Finalist, 2018 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
His death happens like this:
He’s not wearing a helmet. The back wheel of his motorcycle slips. His brain glitters on the gravel. His skin bubbles when his leg catches on the exhaust. He goes alone, regretful.
I read about it a few days later. I come across Ortega Highway in an article, or maybe I hear San Juan Capistrano on the news and I start to pay attention. Or maybe it’s a friend who sends me a link because I don’t watch the news. I haven’t worked out these details yet, but his death happens like this—on a winding highway above Lake Matthews. I’m eating breakfast when I hear about it. I smile to myself and take another bite of my oatmeal (assuming he dies in the winter).
I do wonder who will take care of the dog, the cats. If his mother relapsed, or died of cancer like he thought she would. Did he grow out his hair? Return the paint can?
I think about the mugs and the wooden pallet that held up our bed. I remember sitting at the kitchen with a fuller body, shaved legs, a cheap floral smell that wasn’t mine. I was always coated in sugar and uncomfortably silent. I made faces in the mirror when he went to sleep. I alphabetized his records only when he was looking. I dusted his Nazi memorabilia when I ran out of things to clean.
I haven’t worked out the details on how or when he dies, but I find myself weeping as I create glittered messes after finding an old photo of him wrapped in a green scarf. I’m unpacking my winter clothes because I need them here—I need them here in this house I just bought with my husband. We have two cats. I practice yoga. We are far from California. We talk about the orange tree and we don’t talk about the orange tree. We talk about and we don’t talk about the man who grew it.
The last time I thought about him was when I lived in Seattle. That’s actually a lie—I think about him quite often. In fact, I think about him on the 3rd of every month when I receive an automated email from my loan provider. But the last time I felt like this—thick and pitted, was in Seattle. I found a list I wrote perfectly preserved in one of my favorite books. In Seattle, I still have this compulsion to swim deeper into those depths of black and blue despair. It was that same sick craving that lead me to read my notebooks.
I rode my bike for miles around Madison Park. I wasn’t sure if I was mistaking the panic of still being there with the thought of missing him. I remember the air smelled like soap as I recited my notebooks out loud.
He’s into history.
The gun behind the headboard protects the cats.
Turn around. Count the bobby pins.
We disrupt a home into floating dust, wooden frames and bookshelves built from fevers.
Don’t ask to turn on the air conditioning. He’s not into history. He’s a racist.
Our parts cinched and severed. He laughs when he sees dead things.
We chant spells, speak on science, lie naked and wash oranges in the bathtub.
He painted the walls green for me.
I find myself feeling regretful as I ride my bike—regretful of not writing more, writing better. I ride my bike. I cry. I want to fill my throat with dirt.
Here are the things I hope I’m buried with:
- Green scarf
- The photo of two coffee mugs on a patio ledge in the woods
- Fifteen thousand dollars (with interest) I borrowed on my student loans to fund our start-up
- My chest cavity (or what’s left of it)
Here is an actual list I wrote. It’s the one I found that night:
- Use sour cream when you make mashed potatoes (it makes him happy)
- Pick flowers then press them in your journal (it shows you have interest in something, anything)
- Don’t talk about bad things
- Water the front of the house twice a day
- Remember how you felt when he said he would propose
- Remember how you felt when you were both stoned laughing about lunch meat
- Remember you two in Chicago—with that little boy at cloud gate—his wooden horse on wheels. You two by Lake Michigan, talking about blonde kids, a desert house, him moving to the city with you. The way he talked about Montana. Him telling you, I think I need to buy more dress shirts.
- Remember how this feels instead of how you feel when he runs out of gas. How you fumble with your phone when he tells you to look up tow truck. When he yells at you to look up a tow truck.
- He talks about your body the way you wish you could. He says it feels like thick liquid. He says your chest smells like dried roses. He writes down that your hips carry a dark weight– a weight he could inhale for the rest of his life.
- His hands smell like lemons
I was working towards my master’s degree when we lived things out. I lied a lot, especially to my parents. I told them there was this man who was smart. I told them he was an entrepreneur. I didn’t tell them about the money I gave him. I didn’t tell them about how he yelled or how poorly he wrote poetry. Those things didn’t seem to matter. I did tell them about the birds he kept on his porch. I didn’t tell them that when they sang, I imagined their tiny lungs filling with pollen and sugar from the sky. They didn’t care for his tattoos, his shaved head, or the gages in his ears. I couldn’t tell them how being around him made me write more. My dad told me I could do better. My mom said he seemed nice.
Imagining his death is a lot simpler than treating these recurring episodes I have. I say treating because it feels like something that should be curable.
I’ve only ever been able to describe him as parasitic. I feel like I still carry black spots over my body. Melting flesh and hot, waxy holes pattern my arms, my back, my neck and I scream out tiny bugs. They have made a home in my holes, they swim in my heart, spot their antennae under my fingernails and they breed. Like waves, they float on my walls in a metallic hue until enough time passes and the symptoms go dormant. I’ll clear up and then there’s a photo. My body pieces back and then I find a scarf. Someone mentions drying roses as a means of preservation and I either become nauseous or mute. It’s all very cyclical and sad and it has taken me a long time to accept that all of it is okay.
Those birds, that bed, the porch—none of it was mine. I am both ashamed and exhausted at my inability to recognize manipulation and abuse as it was happening. I tried my best to wrap it into poetic phrases—phrases worked and re-worked to appear less ruined, but it was not romantic, it was heartbreaking.
Rewriting and replaying reels of his death does not make me feel guilty—it makes me feel safe. It makes me feel safe because there is always that intense fear he will show up in my backyard one day—grab my face tenderly and say, I’m sorry. You look great. Have you had dinner yet? He would make tea and set a bouquet of narrowleaf milkweed on the window ledge above my kitchen sink. He would have the paint can in hand. He would learn how to grow citrus indoors.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Marek Edelman