his fingers trace the curves of my ribs, and he tells me that i am beautiful.

and then i tell myself, i will not eat today.

there is a perverse pleasure in these moments when i catch my body forming anatomical topography where it used to be an unbroken landscape swollen with only soft hills and low rises.  a deep valley here, where my waist hollows out beneath a crest of costal cartilage; a sharp mountain range here, where my hips thrust skyward in bony peaks.  the secret caves surrounding my clavicle; the visible landmarks of my spine.  the cartography of my body carved out of oxygen, water, black coffee, sugarfree gum.

and although he maps me with his hands, lifting me with extraordinary ease, i am still waiting to feel lighter.  light enough for my bones to hollow out,

hollow enough to finally take flight.

 

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bastard, cutter thought, tearing up, trying to speak. bastard to say that to me. you know what you are to me. bastard. he felt his chest hollow, felt as if he were falling inside, as if his very fucking innards were straining for judah.

“love you, judah,” he said. he looked away. “love you. do what i can.” i love you so much judah. i’d die for you. he wept without sob or sound, furious at it, trying to wipe it away.

there is nothing here but the dark and cold.

somewhere subterranean, a man wakes up alone and he is terrified because the texture of the night is a threat. he sits up to the curious sensation of water pressure. his trembling fingers seek heat and hit the frigid edges of metal, the structures of a bunk bed boxing him in as a shelf. his eyes begin to separate the palette of the darkness into shapes and shadows; he realizes he is in a narrow room with six beds slotted above and below on either side of the wall. somewhere there is a table. no windows exist.

somehow the angles are not right.

there is no light and the room is a stolid, rectangular affair. but somehow the man senses that the walls are narrower at the foot of his bunk bed. and it seems like the floor slopes a little too much and the corners of the room collide and overlap with one another. above him the ceiling feels extraordinarily far away, reminiscent of a cathedral dome, and yet when he unfolds himself from the bed he stoops to avoid bumping his head. the dimensions feel unsteady, a sloppy blueprint being discarded and redrawn over and over again.

he feels more fear than curiosity, because somewhere in his ears he still hears the ocean roaring. he knows, unequivocally now, that he is underwater. though the silence is cemetery and the floor below his feet is steady (but isn’t it narrower now on the other side?) there is the feeling of brine on his tongue, salty and swollen.

his feet move him unsteadily and his fingers probe the suggestion of a door.

suddenly everything floods with heat and light. the man estimates three feet between the room he left and the hallway he has entered but somehow there is glittering brightness. the walls are so white and close they blind him, they gleam with polish, bouncing light back and forth between each other in an endless flirtation. there is the smell of cigarette smoke filtering in hazily through the whiteness.

he screws up his face against the chaotic brightness. his skin runs slick and hot.

somewhere a piano trills up and down, ivory and ebony keys jarring together to create a dissonant jazz. it plays backwards and forwards bizarrely. he hears dancing and laughter, raucous shouts punctuating the two. but there is no one in sight down either end of the hall. just the same blistering white walls and floor:

the man has excellent eyes- his pupils retract slowly and absorb the shocking flood of light. it is enough to see that the hallway suffers like the previous room. it does not match itself. the visible ends melt like candles guttering out; the walls spill their own guts against the floor, white on white on white.

he spins to his left and starts running down the hall. he moves so slowly it feels like the air is parting only one molecule at a time. he runs toward the noise of the crowd, hopeful for the sight of people. by now he knows he is on a ship; the hallway is inconveniently narrow and he sees life preservers hung neatly in niches along the walls. the sight of the puffy vests makes his flesh crawl like a dying animal dragging its carcass for miles. it is a slow, creeping fear that threatens to envelope his entire body as he forces himself against the atmosphere in this comically slow sprint.

every fourth step brings him closer to the noise. the fifth step sends it back behind him, from where he started.

he stops when he passes his ninth set of life vests. his legs ache with the failures of increasing age and his chest is caving in on itself. he staggers against the wall, breathing heavily, but no sounds issue from his panting mouth. he is as mute as the sea here, and he pounds his fist angrily in frustration.

a vest falls from its hanger, collapsing at his feet. emblazoned across the front in small letters is a fussy, slightly crooked font. it reads property of white star line.

the fear solidifies in his stomach, an ugly curdled thing; he knows where he is now and why he is scared.

the man stands in the oddly shifting hallway of the rms titanic and listens to the piano play once again in reverse.

“as i stared at the list, i began to panic. suddenly, everything about our life seemed predictable yet meaningless. it was like fitting all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle only to find the completed result was a reproduction of corny art, great effort leading to trivial disappointment. sure, in some ways we were compatible- sexually, intellectually, professionally. but we weren’t special, not like people who truly belonged to each other. we were partners, not soul mates, two separate people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life. our whole wasn’t greater than the sum of our parts. our love wasn’t destined. it was the result of a tragic accident and a dumb ghost trick. that’s why he had no great passion for me.”

six years from now, it will still hurt.

you will grow older, you will grow stronger.  you will stop writing unsent letters in your outlook drafts, in your daily planner, on the backs of grocery receipts, across the pages of books he used to read.  you will have sex with strangers, friends, lovers.  you will remember some of them, and call the rest by the wrong names.  you will vacation in tokyo and go skydiving in kansas and grow your bangs out and smile more easily.  you will feel lighter and breathe deeper and your hands will grip the steering wheel without drawing your knuckles white against bone.  you will finally change your last name back, standing in long lines at the dps watching excited teenagers pretend to look jaded as they pose for their driver’s license photos.  you will stop watching the calendar for dates that used to matter, seasons he used to own, memories that used to burn deep.  you will stop finding shirts in the back of the closet that still smell like him- and the ones that do you will fold up and donate.  you will put those old playlists back on and learn how to dance to them without faltering, and spend your evenings drinking cheap wine and slowly falling in love with your life.

but six years from now, it will still hurt.

the doctor asks you to draw a clock.

you sit there helplessly, clutching the ballpoint pen as if it could be a lifesaver, a broken man at 35.  the minutes pass like hours, the nurse’s encouraging smile becomes fixed plaster, and my heart is collapsing slowly inside this room.  inside this room where we have sat for an hour every week.  inside this room with its colorful diagrams of brain tissue and lurid plastic models.  inside this room where your medical chart presides like a long-term resident, swelling up with eulogies for your memories.

inside this room, you raise your hand hesitantly to paper.

you draw eight small circles and stop.

we drive home, unspeaking, your fingers fumbling for mine at traffic lights and i am blinking away tears- pretending to be interested in suburban landscape and passing cars.  my voice breaks an octave higher when i tell you that you’re better, that you’re stronger, that this round of medication will make the difference.

as i pull into the driveway of our house, you look at me in polite puzzlement.  you ask me where we are going.

and for a moment i want to remind you that we are back to this little piece of property we bought 8 years ago, when i was still in grad school and you were starting at the law firm.  and i want to remind you about the picture we took by the mailbox with your arms clasped around my waist, and i am wearing that ludicrous salmon-colored halter dress that i thought looked vintage and quirky.  and i want to remind you of the thrift shop i found the dress in, during our cross-country road trip in your dad’s old ford focus, in that dead strip mall in kansas.  and i want to remind you of the first time we fucked in that car, during that sweltering july evening when all our friends were too drunk in julie’s hot tub to realize the two of us had slipped away.  and i want to remind you of that other summer night the previous year, when we stood alone in that dog park behind my old apartment and kissed beneath the brightest moon i had ever seen.  and you told me you would remember that moment for the rest of your life.

and if of all the ways to lose a person, death is the kindest- then i know that this is the cruelest trick ever designed.  watching you misplace your things, your thoughts, yourself, in slow agonizing layers.  and the doctor tells me to be strong for you, and my family tells me to be positive for you, and i tell myself that all the neural degeneration in the world cannot take the memories of our love away.  but the light of recognition is fading from your eyes, and here in this driveway you stand awkwardly apart from me- a stranger and her husband.

and i say, “honey, we’re home.”