i want to believe in it, you know. the greatness, the all-encompassing massiveness of the thing. the unsinkable, unbreakable, unchained, unkept and recklessly inconvenient enormity of it. i want to believe that i was shipwrecked and storm-tossed into your arms, your island, safe harbor in an unforgiving sea. that love- true love– really does transcend life and death and space in ways that has our bodies meeting in different forms, different cities, different centuries until the end of time. and your fingers will always trace my cheek the same way, in this smoky bar, in this leather chair, in this studio apartment, in this hospital bed, in this cold coffin. that each time i will find you over and over again, and nothing will ever possess the power to come between us. i want to believe that love triumphs destiny, that we will move mountains with bleeding, slippery hands to bring you back home to me. that this is real– unknowable, untamable, untouched by cynicism or restraint. that i will wage wars and set fires and rewrite history to keep you safe. that it will only ever be you that i feel this much for.

and it will only ever be you who’s worth this much and more.

when i was young i discovered how to not fall asleep.  don’t lie down.  you never learned this lesson; you are asleep now beside me and your jaw is relaxed, unclenched, that face in beautiful repose against this worn-out futon.  and i am always awake beside you, tracing the bones in your hands, wondering how i can dismantle you in pieces.  waiting for the backlash that never comes.

and i tell you a bedtime story while you sleep.

the one about the dimly lit house party, cheap rum mixed with off-brand cola in grimy plastic cups worn slick with sweaty hands, a collision of cigarette butts and confused bodies, coaxing little blue ovals into my palm, a man’s voice in my ear and his hands on my waist in the upstairs guest bathroom, his tongue in my mouth- probing, hungry, then his cock in my mouth- frantic, urgent, then your name in my mouth, head swimming, vision blurring, as my hips matched his in a rushed and graceless tempo, drumming a miserable beat across cold, relentless tiles while your messages lit up my phone during every gasping breath.

these are the words that undo us and you are not awake to hear them.  they pour out of me in toxic relief, and i have honed each syllable to hurt.  you stay asleep, curled up beside me, one hand clasped between mine.  defenseless, dependent, alone.  and so i tell you the next story.  and another one.  then several more in unrestrained succession, these things i have done, these things i will do, these things that will wound you with every waking breath-

– these things that spill out, a tapped vein welling to the surface.

it occurred to me last night while i was waiting for the train- it’s been since the 10th of last november that i’ve kept my arms clean.

and i think this could be growing up, growing old, growing better- but i have never forgotten the memories of years spent sinking into that sticky black couch with the duct-taped corners.  you eased the needle under my skin like you were lowering your body into me, so careful, so slowly, a heartbreaking magnet into my veins.  and my skin was paper; your arms were summer; the carpet spun gold for miles to oz, and someone greater than god cradled me and crooned promises of infinity. we spent those hot summer nights sweating against each other, sticking skin-to-skin with your mouth pouring smoke between my lips or tracing patterns on my bones or stretching the syllables of my name for hours, days, years.

– and they tell me that it’ll get better, that time heals all wounds, but i am finding your face in the bottom of shot glasses every single night and i think the next drink could take me further from here.  and your parents call to check on me, and the counselor writes dates on business cards, but i am tasting your lips on strangers’ cigarettes and i think the next inhale could bring me closer to you.

closer to that place with my back shoved against craig’s guest bathroom mirror, your fingers digging into my thighs, prying them apart on that cracked porcelain sink and your teeth at my neck (always, those teeth at my neck) and we are laughing or gasping or moaning in that dizzying amber light and i am falling asleep beside you on a stranger’s futon, in your childhood bed, on our living room floor, on blankets in the wild- my head cradled in your arms and you are stroking my hair and whispering stories about all the lives we could live together, you are saying mimi, i am going to love you until the day i die- and then i am clutching you from behind while you are sweating, shaking, coming down hard, and i am wiping the tears from your face when you grind your teeth and beg me eloquently for just one more fix to get you through the night, and then we are driving thousands of miles cross-country in your dirty grey jeep stealing packets of peanut m&ms from gas stations and eating burnt hash browns in late night diners or we are running through rain-slicked streets holding hands and laughing breathlessly while the wind whips through our jacket hoods and you are flushed with whiskey and pushing me hard on the kitchen floor and my head is snapping back from the force of your blows and i am finding your name in my mouth like a speech defect, catching on my teeth and tongue over and over and over again while i choke hard on the sobs and you are telling me, baby i’m sorry, and i am believing every single word and i think i could live like this with my red lipstick stains on your clavicle and your smoker’s cough across static phone lines and our hands locked in this perfect destructive grip but we are crashing through that guardrail spectacularly and your face is washed in brake lights and cold fear and i am waking up in a hospital bed alive with plastic tubes and rubber hands and they are reading me the coroner’s report they are running toxicity labs they are telling me stories about funeral homes and in lieu of flowers i am digging hard into my arms to bring you back to me-

– and i think i will find myself running back to your grave, over and over again every night, feet pounding on slick grass and carbonized corpses.  and i will find you beneath layers of dirt and sediment, i will find you and bring you back with every clawing handful deeper and deeper down until my fingers brush your bones again.  and then i am awake on my bathroom floor, naked and shivering against that full-length mirror, staring wide-eyed at these pale legs covered in bruises-

realizing that i never knew what my body looked like before you shaped it with your hands and mouth.

and i am thinking of you- how i could have loved you.

he bought me drinks that night, and i remember the glasses lined up one after the other- vodka with vodka with vodka with vodka.  he took me home that night, and i remember the fuzzy pounding in my head, my contacts drying, my lipstick smudging.  he turned on his tv that night, and i remember hearing ross say rachel’s name during the wedding from across the living room carpet.  he pulled my skirt up that night, and i remember pushing his hands back, tell him i was too tired, too drunk.  he pressed hard on my throat that night, and i remember his fingers tearing down my underwear, tangling them in my heels.

don’t worry, this won’t hurt, he told me, a stranger’s lie against my ear.

and the protest caught as a scream in my throat, my breath coming ragged and hard, my face pushed down deeper into the couch and his sweat-slicked skin a distant force behind me as the laugh track on tv looped over and over and over again.

and i am thinking of him- how i should have fought him.

then they call my name, and lead me to this cold room with sun-faded posters of better landscapes.  i change into the gown and think of blue skies and white beaches.  the doctor stretches on her sterile gloves and instructs me to slide my feet into the stirrups.  the nurse beside me grips my wrist to source a vein and starts my IV.

she tells me, don’t worry, this won’t hurt, a stranger’s lie beside my table, but i can hear the suction start and i am laughing so hard that i can’t stop crying.

i could have named you rachel.

i had that nightmare again.  the one with the brake lights, the wet road, the vice grip of that seatbelt against my shoulder.

sometimes i think these memories don’t belong to me, and that you never really existed.  that you are just a mid-range tombstone in september soil, a relic of a relic amid world war II vets and hypoxic infants.  that i am just a girl with bruised knees, bleeding lips, and too many words in my mouth.  and this could just be a funnel for my anger, for my mistakes, for a heartbreak worn like a badge of honor and polished to a blinding shine.

and you could be a collection of bones compact beneath earth, a collector’s item for archaeologists,  a boy who never really belonged to me at all.

it doesn’t hurt anymore.

and i think sometimes that maybe it never happened, and i never met you, and it was just a nightmare that lasted longer than both world wars-

-or it was just a moment in time. it was just a calendar date. it was just a long disappointment. and it never meant anything at all.

i’m sorry about your eulogy.

your mother wanted me to write it.  her voice broke when she asked me, catching in sobs across that long-distance call.

mimi, you’re a writer, she told me tearfully.  you could write a beautiful eulogy.

fiction, i thought dully after we hung up.  i only write fiction.

so i sat for hours staring at a blank screen.  i wrote for no one but you for seven years, but somewhere along the way i ran out of words.

that sunday came suddenly, and i stood beside your gravesite reading a eulogy that did not belong to you.   in a stranger’s voice that did not belong to me.  i invented anecdotes about the person you used to be, creating broad brushstrokes of a caricature i once used to know.  your friends and family watched me speak with wide, guileless eyes, searching desperately between my sentences for measures of comfort.  i gave them hallmark sentiments and it might have been enough.

your father thanked me after the funeral, told me it was a poignant speech.

you’re a hell of a writer, he said quietly.  your mother nodded wanly in agreement, her face ashen and glittering with tear tracks.

fiction, i thought mirthlessly, after all the funeral guests left.  it was only fiction.

and i think about what i should have written, the last words i could’ve ever said to your face.  that even though my bed is cold and i have missed you like a visceral absence in this space between my heart and lungs, that i have never once forgotten the real memories you left, the ones that kept me up at night.  and it wouldn’t have been pretty or delicate, not a carefully crafted speech about your love and bravery.  it would’ve been an ugly stream-of-consciousness with no rhyme or reason, spat viciously between choking sobs because the only thing i could think of when i looked into your casket was how you had fucked me over for the very last time.

as soon as my mother descends the stairs, she crosses her bony arms and casts a critical look at my midriff.  reflexively, i clench my abs and straighten my posture perceptibly.  she is my own personal firing squad, disguised as a tiny, aging korean woman.

“you look old,” my mother complains by way of greeting.  she squints critically at my face, as if counting wrinkles for evidence.

“hi umma,”  i mutter.  “have you guys eaten yet?”

“just got through with lunch, but i saved some for you,” my father says brightly the same instant as my mother hisses: “all you think ’bout is food.  always food, always hungry.  this why you gaining so much weight.”

i follow my father to the kitchen, ignoring her steady stream of criticism with a practiced deafness.

it turns out lunch was chicken wings, which dad can eat at any given time throughout the day with the utmost enthusiasm.  as he reheats them over foil in the toaster oven, my mother pats her stomach delicately and informs me that she only ate the vegetable sticks that accompanied the order.

“i make better vegetable,” she finishes smugly.

“it’s just celery and carrot sticks,” i tell her cuttingly. “there’s nothing to make.”

i stare moodily into the toaster oven as she continues her tirade against american food and all things fried.  i watch the crispy chicken skin sizzle under the glistening barbecue sauce, recalling a time when i could never look at food in her presence.  back when i was still in high school, and she praised me for skipping meals.

i ate one meal a day at school, buying multiple sandwiches and cartons of fries in the fast food line of our cafeteria.  i made nervous jokes to the lunch ladies about being the designated buyer for my group of friends, and they would stare back at me with dull, apathetic eyes as they rang up one burger after another.  they did not care what i did with my armful of food.

i took it all into the most remote girl’s bathroom, the one on the third floor by an unused music classroom.  i sat in the handicapped stall and ate my way through everything, cramming it all in as fast as i could.  no room to breathe, no time to think.  for fifteen glorious, golden minutes a day, i ate whatever i wanted and i ate as much as i could.  until my stomach felt tight with a sickening heaviness, and my mouth could no longer differentiate one bite from another, i ate.

i remember the worst part of the purging wasn’t the vomiting itself.  after a while, i could no longer taste that either.  the most uncomfortable part was when i threw up with so much force that the pressure behind my eyeballs threatened to compress my vision.  during these moments, i imagined blood vessels giving way to the crushing force that expelled from my throat, imagined my vision shot through with crimson as i purged over and over and over again.

halfway through senior year, the music classroom was converted to a computer lab furnished with shiny new macs, and then no bathrooms were safe. a lone, straggling sophomore overheard my lunch ritual and not long after i found myself staring at my feet while the school counselor, mrs. dodson, interviewed my parents.

dad was bewildered and alternated between shaking his head in disbelief and patting me on the shoulder clumsily. my mother, meanwhile, baffled mrs. dodson with her apoplectic rage.

“i not telling her to waste food! she should be studying lunch period, not throwing up all over bathroom. i teach her better than this!”

my mother broke off from her diatribe only to glare angrily at me, then fixed her beady gaze back on mrs. dodson.

“how is sophie’s grades? she making all a?”

“mrs. green-park,” the counselor said evenly, “sophie’s grades are not the issue at hand. she seems to suffer from a very serious eating disorder, and she needs to seek professional help. she especially needs the support of her family to help her through this difficult time.”

“what she need is more study!” my mother retorted, deaf to mrs. dodson’s disbelief.

“sonya.” i remember my father intervened at this point, an odd shift in my parental dynamic. he gave her an uncharacteristically stern look and said, “stop. sit down.”

she looked as if she fully intended to shout him down as well, but something in his expression must have defeated her. she sunk back into the uncomfortable metal folding chair with the wounded dignity befitting royalty and sulked.

“sophie,” my dad said gently as mrs. dodson nodded encouragingly. “we’re here for you. you’re going to get you the help you need.”

i looked at my mother from the corner of my eye. she caught my glance and turned away pointedly to look out the window.  outside, the powerdancers were practicing their routines. i remember in that instant knowing that i would never feel as beautiful, happy, and energetic as they were at that moment unless i found some way to rise above my mother and prove her wrong.

ten years later, she perches on a barstool in the kitchen in her primrose-colored cardigan and makes disparaging noises while i eat wings. she does not know how far i have come from the unhealthiest i have ever been, and the sheer force of will i adopted in order to overcome my relationship with food. she does not know, because she does not understand.

there is little of our lives that intersect, despite her best efforts to take control of my every decision.

when things ended with noah and i finally braced myself to tell her, she only nodded satisfactorily and said, “i tell you so. years and years ago, i tell you. he not good enough not for you.”

i looked up hopefully, elated by the possibility that i would receive a compliment from my mother that wasn’t underhanded or coerced.

“he not make enough money,” she continued placidly. “can’t take care of you when you get fired from job.”

she comes to my register and she is all soft curves and freckled shoulders, a cascade of strawberry curls spilling to her back. and i think that she is beautiful- the most beautiful girl i’ve ever seen- even under these buzzing fluorescent lights that carve hard shadows and skeletal masks out of every face beneath them. and at first i can’t tell that her stomach is swollen under her faded grey tank top, straining the thinning fabric as she lines up her purchases on the conveyer belt with shaking hands. and i’m so mesmerized by her long eyelashes that i think for a moment they cast blue-black shadows across her cheekbones. but those are bruises on her face. and bruises around her wrists. and bruises across her throat. then her items come tumbling through my scanner, three little bottles with a silent story. i ring up aspirin, covergirl liquid foundation, equate personal lubricant. she does not look at me, does not even speak, and pays with crumpled dollar bills. and i am trying desperately to find my voice- i have these words on the edge of my mouth- but the next customer is pushing a rotisserie chicken onto my scanner and she is walking away with an awkward, pained gait that collapses my heart completely.