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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.

 

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.”

dear sophie,

i think i am safe now. for the time being. we’ve holed up in a costco, me and rajeesh. he wasn’t much of a help, honestly, scrambling around behind me all panicked and sweaty for most of the way here. i think he’d be a goner in under five minutes if he were left on his own, but i couldn’t bear to leave him stuck in that wendy’s alone. i have this stupid thought- probably absorbed from too many movies and comic books- that maybe he’ll be indebted to me in some way, might save my life in turn sometime down the line. for now, he’s curled up by the deli, eating rotisserie chicken with his hands and crying.

there are other people here too, survivors who were smart enough to seek out a secure shelter with supplies. definitely not enough people to exhaust the warehouse anytime soon, but things might get tense. there’s an older korean guy, i don’t remember his name. park something. i don’t know how he got here safely- he only has a bike and a bread knife. i hope it doesn’t sound racist, but he sort of reminds me of your dad. he seems to like me more though. he was a real help in getting the other survivors organized. pulling down mattresses, setting up pretty good semblences of living spaces. he keeps talking about going back for his wife and son, bringing them here. people are trying to convince him not to go back out, but he’s stubborn.

there are a few families, a russian couple with a young daughter. they argue a lot, and i feel bad for the kid. there’s a older guy, clint, who’s a high school football coach. he’s been the muscle man, very useful in helping me and mr. park get stuff down from shelves and set up the blockade around the warehouse exits. his son is about my age, but isn’t handling the situation well. he spends most of his time alone in the produce room crying. i think his mom died on their way here. there’s also another lady, maybe in her late 30s, with a teenage daughter. both of them seem pretty high maintanence- they were way excited about the supply of shampoo and immediately set up camp in that area. we’ve had to yell at them a few times to not waste water. the mom’s been giving me looks, pretty suggestive ones. it’s been two weeks since shit really hit the fan, and i think she’s already wanting to repopulate the planet with me. gross.

i miss you. a lot. of course there’s an endless supply of office supplies here, something no one else was interested in. i have all these notebooks, and i’m going to write you a letter every day if i can. when i get out of here, i’ll find a way to get them to you. i don’t really know how people sent stuff to each other before the postal service, honestly. i assume they sent messengers on horses. maybe there will still be horses alive. i don’t know if they eat animals- they don’t in most zombie movies i’ve seen. if so, i’ll find a horse and get to you. all the cars i saw on my way here were abandoned and have gridlocked most of the roads. that scared me, in a really unsettling way. been dreaming about them, rows and rows of cars filling the tollway like it’s rush hour all day long, streaks of blood leaving handprints along the doors and windows like they were all dragged out. i hope i never see your altima among them. i hope you’re okay. i need you to be okay.

– dylan

sheila eats a packet of peanuts m&ms at work, counting them slowly into her palms like jewel-bright tablets of prescription medication.

she stops after six, ruefully wrapping the crinkly yellow bag closed with the origami dexterity of a practiced dieter. she tells me she wants to lose fifteen pounds and i nod and smile and point at my headset to indicate i am on a call, but the hold music has been playing for half an hour and its tinny vibrato is still preferable to sheila’s liturgy about her thighs. and i think she might have once been pretty or could still be pretty, but she sits in that ergonomic office chair with the posture of the perpetually defeated, picking her nails nervously and telling dana about another blind date that never called back. dana is 54 years old and her husband died two years ago of a heart attack during a secret trip with their daughter’s french teacher, but she encourages sheila with parables about true love with this weird unhinged smile plastered across her face and i think her mind must be touching the void.

sheila recounts body language and unspoken signals, fiddling with the elastic waistband of her straining pencil skirt, and the dark red threads are worn shiny by the stress of being forced into an unintended shape. dana, greying and sagging gracelessly around her lacquered salmon lipstick, tells sheila vaguely that it’s almost lunchtime and thank god it’s friday and the two of them swap sad stories about weekend plans that i know will easily become arbor mist and seinfeld reruns. sheila unwraps a pale turkey sandwich so cold and insubstantial that it doesn’t smell like anything, and i watch her eyes dart toward the m&ms bag winking merrily at the corner of her desk.

and i think i will go home today and this might finally be the day i break up with ethan. i think i could pack up his stray socks and boxers and put them in that reusable grocery bag and take off this engagement ring that doesn’t fit and was never sized. and i will tell him that i am sick of his lies and my bruises. and i will finally use my pto and take a vacation by myself, get away from these fluorescent lights and conversations about celebrity bikini bodies. and i will be happy alone, without a boyfriend for the first time in ten years.

and then sheila finally dives back into the m&m’s, ripping the bag apart with a frenzied urgency as she laughs and tells no one in particular, guess my diet starts tomorrow. and dana reassures her that chocolate is good for the soul. and ethan texts me again to ask me when i am coming home. and i type back soon with stiff, hesitant fingers.

and i think that i will wait until tomorrow.

one day you will come home and tell me you have met someone else- a new hire in your office, an old college classmate at the bar, a friend of a friend at a house party.  one day, i will lean hard against our balcony and think about the weight of gravity.  one day, we will have the difficult conversation and your hands will abandon my own to smooth the creases in your jeans nervously, over and over again.  one day we will turn in this notice to vacate and pack our things and try not to notice that your socks cling static to my forgotten party dresses and that my heart clings desperate to your forgotten love letters.  one day we will argue about who this saucepan belonged to originally and our anger will burst and bloom into bitter poison between our teeth.  one day you will move out and she will wait for you beside the u-haul, wearing tight jeans and a triumphant smile.  one day i will find synonyms for “over” in three languages and twelve steps of acceptance.  one day you will text me awkwardly and tell me you will always care.

one day i will sit down at this keyboard and finally exorcise your name from my mouth.

one day i will sell the story of our nights spent sweating, my incisors at your neck.

one day i will replace you with paper and ink.