He fucks you for the first time in the parking lot behind Benihana. He cuts your stockings off with a serrated pocketknife. You call it passion. The boys who fumbled in the darkness of bar booths and the backseats of sedans had held your body differently. He is pure sensation, unadulterated touch. Like accidentally putting your palm to a hot griddle, but leaving it there a moment longer because you’ve never heard skin sizzle before and want to know how it sounds.
He bends you face-first over the driver’s seat. His fingers knot at the back of your head, while the sounds of shared panting and thrusting and grunting fills up the empty lot. Your knuckles turn white around the gearshift. He fucks you like a butcher splits a slab of meat, slicing your body down the middle every time he shoves himself inside. Your cheek chafes against the fabric of the seat.
His orgasm is an exorcism. Like air catching fire.
He zips up his pants, takes your face by the chin, and kisses you. You get into the passenger seat and you both laugh at the smeared half of your face, the side he’d pressed into the seat cushion. He takes you home with him.
He makes himself your first and only habit, showing up sporadically with a paper sack of warm raspberry scones or a handful of psychedelic mushrooms. He takes you to gallery openings and rock concerts where the air hangs heavy with smoke and strobe lights. He is unexpected, always, yet always expects that you’ll be expecting him. He picks you up in a big black truck and brings you into restaurants where the lights are low and the men all sit with younger women. He tells you that ladies should have nice eyebrows and not be constantly on their cell phones, even though he has two and spends most of dinner making calls. You don’t mind. You watch other couples make small talk and sip chilled white wine while he calls someone on the other line a motherfucker and it makes you feel important.
You leave the futon you’ve been subletting for the comfort of his bed. He puts you in dresses that make you look cared for and dyes your hair a shade nonexistent in nature. He keeps a loaded assault rifle next to his nightstand at home and a Glock 17 in a kitchen cabinet, right next to the Lucky Charms, and says he will always keep you safe. He clears out a drawer, a quarter of the closet. You learn to cook red sauce from scratch and which part of your hand to pinch to judge the temperature of a steak. Your shoes sit at the front door, neat in a line, your pairs interspersed with his. You wash the shirts and boxers he used to get dry-cleaned and organize his watches in a sanded cedar box you’ve lined with velvet. You rub menthol balm on his bright tattoos. You put your sister’s picture on his empty bookshelf, alongside your favorite books. He tells you that he loves you, that you don’t need a job, that he will take care of everything. You are a stone in a stream, turned over and over by his current until your edges have smoothed and your skin softens. You make a choice. You say I love you too.
He flies you to Boston, New York, and Miami. There is always business to attend to, properties to buy, so you fly with cash in your carry-on and money orders in your bra. You meet with men who have tattoos on their knuckles and silent friends, men with no jobs and penthouse apartments, men who won’t speak to him in front of you. Sometimes you wait in the hotel suite; sometimes you smoke weed with their platinum girlfriends in another room; sometimes you are a silent accessory, riding out to packaging facilities in the California desert and counting cash in motel rooms. You don’t ask questions. He says you are a good girl.
You tell yourself you know him, from the long middle toe on his left foot all the way up to his eyes, same colors as his mother’s, eyes that stay half-shut until his morning shower and are widest only when he orgasms, like he is seeing God.
In Kentucky, during a layover between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, you are interrogated by a DEA agent. This is your loyalty’s first true test. You hand your boarding pass to the airport employee and he nods to the faceless man in a baseball cap standing behind him. The man you love walks ahead, towards the plane, away from you. You will him to turn around, to come back, to explain that this is all a misunderstanding. He looks over his shoulder, sees you stopped at the entrance. You exhale when his eyes meet yours. He will protect you. And then he is gone, lost to the gangway’s bend.
The agent takes the cash out of your purse, the binder of money orders from your carry-on. You are scared but you are quick. You repeat what the man you love has told you. Real estate, foreclosed properties, cash auctions, casinos. You never name him. The agent gives you a choice: stay and contest the seizure or get on the plane. You choose him.
You shove your upturned bras and gutted toiletry bag into your suitcase and do not turn back. You walk down the aisle that splits the plane in two and don’t need to look up to know the other passengers are staring. They saw your unfolded jeans and uncoupled socks strewn about the gate as they boarded, the stacks of rubber-banded bills set off to the side of the gangway. You are self-conscious of your makeup and the tightness of your clothes, even though the man you love approved both that morning. Your cheeks burn and your vision smears. A brightly tattooed hand pulls you into an open seat. Only the ache of your lungs reminds you to exhale.
The man you love is silent through the safety demonstration, through captain’s cracked announcements to the cabin, through the slow winding towards the runway, and the sudden rush towards cerulean and white.
He speaks only after the plane and earth have parted. He tells you things will be fine. He tells you not to worry. He tells you that he’s proud, that he loves you, so much. For the first time, his voice sounds hollow, the meaning of the words carved out by the sight of him walking away.
He puts an arm around your shoulders. It feels hot and heavy and you wonder if the entire aircraft might fall out of the sky with the weight of it. Fat tears fall. He is silent beside you.
You stare at your feet, in sneakers he picked out, a pair you could never afford. You’ve chosen this. A series of moments in unforgivable order. The moment you followed him onto the plane, and when you filled that vacant drawer in his dresser with spare socks and t-shirts, and when he said he loved you and you said I love you too, and when you let him cut your stockings off in a parking lot, even though they were your nicest pair.
Maybe it was a moment long ago, when you wore flowered sundresses and glitter jelly sandals and your father’s friend put his hot heavy hand on your thin thigh and whispered, Be a good girl, you’re such a good girl.
When you land, a pair of men in dark jeans and Ralph Lauren polo shirts pick you up and drive you into the desert. They cover your eyes with a bandana, but not his. Your blind hand searches for the man you love and comes up empty. You search yourself for anger, but that comes up empty too.
There is yelling behind closed doors. The man you love transfers funds, makes promises. You help pack black garbage bags full of seedy weed and take it all back to the hotel room they’ve rented for the afternoon, where you vacuum-seal neat packages, one pound each, two hundred in all. Ten to a box. They are shipped back to Pittsburgh, each to a different address, all cleanly wrapped in carbon paper and sent from separate post offices.
Your hotel suite has a chandelier dripping in crystal, big and bright enough to let you pretend that you are royalty instead of rats. The room is properly beautiful, all burgundy and cream and studded leather. You expect an explanation then, now that the two of you are alone, but he offers none, as if you’ve known all along what he meant by “real estate.” You say nothing, thinking maybe you should have.
That night you try to prove something. To him or yourself, you are not sure. You make love like bull riders, clinging to one another as if you both fear being pitched into the dirt, each second a lifetime in its entirety, knuckles white and eyes wide open.
The first time he rapes you, (really rapes you, and means it, there’s a difference) it is because you are crying and he wants you to shut up. He comes home smelling of honeysuckle and whiskey, a mark beginning to bloom on the side of his neck. At first, he makes excuses, spinning lies like pop-up ads for diet pills, so overt in their dishonesty that only those truly desperate for delusion will buy into them. You tell him you believe him, but you can’t stop the tears, and eventually he tires of hearing you cry.
He shoves his dick in your mouth and you wonder what got him hard, the tears or your ragged breathing, each inhale uneven, each exhale an effort. He pushes down on your head, hard enough to let you know what he can do if you dare to tighten your teeth. He tells you that you are a good girl, there now, that’s it, that’s it.
Between the tears and the dick in your mouth you cannot breathe and you start choking, but he likes that even more, most men do, can’t really blame them, must be one hell of a power trip. The assault rifle leans against the couch armrest, upright and open mouthed. By the time he is finished you aren’t crying anymore, you can’t cry anymore. It’s too hard, to cry and breathe and suck all at once. You have to prioritize.
He burns the back of your throat, sour and bitter and sliding slowly to your stomach. He leaves you on the floor. The shower sputters down the hall. You lie there, the world horizontal, chair legs stretching upward like a giant’s beanstalks. There is a yellow lighter underneath the couch. The beige carpet looks a bit like prairie grass, once your eyes tire and the foreground blurs.
In December, a week before Christmas, you are hit by a car. A Range Rover, its driver’s eyes on a screen. The world spins and blurs and then stops short. You hear people praying. You are cold, so cold, too cold to see if you can still move your toes. A woman puts her jacket over your body.
In the ambulance, the paramedics cut off your clothes, strip you naked under bright lights. You think of your grandmother, who always told you to wear clean underwear in case of a car accident, and smile. You are hypothermic and they can’t find a home in your wrists for the IV but they keep trying, all the way to the hospital. Your left arm will be blotched with purple for weeks.
An ER doctor with green eyes tells you that your skin from the waist down is gone, rubbed off by the road. A pair of nurses try to clean up the blood but you scream and so they give you a dose of ketamine. Just enough to take you away. The world bleeds indigo and stretches immense, you are alone and afraid, but when you come back into Earth’s orbit he is there, the man you love, standing by your bedside, touching your face and crying. He tells you he loves you. He tells you he is sorry, so sorry, for everything.
When the internal bleeding subsides, he takes you home in his black truck. The nurses protest, you still need constant care, but he wants to leave and so you go. On the drive home, you cannot sit upright and so you lie in the backseat, watching the sky stream by the windows. It is dark and snowing.
In the weeks that follow, he will clean your wounds, help you shower, feed you the prescribed Oxy and Percocet, taking a couple every so often for himself. You are happy to share, even though he doesn’t ask. You are just happy he is there.
You kneel before him in the kitchen while eggs spit on the stove, in the living room while the Steelers streak across the flatscreen, in the shower while the water chokes any spaces he leaves empty. You kneel in the mornings, before he leaves for work. You greet him on your knees if and when he comes back home. He is not a man who goes without and so your kneecaps bite floorboard whenever they can. Each time is an apology, an appeal to wait just a little bit longer, until the day you stop bleeding so he can spread you open. Your mouth begs for loyalty without words, even on the nights he comes home smelling of someone else’s sweat.
The gauze around your thighs stays white for an entire afternoon. Melting gutter snow feigns rain, sliding down the window panes of your bedroom. A bird sings outside. You don’t know enough about birds to know what kind.
He takes his time unwrapping you. Your shirt falls first. He kisses the hard line of your sternum, his hands pulling at the waistband of your oversized sweatpants. They are black but the bloodstains blacker, from the days he was too drunk or tired to help you change the bandages. His hand drags along still bruised skin. You wince against his lips and raise your hips to help him. Then you are naked on the sheets, below him, for the first time in a long time.
He is inside you. That’s how he fucks you now, without warning, without words. You tell yourself you don’t need them, even though your body protests. His mouth is close to yours, so near you swallow his every exhale, but his lips don’t meet your own. His fists are full of duvet. He bends your leg back, locking it in the crook where neck meets shoulder. You scream, a shriek small enough to pass as pleasure. You fade it into a breathy moan. He doesn’t seem to notice. Every thrust drags a claw down your back, the weave of the cotton like a high thread count cheese grater against the new skin, still thin in some places. There is a water stain on the ceiling, a brown blossom the shape of a child-drawn cloud.
It doesn’t take long. A few minutes and his eyes shoot wide, mouth bent into a snarl, and it is over, the insides of your thighs sticky. He rolls off of you, pets your hair with the hand not holding his dick. When you stand, you leave a red shadow behind.
He says I’m sorry, so sorry. He says I love you so many times the words warp in your ears and sound broken. You know he never means for it to hurt and so you say I love you too.
But if he had asked, you would have said no. If you thought he would have, you would have said stop. Instead you say it felt good, so good.
The first time he hits you (really hits you, and means it, there’s a difference), he is drunk and that is as good of an excuse as any. He is walking from his truck to the house and you are talking too much, women are always talking too much, women have been talking too much his whole life and now he just wants silence, is that really so much to ask for?
He hits you with an open hand and then that hand closes around your neck. You never stop to consider the neck, how it holds our minds upright all our lives, all but forgotten about until someone’s lips brush just below the ear, sending electric currents coursing.
His face is close enough to feel his spit, and he is holding your throat like it is nothing more than plastic, reminding you that your body is able to be bent and broken just as easily as a toy once loved. He knows to press hard enough so that, in the days that follow, it will hurt any time you try to speak or swallow.
Your skull makes a sound that matches the pain when it hits the car window. A sharp smack. The sound of contact.
He tosses you to the grass, away from him, and you hit your head on something edged and hard and hidden by the darkness, but he is walking away and so you ignore the pounding and follow him. You squeeze one eye shut, hoping closing one portal to the world might dull the pain.
He slams the door of his house, your house, our house, behind him and you hear it lock. You beg him to let you in. You say I’m sorry, so sorry. You say I love you, so much. You say please forgive me, please.
Eventually he opens the door, once you’ve had enough time to think about what you’ve done. You are shivering and there is blood matted in your hair, but you tell him you are sorry and he bends you over his kitchen table and you stare out the window, at the curtain of night, and try to relax your muscles so it doesn’t hurt.
At first he only hits you when he is drunk, with an open hand. It is better then, when you can blame the Dewar’s for what he does. You blame the whiskey and your attitude, his number of Manhattans and your inability to close your goddamn mouth. Those times don’t count, even if you bruise. You know because he doesn’t apologize after.
But the open hand soon closes. Then it doesn’t matter how much he drinks, or if he’s been drinking at all. After, there is always a reason. You try to keep track.
Don’t question him. Don’t cry. Don’t ask where we are going. Don’t ask when we’ll be home. Don’t stir the pasta while he’s talking to you. Don’t call him when he’s gone and don’t ask him where he’s been. Don’t smile at the cashier like a slut. Don’t take long showers when he hasn’t washed up yet. Don’t talk too much; his friends don’t care about your hometown. Don’t talk too little; his friends all think you’re stupid. Don’t take up too much of the bed at night. Don’t leave the house without makeup. Don’t wear too much makeup. Don’t ask him if he loves you.
You can’t help it; you always find new ways to anger him. You tread terrified around mines unseen, knowing only in the second before detonation that you’ve misstepped. You want to go back, to before, when he cupped your chin in his hand and kissed you softly.
Instead, your body bleeds. Skin purples, yellows, heals, repeats. He hits you at night, weekday afternoons, in the mornings sometimes, before his shower, or after you’ve left dinner, if there aren’t too many people on the sidewalk. He can even hit you while he’s driving, one hand on the steering wheel and the other connecting with the left side of your face, your shoulder, your back once you’ve doubled over.
You learn his hands are not the real threat, that his feet, enclosed in those best loved steel-toed boots, are the true danger. They shatter the fingers that cover your head. They bruise ribs and swell jawbones. They leave footprints painted in broken blood vessels across your back, like tracks in snow.
But his feet you still fear less than his weight on top of you, his body forcing its way into your own, because somehow that feels more like being strangled than his hands around your throat.
You know that one day he will kill you. He will hit the same soft spot below your skull one too many times or hold onto your throat just a little too long after you’ve fainted. Some days you hope for it. Most days.
One Sunday evening, you ask him what he did at work and he teaches you that the vacuum can be a weapon. The next morning you are bleeding, and not in a way you’re used to. There’s just so much blood coming from between your legs. Your muscles seize. You realize you were once a we.
You leave on a Thursday after dark, another of those nights he doesn’t come home. There have been previous attempts. You are ashamed of them. You’ve never even made it to the highway, usually only as far as the 7-11. You stop to get gas, buy a pack of cigarettes, return home before the light bulbs have cooled. He is your universe, a dark gravitational force pulling you back into his orbit. You don’t know if this time will be any different, but he has murdered a part of you, so many parts of you, and so you have to try.
You pack your clothes and what you can carry. A serrated pocketknife. A few lighters. Your books, all of your books. Some instant oatmeal, a pair of leather gloves. You leave shirts in your drawers and shoes under the bed so he doesn’t know, not right away, that you’ve left, really left. A head start.
When your car passes the lip of his drive, every cell in your body screams to turn back. You do not watch your home fade in the rearview mirror. You know you are not committed enough for that. You slip the neck of his neighborhood and drive towards the highway that will carry you from this place. You pass the butcher you bought his steaks from, the park where you used to walk his dog, the diner you went to on Saturdays after whiskey-drowned Fridays. You have no heading in mind, no places missing your person, but the road stretches open and immense before you.
You can see the green sign for the turnpike up ahead, its letters white and bright like a lighthouse. When the car begins to slow unbidden, you press your foot to the gas pedal, you look for flashing dashboard lights, you switch gears back and forth and back again, but it doesn’t matter. You make it to the mall parking lot before the engine dies.
The nights are not the issue. At night, you knot your body in the dog bed in your trunk. It is winter and you are always cold. You don’t have blankets, but you have clothes, and a tarp you found out behind the Home Depot, and so you pull them over top of your curled body, trying to cover every inch, afraid that one slight move might disrupt the entire nest and leave your toes to the cold. You know what to do, what you are supposed to do, at night, and so you close your eyes, even though you don’t really need to, the trunk a perfect and impenetrable darkness, save for the slight glow behind the brake lights. You remember what it felt like, a warm body in a clean bed beside you, and you can’t help but wonder if that might have been worth all the rest. Sometimes you think you sleep, other times you know you haven’t, but morning comes for you regardless.
Then you must solve the problem of the day. You haven’t quite figured it out yet, how best to spend those hours. Mostly you go to the public library, because it is free and warm and full of books and you know he will not find you there. You wash your face in the sink and try to avoid looking in the mirror. You fill up an empty Diet Coke bottle under the faucet. You take a roll of toilet paper, but only if there are extra.
A row of computers buzzes gently in an annex, but you never sign one out, afraid that somehow your name on a clipboard might come back to him. Sometimes you find a chair far from librarian eyes and pretend to read. Your eyes cannot keep to the page for long. Every small cough or stale door hinge shatters the silence, sends flight signals up your spine. You keep your bag on your back at all times, just in case.
You fear nothing more than being noticed, and so you try to vary your days, never staying in the same place too long or visiting too regularly. Your long hair and your female form are liabilities. They attract attention. Heads turn and so you slide down hallways, ducking into public bathrooms to escape the potential of their eyes. You try to channel a potted plant, a garbage bin, a painting of a duck pond above a hotel bed. You tuck your hair into a hat and tie it back in braids but never cut it because it keeps you warm at night.
If you are feeling brave, you make laps around the mall and sit in the food court. You stay away from the stores. The sales associates with lacquered nails and threaded brows make you nervous. You steal coins out of the fountain, but never enough for dinner. You pass the man handing out samples of teriyaki chicken on toothpicks at least six times, but he never refuses you, and for that you are grateful. Sometimes you wonder if you could sneak into the movie theatre and you fantasize about such recklessness, dream of sitting in the hot dry darkness, surrounded by a sound system that drowns everything else. Someone might even throw away a half-finished bucket of buttered popcorn and maybe you could have some. Your mouth waters at the thought. You never try it though. Too risky.
On some days, the fear of being found out keeps you in the car from noon to night. It is the only space that is yours and so you decorate it like a home. You put your sister’s picture on the dashboard and stack your books on the floor of the passenger side. You organize them alphabetically, then reverse-alphabetically, then by genre, then by cover color, and then you throw them all in the back, against the inside of the trunk because the winter wind keeps finding ways inside.
You sit in the driver’s seat, fake fiddling with the dials, buckling and unbuckling your seatbelt, pretending to be busy with things just beneath a passerby’s line of sight. Sometimes people leave groceries in the bottoms of their carts and you feel badly taking them but you are hungry and they should have been more careful. You once got a whole case of Gatorade that way.
Sometimes, just for a second, you think you see him from afar. A black truck. A brightly tattooed arm. You hate the way your heart still skips, betrayal by your own body.
You watch mothers button toddlers’ jackets and couples buying new duvets and microwaves and men smoking cigarettes while their wives shop inside. You think that maybe we are all just trying to figure out how to best run out the clock on the days that stand between our nights.
Your will wanes like a dying moon, edges carved out by a superior force. You are amorphous in his absence, soul undefined without his hands to sculpt it. The insides of your eyes in the hours you cannot sleep replay first days, first dates, their sheen half-memory, half-fantasy. You languish in their glow.
But these dreams never have a happy ending. The feeling of a fist creeps in unbidden. The pang of a rib, still bruised. The throbbing between your legs after he forces you open. You make another choice.
You fuck them because you have to. Because each man that walks through the door is six hundred dollars in a suit. Because the money is more important than these moments.
Total annihilation before rebirth.
That is what you tell yourself, already knowing it is a lie. There is no coming back from this, not really. It’s like putting a needle through your lower lobe. You can take the earring out, let the opening fuse shut, but it will never be the same, the skin just a little thicker in that one spot than it once was.
Sometimes the men bring wine or bourbon. Sometimes they even share it with you, pouring the bottle out into the styrofoam cups meant for instant coffee. It helps. Some come for something younger, hotter, breathier. Some come because they are bored, lonely, curious, with fat bank accounts and wives who won’t blow them anymore. Some want a sure thing. Some want to feel like men. Some just want a finger in their asses.
You daydream about suicide, usually in the moments before you hear them knocking at the door. But you always open it with a smile, teeth bright and lips brighter, breasts hiked high and robe left open. You are almost happy to see them. You slide into the role they’ve chosen, shuttering yourself behind thick blackened lashes.
You laugh at their jokes and rest a light hand on their thighs when they say you remind them of an ex-girlfriend. You pout with damnable earnestness when they say their wives won’t fuck them. You run fingers through their hair, if they have it. You cross your arms, lean forward, watch their eyes follow. You become skilled at avoiding their mouths. Tilt your head to the left, bite the tip of his ear, let your tongue trace the trail of his collarbone, crawl your fingers below his belt.
In those moments, as the men you never loved help themselves to your body, your mind doesn’t wander. It doesn’t fantasize or feel or flinch. It wipes itself blank, a camera with no film inside, on but not recording. Your senses fold themselves into nothingness, voids devoid of feeling, hollow where there should have been heart. You pick a spot and stare at it, like your gymnastics coach taught you when you were little and kept falling off the balance beam. You stare at the headboard or the ceiling or the weave of the sheets until something wet and warm is ejected onto your stomach or your tits or even in your mouth, if they’re willing to pay extra. You say Ah, open wide, like at the dentist. You close your eyes there, too.
The last man comes on a Wednesday afternoon. He arrives on his lunch break and doesn’t touch you until he’s taken off all of his clothes, draping them over the back of the desk chair. In a few years, you will forget his face. But here you see the dark mole beside his belly button for the first time and that you will never forget. And then he’s stretched out on the bed, stomach up, wearing nothing but his wedding ring. You wonder if the mole ever surfaces in his wife’s mind while she’s masturbating.
This man doesn’t stare at the wallpaper or the headboard or the card on the nightstand advertising continental breakfast and hundred-and-five cable channels. He studies his plaything, his purchase for the hour. His eyes follow your hips, wide below your waist, your ass in the air like an invitation. He stares at skin, at flesh like porcelain. He gets hard thinking about ways to break you open. He ignores your stretch marks and your scars—they mar his narrative. He is ruining you for other men, he thinks, that’s part of the fun. He doesn’t know that you chose ruin a long time ago, when you turned your car back at the end of a road, when you lied in a Kentucky airport, when you bent your body over the driver’s seat in the parking lot behind a Benihana.
He tells himself your moans are real. He’s paid enough for them to be convincing, at the very least, but yours are not, and that makes him fuck you harder. Hard enough to mistake him for a man you once loved.
You say harder. You say thank you. You think you really mean it. You list the reasons to yourself as he leaves a red handprint on your thigh. You are grateful that he fucks you from behind. He has done this before; he knows he may not like what flickers in your eyes. You are grateful that he put the cash right on the dresser. It means you don’t have to ask after, which always makes your throat itch. You are grateful that his dick is small because the space between your legs is sore and swollen. You are grateful that he stops talking about his wife, even though you can’t stop thinking of her. You are mostly grateful because he will leave in an hour. The tampon box behind the toilet will be full of bills. Enough to fix your car. Enough to try again, somewhere new. You will take a hot shower and sleep in no makeup under a thick comforter and tomorrow you will promise to make choices that will take you away from this place.
The wallpaper is cream and turquoise, light swirls of paint that betray the building’s age, tendrils that knot and unknot and creep up the walls and unfurl at the ceiling. You wonder if all the rooms have this wallpaper, if the entire building is just one great block of uniform blue and white from top to bottom. You memorize its patterns until he shudders in that familiar way, like a dog shaking off pond water. One last exhale and it is finished. It doesn’t take him long. You are grateful for that too.
He doesn’t linger, afterwards, the sheets too starched and the bathroom too white. It is a place for pit-stops, not permanence. He washes his dick in the sink with a bar of hotel soap and puts his pants back on and kisses your cheek before he leaves. You wait to turn the deadbolt, watching his figure shrink through the circular lens of the peephole. You don’t want him to be offended.
You take one of those clean white towels from the white sink and sit on the white tile floor and scrub between your legs until the skin is red and there are spots of blood on the terrycloth. You turn the knob of the shower as hot as it will go, let the steam grow thick and choking. You wear the tiny soap down to a sliver and watch the last shard slither down the drain. You sit beneath the showerhead, water pounding your skull and shoulders, too hot for eyes to open, too heavy to breathe easily, too loud for thoughts to find one another, drowned in sound.
That night, you eat orange chicken and rice. It’s the first full meal you’ve had since leaving him. In that moment, with your stomach finally silent and pillows piled beneath your head, you don’t hate yourself as much as you wish you did.
In the morning, a mechanic comes to replace your engine. You pay him with a pressed pile of bills tied together with a scrunchie. You promise him extra after, if he gets the job done quickly. He gives you a cigarette for a smile. Your keep your eyes wide, clocking every car that pulls into the lot, wondering in which direction you would run if the man you once loved appears.
It is a grey afternoon and you drive with no real direction, your North Star the faded memory of a place you once called home, a person you once knew. There are books in your backseat and bills in your glove compartment. You know how to make them last.
Darkness comes as it always does, slowly and then all at once. The sky burns and bleeds and goes black. The world is smaller then, just the car and the road and the occasional night creature, frightened feet skittering across concrete, from the sanctuary of one stand of pines to the next.
Claire Agnes is a writer originally from West Chester, Pennsylvania. She was the recipient of the 2015 Rowan Award for Women Writers in Fiction and is the winner of the 2018 Driftwood Press Adrift Short Story Contest. She has received residency at Stone Court and was a Global Research Fellow in Prague. She is a curator for the KGB Emerging Writers Reading Series and an assistant fiction editor for Washington Square Review. She currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is a cat mom, MFA candidate, and professor at New York University.