The thought of you: Wild. Spreads and inhabits. In my mind, as you are in our shared days, uncontained. You heat through each neuron, the six letters of your name in lights. The fragile dendrites spark electric, every branch flooded with your current. Saturation as a warm drowning. As relief. The thin tendrils smoke and curl. If there aren’t scars, how will I know you were here? But that is for later. Tonight, I know nothing of the fires and am left dreaming of the way your lips look as they part over your teeth in sleep.
A bright haze where each synapse pulses in the union of your image. A sacrifice. It is said that a house fire can double in size every minute. Your persistent burning leaves no nerve untouched, finds even the farthest reaches of my body, which invites you in–a type of home. After the flickered moment of ignition, there is no undoing. The heated atoms bloom as proof, climbing upward in search of air, but we know the lesson already. I will take my freedom however I can get it.
Startled at the unguarded turning of your body toward mine in sleep, a reminder that we are not yet strangers, I soften at the thought that somewhere deep within us the well of comfort has not dusted over. Still groggy and primal, I catch myself just before the touch. Reaching out: an instinct. And withholding? I blink fully awake and come back to myself as my eyelashes brush the cool surface of white, pillowcase linen. A small, bittersweet decadence, I focus on that quiet rustle of my witness of you at your most vulnerable. The room is cold, the fan above the bed circling at full speed–I feel ready for the tornado, but there is only the contained wind of our own movement.
Once–I could close my eyes and disappear into you at the feel of your large hands palming some part of me for keeps–elbow or shoulder or back of thigh, cradled as tenderly as the first fledglings in the nest. I try not to linger over our abandoned luxuries. These days, I keep my eyes open–stare hard in case there is still something to learn. In the kitchen, feigning afloat, I focus on the mechanics of the kiss: The angle of your tilted head, a calculation of degrees; the movement of your eye beneath the lid, where maybe you’ve trapped an insect for safekeeping or torture as if those two things aren’t often the same. Whatever you whisper falls away as white noise, as buzzing. Instead of the words I listen for your slow inhale and exhale, count the seconds between each breath in search of a pattern I can finally make sense of. You dim against the harsh glow of the linoleum, but I no longer point out these inadequacies. There is no use in hurting someone simply for the thrill.
While you pack your things, I stand in our bedroom with a cocktail in hand, a prop. Less coping mechanism, more distraction; to you: only fuel for flames. I could stop you with one word, but I asked for this. A solution is born on my tongue, and when I hurry to swallow, it tastes of lime. After the juice settles, whole trees nestle in deep and unfurl beneath my ribs. At first a hesitant rising, then an urgent push against this cage of bones, each branch seeking sunlight so as to bear fruit that will ripen and drop into my stomach heavy as stones. How can I fault something that does not intend my destruction but finds the path by its own nature? I want your full attention. I want to take your hands and guide them slowly down my neck, my back, to know you’ve traced each vertebra and felt for yourself: the knotted wood of my spine, a memorial to the things we do not take care of.
We gravitate to where the light is brightest, and it is in this narrow hall near the entryway that the geometry of our impermanence is exposed. You are sure, duffle bag in hand, but still you stop at the line where carpet meets hardwood, slope-intercept rendered meaningless–our bodies partial sums, two divergent points.
All of the things you could say that sound like goodbye escape in the air you push from your lungs. A sigh as a sort of vengeance. I worry that, now emptied, deflation is inevitable. I’m unsure if I should prepare for a slow collapse or a flutter that may at first appear graceful, of how gingerly I will have to carry the body. I wait in stunned silence for the main event, my face reflecting or maybe not reflecting some mix of hope and horror, the muscles of my legs tensed in anticipation, coiled tightly against the thin, fibrous roots that angle against own network of arteries, as if somehow this new structure could lend shape to both of us.
Sometimes the end looks like the end, and sometimes the end looks like this: Before I am quite ready, your head lifts with unfamiliar resolve. Fixed stare and glassy, a practiced unfocusing, and the blue of your eyes newly a body of water too distant and exotic for me to ever break the surface of. When I glance up–cautious in the face of so rapid an unraveling, the air overpowered with the scent of citrus–there is no gaze even to hold. In the kind of quiet ripe for peeling, our marked deficiencies are exposed as raucous, nearly savage; it is easier for you to look away. At the moment of too much, you turn and walk through the front door, gliding with the relaxed fluidity of someone who is stepping out for a few minutes to buy groceries or mail a letter at the post office. There is no goodbye. The goodbye has stretched on for days or months or since our very first coffee. After you disappear from view, I stare at the threshold and understand that, of course, for years everything you’ve done was practice for this–that you always intended for leaving to be the easiest part. I sit down slowly to keep myself from sinking right through the floor, the interlacing tangle of roots having grown thick and heavy for breaking through the cement foundation, ready to anchor, reunited, into the cool, damp earth–strong enough now to find the way home.
KIRSTEN CLODFELTER‘s writing has been published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter is a regular contributor to As It Ought to Be, where she additionally serves as the Series Editor of the forthcoming review series, At the Margins. KirstenClodfelter.com. KClodfelter@gmail.com.