When I return, I imagine we’ll undress the wounds, just like we always do. Tug the bandages away to gape at the damage we’ve done and the beauty we’ve destroyed. I’ll apologize for coming back and explain how strung out I’ve been. She’ll just take it all in; relate. She’s been strung out too, she’ll say.
Ronald takes a deep breath and with it, the entirety of the refreshing scent of strawberry gum, leaving the air drooping around him stagnant. “Elliot, that’s enough! I think you should go,” he shouts, withdrawing from in between Helena and I.
Her eyes draw back tears from her burnt red cheek, but that burnt red is slowly retracting until I slap her across the face and then it’s evaporated entirely and I’m screaming “Right?!” and she’s screaming too as I bring the grotesquely chipped diamond of my wedding ring back to my chest in preparation for a swing.
“I know, I know. You would never violate the sanctity of our marriage,” I say, holding back my own sobs, and adding “Right?” for added drama.
“Elliot! No! We are not sleeping together. I would never–”
I’m at a loss for intelligent words, but I just can’t swallow this seepage as it leaks out: “So, how’s he fare in the sheets? You know, compared to me.” I’m asking anyone who’d care to answer.
“No, Ron, I insist,” I interject for Helena who’s sitting next to him, presumably holding her breath and biting her tongue. I can tell he’s beginning to feel more relaxed in my home, and I don’t like that. With big motions, I mock welcome him into “my house,” as he returns to his seat. “Stay? Won’t you?”
“Helen, I uh, really should–” he says, beginning my sentence for me.
“Don’t bother coming home tonight,” I read aloud a text from Helena while raising a palm to Ronald, convincing him to stand up.
I don’t recognize the man forcing himself onto her. “Hello, I’m Ronald…Ron,” he stammers. “Elliot! Didn’t you get my text?” Helena asks idly, lying down on the couch.
And finding nothing else to pique my interest, I back out the front door, leaving them to their whims, to find an unfamiliar car parked in my driveway. An SUV, rather. The dirt-caked sides seem to indicate an owner not self-conscious about his appearance. I walk casually alongside the dark brown and tan vehicle, taking a moment to peer inside the driver’s window. Several parking tickets populate the console, and the ashtray is overflowing with half-smoked cigarettes.
I continue to my own car and throw it in reverse.
Outside the restaurant, I can clearly make out the flashing red light on my dashboard, still feigning security, but in reality, just a flashing red light and nothing more. Its cover’s been blown.
My driver’s side door hangs ajar. After what seems like a solid hour, but which could surely have only been a minute or two, the maroon 4-door which spooked the thief backs out of the parking lot as he materializes from the shadows quicker than he would soon disappear.
I don’t know what he thinks he would have found in it – I’ve got nothing to lose.
Drowned out by the bubbly chatter surrounding me, I don’t hear the slam as he shuts the door or the blast which must surely accompany his reparation: the thousands of individual glass particles rising to the open window and fusing together to form an impenetrable barrier between my lack of personals and the heavy tool he used to do it before he retreats from the car and into the surrounding darkness from whence he came.
I don’t even have a chance to thank him.
My car sleeps sound at the edge of the light entering through the restaurant windows. It’s the diner in which I’ll first meet Helena. I’m about ready to enter college, working as a waiter and looking to blow my savings here in town to tie myself down. And she’s a church-going, family woman flying on wings of angels.
I’m sitting in the exact booth, actually, where her family will situate that Sunday afternoon in just a few short years, and which I’ll tell the waitress I’d prefer when she asks me. The steam above my tea is growing thicker and thicker by the minute, and I think I’d better drink it soon, before it gets too hot to sip.
The first day I serve Helena, I won’t be able to place my finger on it, but it’s something about those eyes. And I know that’s what everyone says, but it really will be. Just what it is exactly I’ll see in them, that makes them any different from any other eyes I’ve ever seen, I still don’t know. Nothing really, I mean, they’re just eyes. Pupils and irises. Nothing so phenomenal. I feel dull just dreaming about them.
Dammit – what will I ever have seen in her?
I try to immerse myself within the moment, so far in the future, desperately searching for any inkling of interest to let go.
“Nothing for me, thanks,” she’ll say, almost certainly watching her figure. Unnecessarily, I might add.
It must be the testosterone in me. She must just be hot.
And at that point, it must just be enough. The tea has provided nothing more than something to spit in, and I’m becoming decreasingly aware by the minute of the money I’m wasting on a buzz that never comes.
In the booth behind me, a waiter paints fingerprints, smudges, and germs onto the window with saturated newsprint and a collection bottle, before crawling out of the booth and exiting through the door behind the sports bar.
The waitress asks how many and follows “just me” past crowded tables, leaving me at the front door with a suspecting eye like she’s never met me before, like she didn’t just take away my hot cups of tea.
I haven’t yet met her either.
As each memory rushes by my window, I’m becoming increasingly unaware of the money I’m wasting on gas, as I drive around for really quite a long time, not really knowing just where I’m going.
And I’m thinking how women were never mature enough for me. And how everything is just a series of increasing and decreasing levels of understanding, this included. And how they’re only growing more juvenile by the minute.
And I’ll fall out with Helena, because that’s just what people do. They push each other down, and grow apart. This time, I think I’ve grown beyond Helena’s reach.
On the right is the motel where I’ll first use a woman to satisfy my erotic urges. And out that window you can see the movie theater where I’ll first find women the object of those erotic urges. And back there is the elementary school where I’ll first be disgusted by women.
I’m rapidly approaching my mending point.
And this is the beginning.
Oh, quit being so dramatic, Elliot. This is the beginning of nothing, I think. Helena will tell me I have a “flair for the dramatic.” And I’ll find myself thinking too, that If there were ever a time for the dramatic, that time is now. It will always be.
I am pulling into the driveway and briefly contemplating leaving again, without a trace, and never looking back. And I swing the door open to vomit onto the cement, having even considered that.
In our bedroom, Helena is sitting at the edge of the bed, crying very politely. She’ll always be a nervous crier – conscious of her image even at her most vulnerable.
“Please, Elliot, I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to talk about it…” she says, picking her head up out of her hands. And I should’ve expected this. It’s all I’ll ever get, when running from all I’ve never wanted, and so I’m just standing in the doorway, staring in utter disbelief for a few moments.
Her face and the Kleenex in her hand are dry now, the saltwater having crawled back into her eyes.
“I know what you mean,” I say, sympathizing; feeling for once like my sympathies are justified and sincere. And I recognize this opportunity. We could finally have a seriously solemn conversation. For once, I could say what’s truly on my mind. I could place this leech on my chest, and it can pump life into me if I treat it right.
“I can’t stop thinking what it would have been like to meet the little guy… How did you do it?” I ask, genuinely interested.
“Keep the horrible thoughts away?”
“I didn’t,” she says without elaborating.
But then she continues, “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you know. Lazy day after lazy day, spent trying to occupy myself to keep the awful thoughts away.”
“You know I don’t have any days left. You have to go back to work, but I never got to leave,” I say, pouring my paltry glass of whiskey back into the bottle and seating myself in the armchair across from the bed.
“I’ve only got a couple of days left,” she says. Yes, I’m aware, I nod. “And I’d like to spend them with you,” she says.
“I’m just not in the mood,” I respectfully decline.
“What, you don’t find me attractive anymore?” Her tone lightens drastically as she picks herself up off the bed and flattens her skirt, ashamedly. “I wasn’t trying to be cute,” she says, turning toward me and kicking her foot down so that the skirt falls properly across her curves, leaves everything to my imagination.
But I’m trying not to imagine anything right now.
“You don’t have to try to be cute,” I tell her, and I find solace in the fact that her little Helen-isms, which I now loathe, will grow on me. And I am pleased to realize that the great level of sweetness, which I’ve conditioned myself to fake, will dissipate. It will begin to come more naturally.
And I feel a number of Tranquilities growing inside me. I rented out the extra space in my chest, and they’d like to start a family. Right now, their kids have already grown up and moved out. But those kids will soon return home.
And the resentment I’ve housed for this thirty-years-young starlet is becoming more and more diluted too. For the next couple years, I’ll be falling deeper and deeper into inexorable love with her.
Right now, I’d like to say I’m still in love with her. I’d like to feel like I’m not in some way lying every time I return a half-hearted “I love you, too.” But they’re only gaining more and more meaning as the days pass.
I’d like to think she’d know me well enough by now to recognize the façade I’m putting on each and every night. It’s quite the sensation to hear those words, “I love you,” and to think “if you really loved me, you’d notice I’ve changed.”
But what would I say to her if she said “You’ve changed”? I know she won’t, but I’d like to tell her, “You’re right, dear.”
“I wasn’t asking you to tell me I’m right. I know I’m right.” She would steal a kiss from my cheek and her smile void itself of expression, leaving the face she makes when she’s not making a face.
Maybe things are looking up.
I come alive in her arms.
As she teases her fingernails across the knots in my spine, I can imagine myself choking on her tongue, heavy as death now. And on the shower wall, I think I can see it. My shadow chasing away the light.
Her tongue recoils, pulling farther and farther away until my shallow breaths starts to even out, and I feel like I’m fighting a winning battle to catch them again. Ironically, only when my breath is irregular do I truly feel alive.
Purple freckled droplets are rolling up her cheeks. Her mascara, smeared like ink spilled across pastel paper, spells “em ssik, em ssik, em ssik” which reads something like “I’m sick, I’m sick, I’m sick,” and I think maybe sometime in the near future I’d like to help her to feel better.
Her eyelashes like towering dark waves rolling out from the sandy shore of my face, she slides her tongue thick into my throat.
Her fingers are tracing further and further north but I’m distracted, thinking about how astonishing it is that after some five years together, she can still make me feel like this.
Stop thinking. I want to be here, in the moment. Not somewhere in the past. Not where it’s just some hot prophecy.
Her breath reeks of strawberries and her tongue slips out from between my teeth and her fingers outline the contours of my ear and she’s biting my lips. Harder and harder, my pleasured expression dragging into a pained one. She senses my senses tightening and so decides to take a step back. And it’s her fingertips running ever so limply across my ribs – the ghostly touches have always bothered me hotter than the clutching ones – as the bites dissolve into loving nibbles, and the taste of blood dispels as she sucks.
“Eek!” she cries right in my ear, jumping out from under the water. “Too cold!” She makes the executive decision to run the water warm, and I have to fight my reactionary mind to keep the mood dirty and sexy. I close my eyes to do so and then open them again, but I’m no longer lost in the moment.
I’m disappointed. Because these moments don’t usually last, and I usually find myself wasting the time I do have reflecting on their fleetingness.
I can see the rain pouring out of the drain into a flat puddle on the floor which then breaks into hundreds of separate droplets that the shower head drinks as they rise to the ceiling, creating something like a whirlpool surrounding us.
The condensation wipes itself from the shower walls. She presses her curves into me. Her fingernails erase the contrails of red that followed them across my back. I push her away from me and out from under the water, longing to see her soaked black hair lightened again by the open air. She leaves her hand on my shoulder, but it agitates me as I recognize and despise the four sharp fingernails scratching my neck against its grain – her touch.
The water scuttles up my chest like hundreds of little beetles, the thought giving me a shiver to match the water I turn back to cold. My chest aches blue and I don’t want to look, so I close my eyes again, dreaming of some magnificent world where everyone is friendly and I like it that way.
In reality, the friendliness is beginning to feel insincere. The sorries are too often. People don’t really care, but it makes them feel good to pretend they do.
Maybe they don’t know I know they’re pretending.
My smile is genuine.
“R–really?” she says, caught off guard by my decidedly assertive decision.
“Yes, let’s try again,” I say.
Naturally, all possibilities are running through my mind. Including that if “everything looks normal” with Helena, doesn’t that theoretically make me the problem?
The question proves too self-deprecating to consider, but I think there’s only one way to know for sure.
She pulls her big, black feathers from behind her ears, knowing full well they’ll hang in her way that way. The air is thick and I crank my car window down in hopes of spitting out the suddenly sour breath that comes with this apathetic question.
“Do you want to try again?” she asks, laying her hand across my thick fingers on the car seat.
“Do you want to try again?” I volley back skillfully. The score remains love to love.
If only it were that easy.
The doctor will say we can, though, tonight if we want. He’ll say that the next four months will be just a fluke. He’ll say that everything looks normal now. He’ll say that we shouldn’t worry.
I awake gasping. The pressure on my Adam’s apple is literally killing me, I think, and I’m struggling to loosen the string wrapped so snugly around my neck.
Once I can pry my muted fingernails, or lack thereof – each is filed to a soft curve at the end of a long, skinny bone – beneath the tightest length, I gain some leverage and loosen nearly six feet of the stuff which, judging by the bloody gash in my arm, was my own vein donation.
But do I have so much to live for?
I can hardly imagine having done this to myself, but the small knife lying by my side seems to suggest otherwise. The handle is monogrammed “E&H” and I think I’d like to wrap it up and give it to my mother-in-law as a gift.
I almost call out for Helena, before thinking better of it. It is I who ties the knots, and I’d be of no interest to her having come undone.
And so I struggle to stuff the veins back into my arm. There’s plenty of space in there, but it’s like feeding the string back through a hoodie. And so I’m looping and twisting them all over one another, but I find that if I twist the one in the center they all sort of re-spool like thread.
And I’m wondering how the blood finds its way. And how does it know where to go?
I save a single vein to thread through the eye of needle, the lifeline which I’ll use to stitch up the wound, to hide the grotesque labyrinth beneath it from Helena.
As the scar vanishes into the thick air, I become privy to the pain. Used to it, and so I’m becoming numb once more.
It’s a feeling of disillusionment unrivaled until our wedding night, which will last about as long.
I know it will be worth waiting for – a fairly unimpressive sensation of which I can very nearly reach by myself.
Yes, I’ll manage.
My face seems clearer in the window. My grey eyes are the calm before the hurricane which will blow my smile crooked. And in the silence of the pupils, the birds begin to chirp.
And I wonder what they’ll talk about before the storm. Now it must be all about the newly realized thankfulness, the forthcoming rebuilding, and the inflated hope – but what before all that? Depression, as they sing along to A Great Big World. Rapid heartbeats. Eggs stirring. But no longer need they try to humanize an invisible hurt – their devastation is real and comprehensible now.
I see the sun rise in the west, ushering in the old day.
Helena enters the room screaming, “Dammit, Elliot! You’re so inconsiderate,” before seating herself next to me and placing her head on my shoulder. I think she might like to just physically let everything go and so I pull her close, but she pushes my hand out from under her shirt. Her head remains still.
In the window I can see the dark purple mascara smeared across her round cheeks again. Her eyes, each shaped like a top turned on its side (and composed of just as much disappointment and potential) are a deep mauve and she fights to hold back a smile as I’m starting to get up. Her voice is the falling mercury in a thermometer within my chest as she whispers, “Goodbye, Elliot.”
And the tension in the room is tangible. I want to sit down and play each woe like a note, but I don’t know how to play one. The tune would be one of melancholy – from a band I would have found in high school on satellite radio, but a song from a later album, which I will have cranked on my iPod on the way to Milwaukee. Knuckles wrapped tight and white around the steering wheel and foot hard-pressed on the gas, I will have been trying to get to my troubles through the dense fog.
Long locks of hair, black and curly fall wild and thick across her shoulders, bare of any cover other than a couple navy blue spaghetti straps, each hopelessly twisted around itself. She sits by herself on the rug, toy train tracks weaving in and around her legs with building dispersed throughout the little town. Some tall, some small. All run-down, blanketed by a thick coat of graffiti.
I leave through the front door. The sky above is fragile ships in bottles floating atop extraordinary whitecaps.