if i could turn time over in my hands like a pocket-worn quarter, i’d slip into the months before i pulled my ribcage apart. it’s alright, though—i’ve been here before. knee-deep in the shrapnel of another fallen star. the burden of love cuts into my shoulders so deeply that atlas looks upon me with pity. you got all of that? he asks, in the same way that i ask my mom when she’s carrying in all of the grocery bags at once. no, i say. but i don’t know who i am without it.
had to be funny ‘cause i couldn’t be beautiful, had to draw laughter ‘cause i couldn’t draw gazes. thumbs haphazardly shaped my form and sent me to the kiln without a second glance. it’s good enough, she’s good enough. won’t fit in. won’t stand out. yet i push at the bones of my face like the moon pushes the tides and wonder what her secret is, pockmarked and pale, everything and nothing. how do i make up for it, i ask? the clothes that don’t fit, the skin that won’t clear—how do i make up for the space that i fill? my debts are soaked in hair dye and acetone and benzoyl peroxide, and it burns, burns, burns. i pay them with words i’ve never heard, touches i’ve never felt, i pay them with singularity, with inferiority, with envy that ghosts against the glass of my heart. i bartered my likeness for jacks on the playground and came up with nothing. that’s all it is, really—the nothing. i can’t be forgotten because i can’t be remembered. can’t be choosy because i can’t be chosen. and, not for the first time, i wonder how much of me exists only for these reasons—if my heart is truly kind, or if i simply can’t afford to be any other way.
i. baptism. i don’t believe in purgatory anymore, but i think that’s what they were trying to save me from—an inescapable waiting room, forever itching for my name to be called. the only thing standing between me and an eternity spent reading highlights was a fountain of oily water and some stranger with the authority to dunk me in it. the seed of heaven was planted inside me, he said, and nothing could keep me out…for now. a sigh of relief hung in the air as my salvation was placed at the bottom of an hourglass.
ii. communion. my second grade class kept a butterfly garden. mrs. smith said that we were still caterpillars, but the moment the body of Christ touched our tiny, unquestioning mouths, we’d emerge from our cocoons. my rosary, crystalline blue, hung from my trembling hands as i drank the backwash of a hundred parishioners and sauntered back to my pew like judd nelson at the end of the breakfast club. flightless wings unfurled from between my shoulder blades and a halo of glass encircled my head. i had heaven inside me, i said, and nothing could keep me out now. the ethereal angels with weeping eyes stared down at me from their prison of stained glass like i’d just given them something else to cry about.
iii. reconciliation. somewhere in the middle of my children’s bible was a man named jonah and the whale that swallowed him. every kid knew his story (even my neighbor who went to public school), but no one thought twice about swimming in the sea. they should’ve told me that whales aren’t always shaped like fish; that sometimes you won’t realize you’ve been swallowed ‘til your foot gets caught between bones and you’ve got nothing left but the One you were trying to get away from. and i wouldn’t say i “ran” from nineveh per se, but i sure as hell built one in my heart. tiny fingers, wet with clay, reaching out in prayer but still treating the heaven inside me like a gamble, hoping peter would let me in but fearing that thomas would check my hands. i stared right through the whitewashed Jesus nailed to a cold stone cross and never once comprehended that all my debts had already been paid.
iv. confirmation. my parents yanked me from the parish by my ear and into a bed of hot coals, teaching me once and for all that the only thing harder than learning is unlearning. my brain split; suddenly there were two Gods—the one i grew up with, whose touch burned like sulfur, and this new God, who laughed when i apologized for using the direct line. don’t come over, i begged; the place is a mess and besides, judas is here, harvesting silver from my garden. He entered my heart anyway, made us a pot of coffee, said we needed to talk. we’d been talking my whole life, i argued. no, He said; not even once. how could that be true, i said, when i followed all the rules? when i came clean from the water? when i drank from the cup and tasted the bread? when i scrubbed my soul clean with a brillo pad fashioned from hundreds of hail marys? You aren’t making any sense. was i not good enough? how can You look at me? i’m empty, can’t You feel it?! there’s nothing here. i’m NOTHING. if i loved You before, it was just an apology. You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t—
I never did.
i don’t know You at all—
but you will.
the nails fell from my eyes, one by one, clattering across the table, dissolving to ash—everything was light, everything was Him, i can see, i can see—i’m sorry, i’m sorry, my God, i’m so sorry—
is this the heaven inside me?
yes, came the reply.
and nothing can keep Me out now.
summer used to breathe down my neck, but for once i leaned into it. i’m holding its hand as it fades away, steadily, painfully, its skin growing colder, its face growing paler. it’s like i’m trapped in an hourglass and before i know it september has me gagging on sand. in my nightmares, red leaves spread like bloody wounds against the sky, and i’m left with nothing but the smoke from blown-out candles. i wake up wondering how something so beautiful can still make you wish you were dead.
ding-dong. it’s the ocean of space between us. figuratively, literally, whatever. i’m dumb as hell and flinch when the bell rings, like the sharp clack of bullets that are just too easy to get ahold of. the eighteenth century widow that haunts my chest waves her scarf from the walk and disappears in flock of gore-crows when she remembers you’re not coming home. she never learns, still living with pennies trapped between her fingers and the taste of lemons on her tongue. she knows it’s not the same, but says it’s better to have broken pieces than nothing at all. she watches as the electric lull of lightning kneads the sky and the bell fades into nothing but the sound of waves throwing themselves to violent deaths.
ding-dong. it’s the blush of sunset, flaring like the tip of a cigarette before fading into the pallor of night. i’m reminded that some stars can’t be charted. nose to the ground, soul in the spaces between, making slacklines out of telephone wires and wandering the earth ’cause the only thing worse than leaving is sticking around. i’m close behind, bottle of spirits in one hand, butterfly net in the other. truth is, i don’t want you to think of me as someone who’s prone to flooding her consciousness with oak-barrel novocaine, so i wrap the bottle in brown paper and take solace in knowing you won’t be close enough to smell it on my breath anyway.
ding-dong. it’s the truth. my truth, that is. i shaved off pieces of my shadow and tied them in linen, pieces i’ve never shared with folks who know me a lot better than you. i wasn’t afraid, not for a second. you gently unwrapped them and dusted them off. held them to the light while i watched, massaging the bones of my fingers, tired from clutching them so tightly. does it scare you? i asked. should it? you replied. i don’t know, i said. i’m not what you’re used to. ding-dong. i never will be. and sure, we’re all sullied in some way, but i’ve never gotten the blood out of my sheets.
ding-dong. it’s the grief. i wasn’t supposed to feel it, and God knows i punched it hard enough to break my own knuckles. ding-dong. ding-dong. this one won’t run away. i alchemize my pain into art and it’s shakespeare, it’s sondheim, it’s vincent van gogh taking shots of yellow paint to kill the darkness inside him. ding-dong. i’m reading the book you recommended but the words bleed together like storm clouds. ding-dong. you stare at the horizon like a lover. ding-dong. hemingway said to write hard and clear about what hurts. ding-dong. i hate him and i’m sorry, but i can’t help it. ding-dong. ding-dong.
ding. it’s the almosts. the not-quites. it’s okay—i’m used to filling that space. or maybe the problem is that i don’t fill space at all. i’m a prayer that dimmed into sleep, a pair of hands that can’t settle inside themselves. i write about myself because it’s easier, and you’re forgetting me for the same reason. one time you curled against me like the shallow dip of a coffee spoon and when i tell you about my dreams it’s ‘cause that’s the closest i can get to touching that memory. see, in my head you’re here, you can’t break things, in my head you’re still the apostrophe pressed into my back. you laughed ‘cause my hair was in your face. i laughed ‘cause for a second we weren’t just two halves of something that can’t exist.
It’s not your fault that I always dress like I’m going to a funeral. My fists are caked with blood that isn’t mine and my feet drag like a pair of junkyard dogs slinking through an alley for something to eat. You loved the idea of me, but couldn’t conceptualize the person I am—guts, tears, and fire. You said I was perfect. I laughed in your face.
A man with that kind of Odysseus charm could get away with anything. It’s true that I never had to buy a tube of Maybelline concealer to mask my wounds like a sheet over a crime scene. Then again, you made sure no one could see the bruises you left behind. They appeared in subtle ways, spring buds rather than summer blooms pressed up against the glass. Isolation was the first to poke through the soil—or was it manipulation? I’ve tried to forget, but even Jesus wasn’t allowed to hold my attention longer than you.
When I pried away, you clung tighter. You came with a pitchfork and matches to burn me alive and snuff out any flames that you didn’t light. I remember your hands, harsh and greedy, sliding along the slope of my waist like I was one of your Batman comics and you just couldn’t wait to fold all of my corners. You whispered that my body was a church steeple and took my silence as an invitation to pray there.
After I left you, roses showed up on my doorstep each day for a week. My mother would fish them out of the trash and say all the wrong things, mistaking my tears for mourning. He loves you, honey, she said. It doesn’t have to be this way. Her hand felt like sandpaper against my back while the roses glared at me from the windowsill. Their blood-red blossoms would end up eaten by my garbage disposal.
A deluge of apologies could never suffice. I blocked your number; you bought a new phone. You told me my heart was black and swollen. I agreed, and blocked you again. My therapist told me I owed it to you; that you didn’t hit me, so it wasn’t real. I sent her number careening into the void.
Ticking clocks waxed and waned. I’m more tears than guts, more candle than fire, and my grief remains unchecked. Do I piece it together like a ship in a bottle? Do I auction it off to an interested party? Do I swallow it like a sword and pray it won’t slice through my organs? Do I bleach it? Do I launder it? Do I hang it out to dry?
In the end, I cracked it open like hot bread and shared it with anyone who cared to taste it. The friends you once kept caged from me came back, piece by piece, like a swarm of monarchs returning home. They drained pressure from the swelling and pressed lips against my bruises.
For I may have survived, but I had not been spared.