We’re drunk and the philosopher writes a word across my palms: WORTHY. I write one back: BOUND. He has a girlfriend. I know that in some way even writing on his hand is a violation, a crossing of a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed, but I can’t help it. I like him so much. I want him. In the cab home I lean my head on his shoulder, and he’s stone—he won’t lean towards me, but won’t shove me off. There’s no question in the cab about where I’m going—wherever he’s going. At his house we fumble to the couch, and then the bed, and he grabs my legs under the sheets. These are amazing he says, and I feel myself already cutting in half, ripping down the middle because everything is already perverted, already twisted. It’s not right. I want him to see the moon in me. I want him to want the ham of me. I want him to thread through me. I want his tongue to split so he can lick me twice. I want him to fasten me to his body. I am terrified. I want to drown.
I’m an emergency hire. I’m here teaching English. I’m trying to write a memoir about being with a heroin addict. Every day I walk into my office and sit in an office chair that was once occupied by a woman who’s made her name off an addiction memoir, heroin specifically. She has left me a few clues about her life here: a list of administrators and what they handle, a poster for an event she put on, her old teaching schedule, a well-worn Webster’s II, a chain that held a hanging plant, a student made poster on Muslim poetry and a pamphlet on what to do in case of an emergency. The first time I walked into my office it was August and I felt very small, very unsure of the task I was undertaking. My eyes were drawn to the bright colors of the emergency pamphlet, the yellows, oranges, and pinks. There was an emergency, and then there was me, in that order. I think about substitutions. If I cross my eyes we could look similar from a distance she and I, but we are not interchangeable. My students like to remind me of this, she was my favorite teacher. They search my face for a crack or twitch. Some indication that I know I’ve not yet won them over. I cannot replace. I can only do what I do.
I noticed the philosopher’s hands first. Sitting in orientation in a cramped room in August I noticed the way they were light and dark at the same time, patches of skin that were brown that faded into whiteness; the black hair on his arms and knuckles swirling into non-patterns. All the darkness like some weird embarrassing truth about him, like something private was out on the table; something intimate revealed. I should stay away from him. But I could tell he was looking at me too. Some inevitable interaction took place—he started it. On his porch over beers he’ll tell me has that disease where his skin is light and dark at the same time. I can tell it’s something that bothers him, but I find it wildly attractive, so literary, so special, how he occupies both spaces in different places on his body. Months after we stop speaking I’ll get a school publication that has a photo of us in it, it’s a crowd shot at a hockey game, it’s just the back of our heads, but it’s us. I’ll put it in the trash. The guy who sat next to us at the hockey games always confused me with the philosopher’s girlfriend. The first time I met the philosopher’s girlfriend I drank her under the table and beat her at darts. Her timidity curled into anger. Later the philosopher recounted her fire, She felt like she just couldn’t win. Because I’m a bad person, I smiled.
Fall semester the philosopher is always driving me around late at night, driving me out to the middle of nowhere and sometimes he’s going too fast and it feels right. Once he drives me far away from the town we live in, keeps climbing these winding hills, and crossing bridges he goes faster and faster until we reach a fork, then pulls over, gets out and pees. I can see the wheat bending around his body in the dark. His legs splayed wide, his back to me. I press my forehead against the car window and wince. I shift my thighs against one another his car seat. This is erotic. Some dark weird game and I like playing it. But we only ever end up where we started, back in this cow town; disconnected.
Something isn’t adding up. In January I wake up everyday and think, he should have loved me by now. Here I am, and I still have to walk and talk and move and breathe and pay rent without love. One night we go to the bar down the street and he picks a fight with a guy who tries to hit on me. The guy handed me a fire cracker and asked how I was doing and then it was over—The whole thing took about forty-five minutes for the philosopher to tell this guy he didn’t even know what an argument was, much less an idea. The guy is a shrugging, friendly, babbling, bear and I don’t know how I feel about the evisceration. Maybe the philosopher is cruel in a new way after this moment. Like on New Years Eve right after the ball dropped and he told me to “Shut the fuck up,” in front of a bunch of colleagues and I think I died for a moment, like went into a bright light, shook someone’s golden hand, which unfortunately dropped me back into that moment where I still had to deal with it. I wanna set this off. I whine to him rubbing the firecracker on his chest. He zips his coat and we blow out. There’s a bottle of beer in my purse left over from god knows what—so we drive to my house and he tells me to walk us to a place we can fire it. I drink the beer as we walk to an open field of snow a few blocks away. Our feet crunch through it and I’m so excited I’m full of energy and I’m jumping a little bit like a hopeful baby frog, clumsily rising to the occasion. I tell him he has to light it, because I’m too scared and he instructs me to walk a distance to be safe. He’s bent over lighting the cracker and then as soon as the light changes he’s running towards me through the dark. In that moment time is slowing down and I for a minute I think he’s my father, my mother, my brother, I think he’s become some kind of blood kin and we’re bound in some way and I want him to smash into me, push me over, crack my head on the ice, make my nose bleed, exert some kind of pressure on me that will last. I want proof that we touched. The firecracker fizzles and barely does anything. There is no finale. I remind myself he was running away from something, not running towards me. As we walk back we talk about the best thing the babbling bear at the bar said: This is the city of repressed joy. I smile, but inside I feel a slick black tar gliding sideways over every organ starting with my heart.
Evolution of Heat
I’m wailing like an ambulance into a hotel towel in the bathroom. My eyes are bloodshot from drinking on the casino floor, and I’ve just won $400 dollars at a slot machine. I haven’t cried like this in a long time. A kind of guttural insane howl and I can’t stop it. The towel muffles my sound, save for my gasping. My best friend and his boyfriend are asleep in the room and I’m trying not to wake them. Earlier he encouraged me to hit on a guy at the bar, and when I walked up to him, he must have seen that every part of me was shut down. I seem to cry hardest over things that were never mine because I’m a spoiled brat like that. With the philosopher I can’t seem to stop. I feel so fucking sad, like rivers and piles of bones at the bottom of every sea—fucking sad. I’ve sobbed in three different hotel bathrooms about him in the past three months jamming towels in my mouth to muffle the sound because by the third time I couldn’t bare to hear the noise I was making over him.
I walk around my neighborhood late at night looking for signs that I’m doing something right, but I just smell all the families around me, their lavender laundry, the shampoo steam from a shower, the garbage in the drive, gasoline, oil, dead mice on the lawn. I find objects they don’t want at the curb: a keyboard, a Halloween mask, a couch, a bald baby doll with a painted diaper and dark sharpie induced markings on her back. I pick her up, carry her a block, and then I too decide she’s worthless—And God damn it—I have a disease where I want everything to have some kind of meaning—I need it too, otherwise I don’t see the point. So it’s me and this baby doll and we’re both on the curb and nobody wants us. I go to the middle school down the block and crawl through the fencing and lie on the steps looking at the moon. I watch a man in the distance pull up and put a broken lawn mower in his truck and drive away. He must fix things. I think to myself, and then I wish he would put me in his truck, but then I hear the voice of my best friend, you can’t expect someone to fix you. That isn’t really what I want. I want someone to take me as broken as I am and still find a place for me in their garage, but that’s unrealistic too and I know it.
I message a friend: I’m having trouble believing life has any meaning.
His response: It may not, but you can’t give up. The world needs you.
I’m in such a Godless place in my life in a town whose history is so bloody and mafia tainted that there’s a monument for an “incorruptible citizen” in the graveyard by my house. I write down the dedication: Thomas Redfield Proctor: an incorruptible citizen and a pure patriot. When asked what he wanted in return for his services to the city he said, “I want nothing.” Dharma is such a bitch though. I keep telling my mom on the phone, in relationships, I don’t know how much to give and I don’t know how much to take and I keep getting the measurements wrong. She tells me this takes a lifetime to figure out. A poet smiles at me across a lunch table and says, if you give too much, that’s also egotism, and you’ll be punished. My skull starts splitting open while I sip my iced tea and I realize I should have been taking too much all along and how stupid am I to give more when the punishment is the same? I’ve tried so hard to be good in my life, do the right thing. The philosopher said this once in the middle of a fight. I was lying in his bed and he said, You’re good, you’re just too good, and I never thought this would be a bad thing, but it’s me and fucking Thomas Redfield Proctor we’re incorruptible and we’re in graveyard on a Saturday afternoon and he’s the best company I’ve had in weeks. He’s not asking for a thing. We should have been holding up stagecoaches with knives Proctor and I. We should have stolen milk off every stoop and then spat on all the cats. We should have lived in deep shadowed alleys taking and taking until our cheeks were packed solid with other peoples’ precious objects. Walking away from the monument a slobbery goblin of a pug is running towards me with all its might and I feel joy for a moment.
Initiation of Reaction
I wind up in luxury hotel in Boston on the edge of the bed in a negligee while a man from my past sits across from me and grabs my hand. This jolt of being touched is something I can’t process.
Since the philosopher told me I couldn’t sleep in his bed I’ve been sleeping with my hands between my legs. I’ll wake up and realize I’m touching myself. Like the image of the serpent that eats his own tail, this is a kind of lonely infinity that isn’t comforting. On the edge of the bed I tell the man from my past that I can’t love him, I’m incapable. He strokes my palm. I think I’m in love with someone else, someone who doesn’t love me back and maybe that’s not love but that’s the only thing I’ve ever known—wanting and I know it’s not the same as loving but it feels so close. This is how I wake up—the man with the true face is buckling his belt and shuffling out the door. Nothing happened. I shower and drink five glasses of tomato juice by myself in the hotel restaurant with my sunglasses on. When the waiter brings me toast I only eat the crust. I open a book and try to read the words on the page, but feel so trapped in this cycle of wanting what doesn’t want me and vice versa that the words don’t make sense. I’m supposed to be at a writer’s conference but I feel like a hack, like a talentless loveless hack. Less. Less. Less. This is how the thoughts snowball. This is how they pick up speed. There’s a rash of young girls this year with milky faces who are sitting in nooks scribbling in their notebooks and they make me nervous. My old professor didn’t show up to my reading last night and basically pretended not to know me at the hotel bar so I float down to Lord & Taylor and take a snakeskin skirt off a rack and check my phone. The philosopher has emailed that his hot older student is emailing him late at night after glasses of wine, what does this mean? he asks. I scroll through the correspondence. He’s cut out some of his replies to her. He’s clearly interested and he’s pretending he isn’t. I go temporarily blind at the French Connection rack. I hear other customers supporting one another’s choices:
-Oh I’d LOVE to see you in that.
-Don’t you LOVE this?
That word is so fucking degraded. One should never use this word, especially regarding objects. The philosopher writes me emails with the subject line “love, love, love” and inside is a link to a pair of shoes. Everyone is disappointing; so I casually look for poison among the bottles of perfume running my hands over the diamond, square, and oval cut-glass. He once told me an ex of his wore J’adore. I pick it up. It smells nothing like me. Nothing I would ever wear. Some honeydew melon of a girl without a care in the world wears that bullshit. If I drink this perfume that stinks like virgin would it kill me or just cause a weird scene? I’m imagining a headline in a Boston Newspaper: Loveless “Writer” Drinks Sweet Perfume, Vomits, Cries, Dies Clutching Michael Korrs Snakeskin Skirt. I imagine the philosopher hearing about it on the radio and shrugging as he cuts hospital corners in his sheets like the neat nick asshole I know him to be.
A shoe salesman appears when I pick up a spike heel and dig it into my palm. Do you need help? I put the heel down and smile.
If this is some kind of test, I can’t tell if I’m passing or not.
Back in Upstate New York I see a woman on the full moon. I’m in a gas station and she runs in like a goddamn wounded hyena screaming, WHERE ARE All THE MEN? And she keeps circling the sweaty pizza tank like a shark, her head bobbing like a t-rex asking for day-old bread and men. She’s obviously zooming on something but then she says, when she walks, she can always see another shadow, a man’s shadow covering her own—and that’s when I shrink back against the chip bags cause she’s starting to make sense. Like how I think I’m just doing my own good thing and then a man shows up and he’s bigger than everything, bigger than me, my life, my goals, and suddenly I’m a squashed bug and I can’t remember who I am, like a bomb victim tick-tick-boom! and the last image I recall is a man’s face before everything explodes. There was this man—I recount in my diary, in therapy, on the phone to my mom—everything fades to black.
But this wounded woman, she does something else, she keeps calling another woman in the gas station who has short hair a man. She keeps saying, “you know, you know, ’cause you’re a man,” and she is kind of pecking around the woman with short hair. The woman with short hair loses it and is finally like, “I AM NOT A MAN,” and then the wounded animal cackles this long weird upper induced woody-woodpecker cackle and road runners out the door like a psycho. The woman with the short hair though, she is also looking for a man. When her back was turned the man she was with had ducked out the front door and she didn’t see it. She is knocking on the bathroom door looking for him. When I get to my car she is a block behind him, screaming after him, JUST HOLD UP AND WAIT GODDAMNNIT, but he isn’t slowing down. Men. tick-tick-boom!
The philosopher laments to me that he wishes his hot student had waited until the semester was over to hit on him, because maybe it’s awkward now. I’m in his car and I keep looking at the door handle. If I pull the handle I can just jump out and save myself, save myself from having to comfort him about this. I put on my sunglasses and lean away from him. Right, too bad, I say flatly. Four months before he whines to me about this, he tells me in bed he wants to taste me. He wants to fuck me. This was after we spent dinner striking matches trying to see who could withstand the flame burning down to our fingers the longest. It turns out he’s better at getting burned. Piles of crooked coal-colored matchsticks later, I tell him, I taste like every other woman, and no other woman. We decide to wait. This is where it all gets muddy, because some how I’m in his bed every night for months and nothing happens. The few times I reach over to kiss him, he tells me to stop, he can’t, he just can’t. He pushed me further and further away and I spilled wine on his carpet and I shower every other day, not every day and I know he hated all of that—and now I’m comforting him because there’s another cunt to taste, and he never even tried mine, and I want to run us off the road and scream at him that I taste like black dirt, and lemongrass, and river stones, and sunlight, and bleach, and melted snow, and powdered sugar, and dynamite, and goddamn donuts, but I just sit there. We drive by the tire shop and the gas station and the brownstones and around the circle in the center of town and down past all the banks and I feel reduced. I’m the prime number of myself sitting in his car. I am naked, I have nothing left to offer. I am only a two and I suppose she is at least a seven or maybe even an eight-hundred and twenty-nine.
I’m trying to take stock of all these moments like when a nuclear bomb hits and your life becomes layered and stratified and expands before each explosion cuts through every layer of matter, every decision that’s added up to now. Like the time he texted me he “valued” me and I nearly lost my mind with how unfeeling and stupid that made me feel.
The people downstairs make good healthful foods like chicken, and potatoes, and stewed carrots, and they have good healthful sex where they look at each other, and their running shoes are lined up next to one another at the door. They live good complete lives. They really have made a meal out of life. They are not hungry. I fall asleep with all the lights on sometimes and eat just walnuts for days. I am so hungry I could eat everything; light bulbs, tuna cans, tea cups, arms, legs, house plants. People fear the dead, but it’s the living that will eat you, want you, expect you to do something. God the living are hungry and they want what you have. I tell the philosopher this over and over, I will devour you. Maybe this is why it never works. No one wants to be consumed.
Why do we confuse possession with love? When really it’s a trap we set for ourselves. Every man I’ve ever loved, ever fucked, has confused, conflated these terms. I say I want to fuck, and they hear I want to love. I say I want love, and they offer sex. Like a funhouse mirror I am fat, I am thin, I am ugly, I am pretty, I am sex, I am love, and yet, I’m still me, still alone, still something that is all these things that lets them live inside me.
In the lean, long, afternoon days in early spring, when the sun gets stretchy, bouncy, and caramel colored, when I’m not speaking to the philosopher very much I walk by his office and find his hot student in the chair I used to occupy. She’s always emphatically leaning towards him, gesticulating, trembling and fumbling like a pansy blossom that shakes in hard, cold, spring rain. I suck my teeth, and try to imagine that she’s right for him, that they make sense, that there’s some inevitable, magnetic force that draws them together and that I’m in the wrong. I practice Buddhist mantras of detachment in my head to the click of my own step walking away. I am not attached to him. I do not need him. I am an observer on this earth. Let him go. But everything is burning, it feels like everything is on fire, or under water, or trapped in ice, or something has caved in, or exploded, or that something whole is now shattered so expertly its power is now decentralized, permanently altered. If I let myself feel this much I will eventually learn something. I want to feel like she will make him happy. But when I imagine it, I want to dig a hole and lie down in it. I want to get in my car and drive away and never come back. Lately it seems all my stories end this way, there’s another woman who has something I don’t and I fold at the competition. I keep thinking someone will see my essence when I take myself out of the fight, but I end up staring into pools of water; my sink, a river, a puddle looking into the rings of water wondering if anyone sees me at all because my reflection is very muted, muddy.
The philosopher asks me out for a beer and I go because I keep thinking I’ll get to some understanding some higher plane of existence if I continue to try to give him what he wants. Almost immediately I start to panic. He is trying to reminisce about setting off that firework from months ago now and I feel infected, the more he talks, some slow fever has blackened and thickened my blood and is moving around my body. I want to grab his neat shirt collar and bite through both his lips to make him stop, make him stop talking about things that mean so much to me, stop understanding me without really understanding me, stop cherishing, cherishing things that happened—past tense, because the present is unimaginably complicated and fraught.
I am freaking out in my body, in my head, and every gentle sentence he utters I’m snapping at. I’m an angry turtle defending its nest of soggy eggs. It’s because I feel like I’m his piggy bank he drops a penny in every day and hopes one day to smash me open and be rich in me. It’s because I have been a wishing well all my life a place where dreams go underwater to be kept safe. I am keeping so many dreams, old ones, ones that people walked away from and I’m heavy. He is trying to plant a dream in me and I do not think I can hold its weight. I think his dream will crush me, this dream of being nothing to one another, being cordial. He once told me his father always crossed to the American side of the border before he got into fistfights, didn’t want to sully his own soil with his sleeping monster. The way the Canadian border split his father Jekyll and Hyde. The way the philosopher has split himself into touchable and untouchable. The way he tells me not to break the silence of his body even though he’s penetrating me in every other way. I think he has this kind of potential, this kind of deep spleen with the world that surrounds him. I know that his anger is congealed sadness. I know that his generosity is another form of control. I know that he only surrounds himself with the finest of things so he must on some level see me as worthy. Sometimes I wish he would just rage at me, let me have the full spectrum of him like one big kaleidoscopic wound. But instead he stays unmoved by everything I’ve said or done, completely flat. I think he sees this flatness, this static, this radio silence as a gift.
I don’t exactly know how this story ends yet, because it keeps going. The semester ends and I sit on the philosopher’s porch as he complains about the hot student being too much of a child, maybe not mature enough. I sip a beer and feel numb. I have learned to retreat into the most dark tunnel of myself whenever I am around him now.
Before an explosion there is particulate matter that collects and rolls itself into a combustion. Varying degrees of reasons, of elements that make these moments, explosions, occur. All factors could have added up into something else, one shift and nothing happens, one shift and everything explodes, I explode.
I am being crushed under the weight of everything that’s already occurred. The ways in which things all seem to spiral into one another, down and onto one another, collecting dust and silt and rain.
In spring, I take long walks in the graveyard near my house and I see the snow melting into long streams of grey water, the way it rushes over the small shoots of green grass both drowning and feeding it, the noise of it filling the air like glass cracking. Despite all the confusion, while I wasn’t looking things changed, something new is happening, and I must wait to see what it is. Down lurking beneath the surface that is melting there are shifts in temperature, shifts and striations in the dirt, shifts and flows in the silt and slime. The way that everything is now moving, now in motion when before it was so still and part of me misses the suspension of the ice the suspense of when it will break, dissolve. I am dissolving. The nothing that happened between me and him has been consumed by more elements, ones in motion, ones that are memorable, more memorable than the frozen private moments that stiffly sat between us. The core is always hot, the surface is always cold. I must accept our non-relationship as surface. I am cold. She is hot. She is core. I am crust. As I’m walking through the very first grey light motion of spring I see a few flakes of snow coming down. There is duality. There is coexistence of spring and winter. The core cannot be without a surface, hot cannot live without cold, frozen can’t be without the possibility of melt, I am certain there is no meaning in life and I am happy. I am certain there is no meaning in life and I am sad. I try to grasp the snow as it falls on my head, I try to grasp the thaw and it flows by me. I might be the only thing alive in this graveyard. As lonely and as unloved as I feel now, I know this kind of loneliness is still a privilege it’s still something, it’s not nothing. So I let it curl up and take roost inside of me as I turn around and change directions, walking back towards the living.
Suzanne Richardson was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. She lives in Utica, New York where she is an Assistant Professor of English teaching English and creative writing at Utica College. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as The New Ohio Review, The Journal, Prick of The Spindle, Sundog Lit, and others. More of her work can be found at: http://www-suzannerichardsonwrites.tumblr.com
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: One thing I can say surprised me is that even after writing this piece I remain confused more than ever about what actually happened between myself and the philosopher. The events are true, and I stacked them up, and ordered them, and tried to make sense of them, and they still don’t make sense to me. I still don’t understand why what happened, happened and why things turned out the way they did. I usually, through the process of writing come closer to something, but in this piece the process of writing served as a way to distance myself from the events; everything was very raw, and writing it allowed me to put these ideas and events somewhere they couldn’t hurt me anymore. I once had a teacher in high school tell me to write down things that upset me so I could stop letting them live inside me. I don’t write for that reason anymore, but this essay was a return to that way of writing I think—get it out so it will stop hurting. I think the confusion comes through in this essay in a way that works aesthetically. Normally, I wouldn’t allow myself to see a piece like this as “finished.” I think its sloppiness works with the organizing principle.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: During my MFA program my fiction professor Dan Mueller told me: “Write as much as you can and train yourself to write anywhere at any time.” I still follow this advice as best I can and it’s never failed me. I am able to write almost anywhere and get into my focus to produce something in as little as 15- 20 minutes.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I’m pretty obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. I read his entire works at 19 and it changed my relationship to literature. Every time I read him I find something new to ponder. In each stage of my life I’ve clung to different pieces of his. I’ve also read everything by southern author Ellen Gilchrist. I am in love with her first short story collection “In The Land of Dreamy Dreams,” it’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, the characters are complex and the imagery is unique and the voice is very dark. It’s modern southern gothic to a T. “The Kiss” by Kathryn Harrisson is my favorite memoir. It is so beautiful and unfair and upsetting—every time I read this book it makes me want to write.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: Before I took Dan Mueller’s advice I had a lot of hocus pocus about when and where/how to write. I can honestly say I’ve taken all those rituals away from myself. I’ve gotten to the point where I struggle if I don’t have my headphones—but that’s the only luxury I afford myself. I’ll often listen to one song over and over again while writing. The song I listened to while writing this piece was Sea Wolf’s “Whirlpool.” I wrote this piece mostly at night, at my dinning room table, after taking long walks in my neighborhood.