I wasn’t sick, if the fault would be mine and she said I had to forgive myself for the things I did not know. But I had always been a little smarter than I seemed, and I thought about his wife.
In the years that followed, I realized they didn’t tell me a lot of things about the 25s and the 300s, or anything in between. I thought about 125 like Aphrodite, and they never talked to me about alcohol like it too was a person who could stretch his long fingers around my neck. They didn’t tell me chocolate would not be sweet anymore, but I’d still try to manipulate the taste of it every morning. They did not say the lawyers would say the names of all the milligrams and the syllables would bounce of the walls like shame. I did not know that I would always remember the last time I saw him when he wore loafers, and he kicked me so hard my skin smelled like leather. They never said that smell would never come off of me, and they didn’t talk about the nights where he would meet me in the middle of my pillow. When the trial finished, I walked into the rushing lights of that highway he always drove me to, and I remembered screaming and the making of reds for their white hallways, but I don’t know when I stopped. They did not tell me where I was, but it was the year of 125.