Points of Departure by Corey Ginsberg

close up of crystal clear pool water

The rat floated toward me. His small legs pushed him through the water toward where I lay meditating next to my backyard pool. I jolted up and watched the dark blur skim the surface.

Having found no way out, the rat treaded into the shallow end. I followed, pulling my hair into a loose ponytail as I walked. He looked scared and exhausted; his face repeatedly pushed against the smooth tiles in search of an exit. I had to get him out of the pool else he’d drown, so I stuck a kickboard into the water and waited for him to wade over. Seemingly relieved, he clung to the orange foam and let me lift him.

Once I deposited the rat on the terra cotta tile, I studied him. His body was frail—very young or very old. Patches of gray fur were missing, and that which remained was matted and soaked. The rat panted heavily, his beady stare fixed on my face as if I knew what to do.

* * *

Here were the things Jonathan and I didn’t talk about that spring: how he would be leaving at the end of June for grad school. How much simpler it’s always been for me to be honest on the page rather than aloud. How easy it was, early on, to want to love him. How the eight years I spent without a boyfriend—afraid of commitment, afraid of being vulnerable—made me nervous to be exposed, left me fearing the iterations of nakedness. How I sometimes felt compelled to put on layers to cloak my contours and hoped he wouldn’t notice my distance.

We drank a lot of tequila, watched funny YouTube clips. We shared books and spent hours talking about The House on Mango Street. It was my first time being with a writer.

When discussion veered from the page, though, the script faltered. Like the one-dimensional characters we would have cut in early drafts from our own writing, we glossed over, assumed, maneuvered around. We skirted important scenes without acknowledging the elaborateness of our collective avoidance. Maybe we hoped the unanswered questions would work themselves out. Or that the other aspects of the story would be strong enough to bridge the gaps. Or that we would somehow develop our relationship as much as we developed our prose.

* * *

I couldn’t let him go hungry.

I walked around half-empty gallons of paint as I made my way to the kitchen. Fumes still lingered from the house-painting project, which was nearly complete. Dozens of hours had been spent over the past weeks plastering, sanding, caulking, and coating layer after layer of khaki paint to cover the pink cement. Improving the house felt like the one thing I knew I could control. Being so up-close had allowed me to see every blemish in the plaster, every hairline crack jutting ground to roof, and every hole in the mesh gutters where the rats were getting in.

The rodents had been a problem for months. When re-sealing the holes didn’t work and they scurried through the walls, their incessant chewing ripping apart the night, I didn’t know what to do. The dogs couldn’t sleep with the sounds. Neither could I.

I put chunks of poison on the roof and pretended not to know how they work. Depending on the type used, the rat can die one of three horrible deaths. Either the poison contains anticoagulants, and the rat becomes unable to clot blood and dies of internal bleeding in a few days. Or the chunks are packed with neurotoxins, which attacks the rat’s muscles through its spinal fluid, causing tremors and seizures. Or consuming them leads to Vitamin D toxicosis, which stems from calcium buildup and results in a heart attack a day or two later.

I tried not to think about this as I threw the first round of poison onto the tiles of the roof. This was the only option, I told myself. It had to be done. I saved four chunks and kept them on top of the bookshelf in the living room. It’s best to stagger the rounds of poison for optimal results, which meant more-for-my-money killing. As I made my way toward the kitchen that evening, I saw the sleeve of green cubes sitting there, waiting to be used.

* * *

At dinner one night last winter, waiting for our food, Jonathan referred to his dad’s continuing battle with cancer. This a headline Jonathan seemed to have already filed and locked in a drawer along with the other remnants of his life before I knew him. Like his marriage he never spoke of. Or the tattoo on his arm he got at some point during his rap career, a diamond-shaped symbol that nearly blended into his dark skin. This another piece of Jonathan I’d never have a chance to place. Our Bloomin’ Onion came. He reached for his plate.

At the bar a few weeks later, drunk on margaritas, I told him about the man who tried to rape me in college. About how he chased me, pulled me into the stairwell. How I got away but he found someone else that night, had her on the football field next to my dorm. I told him because I’d written about it and the piece was coming out. I worried he’d read it in a literary journal before I’d mentioned it. His face so much less subtle than his writing. His eyes away from me. The overhead televisions screamed sports at us. We watched from afar.

* * *

The cupboards offered little in terms of rat-friendly fare. I pocketed a spread of Ritz crackers and stale saltines, and took a handful of peanuts from a mostly empty tin.

The rat hadn’t moved from his spot on the pool deck. I placed the offering next to his water-logged coat and took a step back. He eyed me hesitantly, but seemed to need the sustenance too badly to question it. Probably the same way he’d eaten the chunk of poison on the roof—too desperately to hesitate.

It didn’t take the rat much more than a minute to finish all four crackers and several of the nuts. No matter how much he consumed, though, he never appeared to feel better. There was a quake rumbling his body, and his paws could barely hold the last nut in place to raise it to his mouth.

Standing there, I was overwhelmed with the need for him to keep eating. It was desire so base and urgent it was almost consuming. As if I could undo some of the wrong I’d caused. As if there was any way to alter the inevitable.

Once the rat finished the biggest crumbs, I backed away slowly, and went inside to get him more. With pockets full of crackers, I returned to the yard, gently closing the door behind me. But all that remained was a wet puddle where the rat had been. He was gone.

* * *

As I watched Jonathan get call after call from the top grad schools in the country, my surface-half smiled big, hugged him and poured rounds of celebratory toasts. This half was ecstatic, knowing his voice would have a place among the best writers in the country. My writing self told me this must be the first concern. This half made sure to censor the rest of me—the silent side who voiced her objections in muffled bouts of insomnia, miles of over-thinking during long drives to work, and nighttime walks through the neighborhood. This half still struggled to forget the stab last year of being rejected from grad school in poetry. And to ignore Jonathan’s ever-looming departure date. I made sure to keep these two selves apart, and to keep my smile consistent enough to imply a pattern. I never highlighted what would happen in a few months, or underlined it when it whittled into weeks.

Instead, as Jonathan wrote himself out of Miami, I began to quietly revise the ending to my version of the story. This was easier at the time than I’d expected, as both characters were so vague that neither had expressed themselves enough to share the same arc. Despite the potential it once had, the story was going nowhere. No real risks had been taken by either character, though soon he’d be off the page completely and I’d still be in Miami, inferring. Maybe this was where the story should end: with his leaving and my staying. But what about closure? Didn’t what we had—whatever shapeless being it had been—at least have enough definition to cast a shadow?

In the moment, it’s easy to confuse points of departure with endings.

* * *

I found the rat the next morning on the other side of the yard. As I placed the step-ladder on the edge of the lawn next to the remaining exposed spots of the house, I almost stepped on the curled body protruding from a swatch of burnt-out grass.

I poked the rat lightly with the wooden handle of a garden shovel to make sure he was dead. He was. Nothing alive could be clenched like that—convex, belly-up bloated, offering a contorted, final grimace—without being forever suspended in synthetic death snare.

The smell was oppressive, putrid. My hands shook as I jostled him onto the shovel. The stagnant heat made me weepy, but there was still so much to paint. The flies frenzied as I carried him toward the plastic trash bin, my nose buried in the collar of my T-shirt.

Sometimes a meltdown is a luxury I tentatively pencil in, knowing I can, and will, erase it mid-sentence. Breaking down is an indulgence I need to know is possible but will probably not have to be brought to fruition. By the time I acknowledge it as a potential course of action, the impulse subsides and I can usually move on. I climbed onto the chair. I dipped the paintbrush into the tub of paint. And I slathered another layer of primer on the back wall.

There was a sadness I should have been feeling. It registered remotely, a satellite capacity. But the regurgitating rot, combined with my half heat-stroked tremble, made it impossible to concentrate on anything other than ignoring the waft of his decomposing body till trash day. I would be able to ignore it, I knew. By avoiding it.

* * *

The last time Jonathan came to see me I wore a pink, strapless dress. I wore heels. Maybe we can make this work, I thought as I put on eye liner, penciled in my lips.

By then there had been so many mixed signals. Too many nights of him snuggling closer, me turning on my side. Too many days punctuating the time between emails, texts, notes that he’d been thinking of me. By then there was nothing to bind our solo acts except for borrowed DVDs and his last drops of 1800 still in the bottle in the bottom shelf of the freezer. By then, the Us that had seemed so tangible and compelling early on had collapsed into a handful of memorable passages separated by long strings of ellipses.

When he walked in, though, I was floored momentarily by his features. His soft skin and clean shave. The subtle cologne smell hanging onto his button-up shirt. His slow, deliberate stride his arms rhythmically matched. I sometimes forgot in his absence the quiet magnitude of his beauty. Standing there taking him in, all our good moments came back at me and the ellipses fell away.

Maybe this can work.

Our hug was mechanical, forced. The kind you give to someone who may not reciprocate, a lukewarm gesture akin to hugging a neighbor from down the street at a graduation party. As I pulled away, I realized how easy it is to let things devolve.

We ordered in that night, watched a movie perched on our respective couch cushions. When he left a little before ten for the graveyard shift at work, I made him a doggie bag in case he got hungry later. I saw Jonathan to the front porch but didn’t walk out with him. Instead, I watched from behind the storm door as he shuffled away, our last supper dangling in his hand.

* * *

It hit, days later. That’s when things always hit: when it’s too late.

When he was packing box loads of books and winter clothes, getting ready to drive across the country to Minnesota, and I was in my kitchen dicing vegetables. When the rat was rotting in the trash twenty feet away. During the seventieth hour of painting as I stood on a plastic lawn chair and forced the tip of my smallest brush into the corner where the gutter meets the underbelly of the house. It was in those offbeat moments I tried to understand this capacity I have—this horrible capacity—that allows me to care, unconditionally, for that which I’ve already poisoned.

I took the nearly empty fifth of 1800 out of the freezer and drained the last of the syrupy liquor. The smooth swig of alcohol faded into a dull burn as I carried the cold bottle out to the recycling bin in the yard. With my nose plugged, I dumped it on top of the other empty containers and shut the lid. I didn’t let myself look into the trash can next to it.

corey-ginsbergCorey Ginsberg’s work has appeared in such publications as PANK, the cream city review, Third Coast, The Potomac Review, Subtropics, and Puerto del Sol, among others. Corey’s nonfiction has been listed as a Notable in the Best American Essays in 2012 and 2014. Corey lives in Miami and can be followed on Twitter at @CoreyGinsberg11.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Laura Thorne

  3 comments for “Points of Departure by Corey Ginsberg

  1. Exquisite. May I just suggest that you cut that last paragraph as “…that which I’ve already poisoned” is so very powerful. Bravo! A joy to read.

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