TUNNEL VISION

When the movie of my life plays before my eyes, a recap of however many years I’ve collected, when I’m clinging onto the skin of it by a thinning thread and the faint music hums in that near-death glimmer of a blinding light, I wonder what I’ll see. The other night I wept over the idea, living tears burning my body, one day gone, this temporary vessel. What will be my final vision, passing from this world to whatever cryptic life (or lack thereof) exists apart from this one? Who will be waiting for me at the finish line, holding a poster? What will it say?

I’ve been too many people for too many people. I’ve played hero and villain and wounded thing crouching in the corner of a bad man’s bedroom. I’ve played the other woman and your only woman and the shivering woman, dipping her toe into the frigid waters of an unknown river, half-alive and tempted to drown. 

Maybe, in that long-awaited slideshow of memory, I’ll greet every great love of my life again, every pair of eyes I’ve adored, lingering for a brief moment just to warm myself by those familiar fires. I’m a lucky one. I’ve been seen by so many.

I’ll watch myself break and bloom all over again. There’s no use crying now. 

When I reach God, in all of his unfathomable might, he’ll smile and ask me, “How did you like your life?” and I’ll look down and whisper, “Which one?”

A VOICEMAIL

Hey Michelle, so um, I’m in the line for the brownie sundae right now, and um, [emphatically] they have birthday cake ice cream! So I mean, do we want birthday cake ice cream, or like, do we still want the espresso chip, like, what’s going on here? So yeah, birthday cake ice cream, uh, is that a no-go or is that a full-on go, is that a full-send? Uh, let me know. [long pause] Also side note, I love you a lot. Thanks for everything.

One year, one month, and twenty-nine days (or, if you round up, two months– effective just two hours from now). That’s how long it’s been since you called me from inside the campus ice cream shop while I sat outside at our usual table, the one tucked in the hidden corner under the veranda. That night, I had lovingly forced you to order for two distinct reasons. First: because, at the time, I had crippling social anxiety that would’ve undoubtedly sent me hyperventilating in front of the delectable selection of various sorbets and custards, and believe me, that’s embarrassing for a nineteen-year-old college student, obviously. Second: because the sky looked particularly holy, so holy that I would’ve been delighted to die underneath it. Full moon, twinkling ether, accompanied by the chime of shrieking laughter from passersby. I was happier waiting. Besides, our meetings were secret. Hence why we had to camouflage.

So I ignored your call. I figured it wasn’t important, and your stupid grin through the glass was confirmation. You shrugged your shoulders in your usual fashion and that was the end of it. Minutes later, you came strolling out, two scoops of espresso chip brownie sundae dripping through the cracks in the cheap paper boat. Melted chocolate seeped through the hollow spaces between your fingers and I remember ugly-laughing at the sight of your foolishness. Typical. You’re a dork, I remarked, I hate it, and we annihilated our dessert like it was the Last Supper or a final meal before a gruesome electric chair execution.

For over a year now, that voicemail has been buried under twenty or so messages left by eager telemarketers hungry for identity theft and respectfully ignored by yours truly. Today I stumbled upon it, still unread, and decided to click play– only because it had your name on it and I wanted to remember what you sounded like before you swiftly decided you’d never leave another one. I played it. I choked back a burning lump of regret, the furthest thing from sugar-sweet.

What if I knew birthday cake was an option? Would I have chosen it, or would I have stood firm in our silly tradition of always espresso chip, flirtatiously calling you a traitor for posing such a blasphemous suggestion? Would I have said I love you back? Would I have meant it? Or would I just keep doing that thing I always did with you, apprehensively looking over my shoulder to see if anyone had noticed us? Would I have allowed myself to love you without shame? 

It wasn’t about birthday cake or espresso chip or even the stars that night. It was, instead, only about–

Also side note, I love you a lot. Thanks for everything.

Also side note, I love you a lot. Thanks for everything.

Also side note, I love you a lot. Thanks for everything.
For what? For letting my phone ring that night, pressing Reject because it couldn’t have been important enough? For laughing when someone would ask about us, playing dumb and protecting my reputation without regard for how you’d take it? I play it over and over, the voicemail and the memory of what happened under last year’s April stars, loving you but looking over my shoulder.

CHURCH STREET

You’d walk with me to therapy. I’d constantly reassure you that I was capable of getting there alone. After all, the lady was kind. Her office, a couple blocks from campus, was decorated in comforting shades of purple. She diffused delicious essential oils (usually lemongrass, sometimes lavender), and the entire practice was situated at the top of a pillared mansion, up the cascading staircase and to the right. I knew I’d manage without you. But you didn’t care, you knew I secretly preferred it, having a companion to fool around with before pouring my trauma out on a silver platter for her to examine and dissect. On the way there, we’d stop for spicy Chinese noodles, burn our tongues trying to shove it all down quickly enough to make it to the appointment on time, and then jaywalk (more like jaysprint) across the busy street to beat the idle traffic light.

We were usually alone in the waiting room, watching the sun burn the telephone wires of our small town the color of a ripe apricot. I’d schedule my appointments late to avoid the rush hour of other college students waiting to get their respective brains “fixed.” I’d make faces at you from behind whatever dog-eared, ragged copy of Good Housekeeping I could find, feigning pornographic bedroom eyes just to make you laugh. You’re a temptress, you’d say half-jokingly. But that’s exactly what I was doing, tempting you to need me.

My therapist had a name for you: your friend in the waiting room. She’d pop her head out to call my name and wave to you, knowing you’d be there, one leg coolly folded on your knee, working on homework balanced like a trapeze artist. Inside the room with the door shut, I’d bombard her with the usual pain: my characteristic loss of friends (inevitable, and always my fault), my abandonment issues, and my unforgiving hostility toward my family for cursing me with the genetics that made me want to kill myself. She’d listen and offer empathy. One night, after our session ended, I had one hand on the doorknob before she stopped me. Is that sweet boy in the waiting room your boyfriend? I wanted to say, He used to be. I wanted to say, Kind of. But instead I said, No, he’s just my friend— which wasn’t a lie, but wasn’t a full truth either. Well, she replied with a scarecrow-like smile pasted on her face, You’re lucky to have someone like him.

And I was. 

I break out in cold sweat thinking about walking to see her again. I’ve been putting it off, cancelling appointments, faking soundness of mind just to avoid walking past our token Chinese restaurant with the sticky booths and the chain of mom-and-pop stores perfect for mindless window shopping and the pedestrian light that never turns and Church Street– fittingly named for the Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and Lutheran churches standing stoically one after another like dominoes– where we’d test the door handles of each building hoping one would let us in. It was stupid fun. But you’ve grown tired of me, and you despise me now, which just means that no one’s gonna walk me there if I ever muster enough courage to walk back. No one’s gonna sit for a full hour in the waiting room just to take the transit bus with me after sunset so I wouldn’t have to ride alone. No one’s gonna ask me how it went– Did you tell her about your parents? How do you feel?— or squeeze my hand in the dark when it went terribly, the nights I’d dive a little too deeply into my hurt. You were my friend. You held my hand. I didn’t know it then, but I needed you.

She’ll ask me, Where’s your friend?  And I’ll shrug my head and say something like Not here, or Probably just busy, because I’ll talk about anything to anyone– my twisted history, my constant suffering, my wounds that won’t heal– but I won’t talk about Church Street, or how all of the church doors were bolted shut, or how I wanted to kiss you on the way back, like old times, but didn’t.

Critical Moments of Convincing Faith

after Robert Hass

What makes love matter lies at the atomic level, in matter itself.
Daring graze on a quivering thigh, eager trace of the vertebrae, a slipped fabric

please! then a sensation of holiness, guilty baptism, both of us glowing godly
in the ungodly. You clutch me and I hold back Amen, as if your act of doing so

could be mistaken for prayer. The turning points of every great love are buried
in the gray mundane. Too often omitted, accidentally overlooked until after

the resolution, when the other half of the bed becomes its own winter,
and no one is there to laugh at you when your hair falls into your ketchup

like when we would sit in the back booth of the filthy McDonalds condemning
the sins of capitalism and American consumerism and we are taking short turns

sipping flat soda from the same straw and cracking up until the amber liquid
stings its way out of our nostrils, and we are almost crying for countless reasons

like snorting soda and inescapable classism and how foolish it is to lose your
virginity on a dorm room bed and how Pulp Fiction is overrated, the subject

of far too many brainless intellectual debates and how neither of us want
to say the thing we are both thinking, the words to make it all materialize,

that will give our blessed love a skeleton and skin and organs capable of
rupturing, both of us refusing to claim responsibility for giving form

to this breathing thing we share, that we know to be true, our bodies
becoming real, every small movement repeating Amen, Amen, Amen.

(US IN PRESENT TENSE)

No part of us is dead. I encounter our characters in stumbled-upon places: 

between the lines of the novel I’m reading (right now it’s Normal People— you’re Connell and I’m Marianne. It’s self-explanatory; you’d understand if you ever stumble upon a copy)

and on the corner of Main Street where giddy couples on dates slam the pedestrian button as an attempt to play God with the traffic light (remember when we were beautifully idiotic enough to try, over and over and over again?) 

and in the experimental films I watch in the wee hours of almost-dawn when I can’t be bothered to sleep (almost always these days. Rest is a lost art). In those films, the supposed lovers in question never end up together (predictably star-crossed, Hollywood-esque, Shakespearean archetype!) but they’re given satisfactory (yet still tragic) endings anyway, just adequate enough to stomach. 

In my memory I’m trying to preserve our ending as something satisfactory, too– an entity of good enough— which means that these days I practice smiling at those infatuated kids comically desperate for their turn to cross the street. They’re young and they deserve the experience of fleeting perfection. I don’t roll my eyes at their obvious eagerness anymore. Because that used to be us, and everyone deserves that. I watch through the credits of the three-hour-long films even though I know how they end. I’m twenty pages from finishing Normal People, and while I’m half-hoping Sally Rooney wrote Marianne and Connell tethered forever, I’d understand if she chose comfortably apart instead.

Somehow we are still alive  (in the spaces between, the endless distances, the quietudes, peripherals, and parentheticals.) And that, my old friend, is peace.

on intimacy

not of the bodily variety– our little deaths, lust so potent
it glows from under skin and flickers– but the intimacy
of ease. of sharing combs and toothbrushes, however
accidental, assimilating to the foul odors and mediocre
sex and intoxicated vomit stains on bedsheets, intimacy.
to come undone in the presence of another, unwinding
the particulars of our histories and stripping them naked,
letting the wind erode what is dead. to love is to know.
to know is to open a door and let fate decide what stays.

SUBJECT:

I want to send you an email. Not a postage-stamped handwritten letter, my soul tucked away in a white envelope and licked shut. I can’t stand the mere possibility of you turning the key to your apartment mailbox, fully expecting nothing, yet finding a piece of me drowned in a tsunami of overdue bills and months-expired coupon books. I’d rather let my words disintegrate into oblivion in an online inbox. Or better yet, your automatic spam folder, brimming with useless junk and phishing bots hungry for identity theft. I want you to know so many things without you having to endure the trauma of reading them, lump in your throat, sick to your stomach. I know I hurt you back then and that I still hurt you now. I know my apologies are knives in wounds that still twist, months later. Would you delete it? Send me away for good? I’d understand.

Should I start with Dear [Redacted] or just [Redacted] followed by a comma, plain and painless? Does Dear leave too much to interpretation, too much “You are dear to my heart, and you still have so much of it in the palm of your hand”? Because that would be embarrassing. Should I begin with vague pleasantries– I can’t believe it’s June. I’m drowning in that Northern Virginia subtropical humidity! I know you remember how awful it feels. Anyway, how have you been coping with everything? Wild, uncertain times.

Should I dive in headfirst or dip my toe in the water? You make me want to take the plunge, to curse all possible consequences and damn them to the deep. You always have. 

The cursor tempts. I give in. No repartee, just my heart in all of its nakedness.

———————–

Dear [Redacted],

The lack of you unsettles me. Your absence is ear-splitting and all I can do is listen.

Is someone else making you happy? If so, I wonder what her name sounds like spilling off your tongue. Does it cascade like honey? Does she kiss your shoulders like it’s the last time, every time? I trust your taste. I just know she’s lovely without having to meet her.

What did you do with all of the letters I wrote you? Do they still occupy the bottommost drawer of your computer desk, still secured in that crinkly pink wrapping paper? Or, if you had to get rid of them, did you choose to recycle? That sounds like you, adorably obsessed with sustainability and being a good person. There’s a comfort in imagining my words being made new, serving some grander purpose. Cleaned and reprocessed and reincarnated into another life. I like the idea of that, another chance.

I’m reading more than usual these days. It’s a way to kill time and I’m always killing time; it’s how I cope without your help. Have you ever heard of the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney? Probably not. It’s more up my alley, but it reminds me a lot of us. Weaving in and out of each other’s timelines, stopping for a brief moment to sit longingly and absorb as much of each other as humanly possible before having to diverge again. Never a last time with you. Never a last time loving you, either. Was that too much? I’m sorry.

I shouldn’t be writing you. I have a life that needs tending to. I kiss someone else now and I fully adore him. Please try your hardest to not misunderstand. But I’m going through the motions of this strange design, this exotic geometry, and I can’t stop thinking about the second nature easiness of belonging to someone like you. Rummaging through your closet without asking to find something soft enough to sleep in. Associating skin with holy— not sin or hell. Careful back rubs when I would doze off mid-panic attack. Now all you are to me is a fleeting vision I can’t touch. Weird, right?

As much as I want you to remember me as a giggling, wavy-haired siren ogling you from across the room (and all of our seemingly endless distances) I know you probably don’t. My mind romanticizes the woman I was for you. I could’ve sworn I did everything right.

But I didn’t and no one understands that more than you. You were the target at the end of my barrel. The test drive forever. The dry run lover. The body I gave up on. I know that was what kept you up at night, your mind repeating disposable, disposable, disposable until you’d slip out of consciousness.

I wonder if your favorite tea is still chai and if you drink it with her while she sits in your lap and calls you baby (does that still make you cringe?) Do you still wash your hair in the sink because it’s more convenient? Do you still insist on the same brand of underwear and refuse to even try any other kind? That’s still the silliest thing to me.

Tell me anything or nothing. It’s alright, whichever one you choose.

Love,

Sincerely,

Yours,

Best,

Take care always,

Remember I’m always here,

Love,

M

Eighth Wonder of the Apartment Kitchen

I keep thinking about the time I tried to convince you that substituting olive oil for the vegetable oil I had forgotten to toss into my grocery cart earlier that day would work perfectly fine for the recipe. It’s just oil, I shrugged. And ginger snaps are spicy enough to mask the difference, anyway. Leaning over the kitchen counter, slumped in your usual posture, you shook your head omnisciently and promised me it wouldn’t. Just trust me, you said. But I’ve always been stubborn– especially with you– so I ignored your rash foreshadowing and poured the pale green liquid until it spilled over the edge of the measuring cup. Into the batter it settled and sunk. You smiled as I relished in my own genius, twirling in circles, a kitchen fairy.

When the oven beeped, our cookies had turned dogsh-t beige and lumpy. The texture and flavor reeked of my poor judgment. As I disgustedly dumped the contents of the tray into the disposal, I remember taking note of the depth of your stare– half pure fascination, half all-knowing. You were certain I wouldn’t listen; I hardly ever did. You just wanted to observe me, annoyingly persistent and forever set in my ways. In your eyes I was the Eighth Wonder of the Apartment Kitchen.

I should’ve heeded your advice about the oil. And then again, when you warned me through sticky tears that the man I would eventually leave you for would squander me like a counterfeit, like a lousy batch. If I were a real genius of foresight, I would’ve saved the batter for tomorrow. I’d siphon it into Tupperware until I could buy a cheap bottle of the proper oil. We’d bake tomorrow, you and I. 

Maybe I’d even stay with you, instead of fleeing from the only person who cared enough to adore me, even in the failure of my own false prophecy. 
To be observed like that by another soul again.  To be understood and adored–just trust me–before the timer went off and it was time to reveal what we had made.

If you didn’t hate me this is what I would tell you

I couldn’t stand the way you styled your hair. Saturated with drugstore putty, one dense clump of blond flopping against your sweaty forehead when you ran. It reeked of forced seduction. I couldn’t run my fingers through the strands without finishing with tacky palms. I hated that I began to associate love with the residue it left behind, that sickly perfumed grease forever lingering on my skin.

I know you still harbor resentment towards me because I come from money. Not an abundance of it, but enough. Your face burned when I bought you lunch and concert tickets and that cheap pair of winter gloves when the stitches on yours started to come undone in the snow. And when you’d pay for my dinner on our once-in-awhile date nights, the register would beep, card declined again. It’s fine, I’ll take care of it, I said, and I meant it– it really was fine. But you’d thumb through your empty wallet anyway, fingers toying with that hollow space, promising me next time, next paycheck, I’m so sorry

I forgive you.

I loved that you didn’t need to buy my love. You made up for it in sh-tty poems on brown one-ply napkins that you’d write for me during your fifteen minute water breaks at work. Lavender weeds you’d pluck from the grass and fashion into mini bouquets to slip under my pillowcase for me to find when I couldn’t fall asleep. I always knew to check. Photos of me you’d take when I wasn’t looking, lost in thought or translation, my crescent eyes gazing out into the unknown future that scared us both. You managed to capture my fear on film. I just wanted to see how our story would end.

I could feel your heart sink from across the restaurant table when my family praised and coddled me over dinner. You never had anything close to that. You smiled at your plate of pasta and didn’t say a word. Just sat there stone cold and shot to death inside. At that moment I wanted to run away with you. I wanted to burst through those glass doors and leave everyone behind to give you the life you deserved. Textbook perfect. Rocking chair easy.

You and I dreamt of running away. You told me you’d take me to Denver or Santa Monica or Portland. We could rebuild there. You could show me real stars, the kind you used to chase when you were a battered little boy living on the poverty-stricken side of town. A world away, you told me. I hardly remember it anymore. But I know you did. You can’t forget a childhood like that, falling asleep famished to the sound of your parents shouting.

I saw a life with you, the kind I didn’t know existed until I met you. I was raised on Sunday mass and pairs of spotless shoes every new school year and heaps of pocket money to waste on comics at the yearly book fair. I knew you could taste my privilege when you kissed me hard. That it stung your lips and filled your lungs with yearning. My perfect life festered on your tongue. 

You wanted to deserve me. I should’ve left you gently. 

Maybe I hated your hair and your cash register apologies and your fear of being loved for real. Maybe I hated the way my family hurt you by being a real family or that you couldn’t just love me, you had to worship me.

But I never hated you. 

I would’ve ripped every dollar bill to shreds just to see those stars with you.

Alexa, Delete “Complete Nervous Breakdown” From My Calendar

I’ve been meaning to properly freak out for years now. I’ve been putting it off since the first time it clicked, that cursed switch in my brain flipping on and off: Oh my god. I really am batsh-t, huh? I must’ve been nine or ten when I realized that the brutal cinema screen death I yearned for wasn’t what other fourth graders had on their Dear Santa Christmas lists, paired with milk and cookies. (I was years before my time, apparently. Most of them would follow suit eventually.) Enough of that prologue, though; the moral of the story is I still haven’t found the proper time slot to block off on my schedule– a Google Calendar “appointment” reserved for finally losing it! But alas, other events take precedence, and rightfully so. The modern woman cannot possibly spare a free hour for writhing around on the floor seething with rage. I’ve got no time for a morning at the emergency room, much less a week to rot at the hospital. I guess I’m just bad at being a bona fide crazy person.

But there’s so much to freak out about! The list is as endless as the days I’ve begrudgingly survived. When my psychiatrist asks me, How are you doing? I sell her my genius, which can be summed up by the word Good! proclaimed with far too much enthusiasm. Customer service voice activated. I can’t help it. I turn on the pleasant demeanor (flip!) and sit there very still (hands folded!), smiling. And the magic works every time; I’ve perfected that flawless execution (wow, death pun! How clever of me.) It’s not that I’m actively trying to deceive her, it’s just how I protect my time. I feign stability because anything else would mess with my routine. I save psychosis for after-hours. 

Addendum.

A List of Things I Would Freak Out About If I Had Just Enough Time:

  • Photos people post of them posing with friends by the shore while the rest of the world rips apart at the seams (I promise you nobody cares about beach hair, don’t care, peace sign emoji, Brenda. People are dying and you’re still arching your back for that Instagram-worthy angle?)
  • I don’t mean to sound misogynistic. Sorry. My brain lacks etiquette.
  • Doors that don’t slam loud enough when I’m trying to prove a point.
  • Black holes, systemic racism, the effects of anger on the heart.
  • Reading bad poetry. Or even worse, writing it.
  • The entire concept embedded into the word family.
  • Religious dogmatists with (wrong) opinions.
  • Hypocrites.
  • Money.
  • People who are comfortable enough to not care about other people.
  • That I never got to choose whether I wanted to be born crazy or not.
  • (Or even if I wanted to be born in the first place.)

Alexa, delete “complete nervous breakdown” from my calendar.

Alexa, cancel my appointment with “happiness.”

Alexa, play something good. I don’t care what it is. I have things to do.