I water dead plants and store volumes of love letters from five years ago and keep ticket stubs from mediocre movies I saw with friends who hate me now. It’s in my nature, I think, to cling to futility. I joke sometimes that I’ve never gotten over anything, ever. That everything I’ve ever loved will always be loved even when it is no longer encouraged or even allowed. My friends think I’ve gone mad. I scrapbook memories much like mothers do with their babies’ firsts. First steps, first solid foods, first words. Except mine consist of less beginnings and more endings. My heart hoards it all. The prom dress that doesn’t fit me anymore, college rejection letters from ages past, the final photo I took with my childhood crush before he died. Maybe I have gone mad, or maybe this is just my way of loving. Archiving the shopping receipts. Pressing flowers from old flames. And of course, watering the plants until the soil spills over the edge.
I want nothing of passive love. Give me gore and sweat and flesh.
I do not mesh well with lukewarm, tepid-hearted temperance,
ironed-out wrinkles, spoonfuls of sugar to make it all wash down
a little easier. I hate the kind of love you have to tiptoe around,
making sure not to disturb the floorboards, avoiding eggshells.
The kind of love that cannot scream its own name, the kind
that must deliberate before making a decision—useless love!
Give me blood and heat and whiplash. Give me eager hands
that know how and when to trespass. I want to love like a child
with a match and a box to strike. Unthinking love. Burning
everything down love, the whole sky swelling in fear of itself.
At ten, it was eating, not picking,
the soft flesh around my fingertips.
I’d do it on the bus to fifth grade
and then wonder why no cute boy
wanted to hold my hand, pitiful
cannibal. At fifteen, it was a boy
who held more than just my hand,
but my heart, aflame, in his pocket.
At twenty, it is perfume and candles
and house plants. My windowsill
brims with succulents and seasonal
mums and I tend to them like small
children. It’s the end of the world
but playing the role of careful mother
offers the almost-believable illusion
that we are not as doomed as we feel.
Praise be to the things that grow.
Praise be to the obsessions we grow
with and then out of, our dead skin
and dead names and overwatered
plants, still clinging to life somehow.
I thirst for strawberry summers, my nine-year-old body
outstretched on the grassy slope of our front yard.
It is noon and I smell of residential pool chlorine
and not nearly enough sunscreen. The world is good
and I am aware of this, shoulders burnt pink enough
to start a fire, sky so cloudless I imagine dipping my toes
into it, finding no bottom, and sinking into some strange
paradise. But I blink and there I am on my back again,
and the mailwoman has arrived with nothing important,
just grocery store coupons, a water bill, and a wave hello,
and I wave hello back, because I am nine summers young
and I believe in the kindness of culdesac angels and that I,
freckled and peachy, play a part in a good, good world.
Love is not meant to be saved for later, leftovers tossed into cardboard Chinese takeout boxes and shoved to the back of the refrigerator only to be found, still untouched, weeks later. Love is meant to be eaten now, before it has the chance to begin the process of cooling over. It should be ravaged with your hands and nothing else. But always remember to wash them first. Only then should you feast.
Love is meant to be devoured, to drip down to the chin and licked from the lips. It is meant to leave stains on the lap of your best jeans that will never come out in the wash.
It is meant to be messy. It is meant to be dug into.
I have saved far too much of my love for later. I have forgotten it under tupperware, behind half-full milk cartons, already growing mold by the time it finds me again. This is no proper way to love. Because love is best served warm. Best if used by now— while we have tables to set, people to sit with, hearts to fill like perfect china plates.
You don’t believe in God, only an indifferent universe. I know this because, one night, under invisible stars, I asked you what you thought happened to our souls when we die. And you told me souls were merely constructs invented by humans as a way to keep pretending our lives possess any real importance. I told you that was stupid before you could keep philosophizing, tearing apart every possible creation myth like the Devil’s most infuriating advocate. Picture it now: a self-righteous atheist lying next to a girl raised on Sunday school and plastic rosary beads. Textbook polar opposites, flip sides of coins, conflicts of interest. I fell in love with you because you were everything I could not stand.
When you went backpacking across crowded tourist spots in foreign cities I could hardly pronounce, you flooded my phone with photos from the insides of grand cathedrals. Stained glass windows, gold crucifixes, gothic architecture so dramatic it could make nonbelievers believe in something. I never asked for those pictures, not even one, but you sent them anyway, perhaps knowing subconsciously that I would feel something sacred stirring inside of me. From behind the lens, you were not contemplating the shape of God, but the shape of my wonder upon receiving what you could capture.
You, standing awestruck by martyrs carved from ancient wood. You, a skeptic, rejecting all notions of a life apart from this one. You, contemplating the illusion of heaven, and somehow thinking only of me.
I’m not sure what or Whom I believe in anymore, apart from the gallery of images I can’t bring myself to delete. I flip through them one-by-one, imagining your gaze finding something beautiful enough to steal, for a moment, and send across the ocean to a wholehearted believer shifting quietly in her sleep.
Textbook polar opposites, flip sides of coins, conflicts of interest. I fought you in the twin bed we shared until I went red in the face and cried at my lack of ability to change your mind. I fought you on a park bench in January during that record-breaking blizzard until our shoulders were covered in pearly white. I fought you in front of our old friends after you brought up your stupid politics and conspiracy theories and when you looked at me and said Facts don’t care about your feelings and actually meant it.
But back when it was simple, you were just an atheist in a cathedral praising God without meaning to.
You thought of me. You sent me photos. You were an icon of irony.
To remember it now, though we were anything but holy.
That once, I believed in God and you, in me.
I am sick of writing about you
in remember whens or even really at all.
But I remember when I’d watch you brush your teeth
in the fogged-up mirror, humming in perfect pitch
to whatever new indie album we happened to be playing
through your shitty plastic speaker that kept cutting out
and how I’d come from behind to tickle your sides,
making you spit blue foam all over the running faucet.
You hated when I did that and I remember when
pissing you off was my favorite hobby, leaving the light on
after we’d crawl into bed, mocking the way you’d pronounce
certain words like how you made “tour” rhyme with “sewer”
instead of “pour” and how I’d always tell you that everything you did
was wrong. How you’d tie your shoes like an overgrown preschooler,
forming perfect bunny ears, or how you’d never think to double-check
the weather forecast until we were both dripping with summer sky,
clothes drenched and bodies shivering. I am sick of thinking
about any of this, or about how I bruised your forearm
when I got mad enough to kill you, how I came crawling back
before you had the chance to heal. Sometimes I remember
when I did everything I could’ve possibly done to make you hate me—
piling my dirty dishes in your kitchen sink, rejecting your calls,
trash-talking your friends out of jealousy that anyone other than me
could be allowed the sacred privilege of loving you—
until you gave up and finally did.
Remember when you didn’t?
How’s your mom doing? Does she still paint postcard watercolors of the weird birds that peck at the bay window to wake her up in the morning? I wonder if she’s still as sick as I remember. The last time I visited she couldn’t even manage to bring a soup spoon to her lips. You tried to help but she struck your hand away and then there was chicken broth everywhere, vegetables in her lap, anger spilling over.
Does she curse my name under her labored breath for leaving when it got too hard to watch? For sitting in the corner seat and observing as her voice trembled Take me Lord, take me now! and you, grabbing her by the shoulders, shrieked Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! — and how I felt my face bloat with red-hot blood and sprinted out the back door to throw up next to the broken A/C unit. You came out later and we stood there, shaking, letting our racing pulses pound against each other’s heaving chests. We were statues, instruments, martyrs.
I haven’t held you in years yet I’ve been wondering if you still see the colors of that day running down the backs of your eyelids like I do, the day your mother begged for death and I decided I couldn’t take it anymore, watching you die to keep her alive. I think about her often. Her tiny goldfinch sketches, her rage at the unfair universe, how she called me daughter until I couldn’t deserve it anymore.
Light plays on the ridges of your collarbones
and I have determined that I love you most
fast asleep, a human prism painted by morning.
This moment, I want to preserve it for the rest of time:
your chest rippling in waves, cresting and crashing
under an overcast Saturday sky, acoustic guitar swelling
from my next-door-neighbor’s apartment kitchen radio.
I wonder where sleep takes you. Am I with you, there?
Or are your dreams wild and boyish, full of outgrown
aggression and muddy knees and brutal brotherhood?
Me, I dream of nothing else but this warm light
and how it chisels you, melting your features
into marble, an act of practical worship.
Nothing else but steady breathing,
this morning, faint music.
I did not panic.
Instead, I caught the bus without crying and texted my mom that I didn’t.
Nor did I think much about death or check my pulse fifty times to make sure it hadn’t found me yet.
Instead, I made myself a sunflower butter and blueberry jam sandwich and ate every bite of it on a park bench, crusts included, without letting the morsels of guilt get stuck in my teeth or in my throat.
I did not panic.
Today is the first day of September and you drove me to the drugstore in the rain to pick up my new prescriptions. On the way there we sang along to cheesy country songs written about the pandemic.
I did not think much about the pandemic.
Later, after binging How I Met Your Mother like we always do, we talked about the future over death-by-chocolate ice cream. A year from now who knows where we’ll be.
I did not panic.
Instead, I held you close and told you I loved you
and did not think about how long I’d be able to—
I just did.