i make the going slow

coffee for breakfast
to get up, to write, to peddle
on the exercise bike, to buy
lipstick the color of rose petals, & leopard print
lingerie trimmed in bright red

M&Ms for lunch, for dinner
to self-soothe & wake,
rush: serotonin, endorphin, placebo

strawberry jello
one parts water, one
parts vodka,
for dessert
to let go
to forget
the rest

*

after a night of wet, heavy snow, the roads & parking lots puddle into grey slush.  as i stand in line at the grocery store, cradling a box of elbow macaroni, two bunches of kale, & a carton of eighteen eggs, the woman in front of me apologizes: for the items, now bagged, that would not fit into her cart; for the fistful of coupons slowly swiped; for breathing air & existing in the first place.  i say wait & help yank her cart through the parking lot, then load the bags into her car.  she tells me that for eleven years, she was a soloist soprano singer at her church; then she became sick with bronchitis & her voice never quite recovered.  my snow angel, she says, let me hug you.  tears fuzzy my drive home, & i spend the afternoon weeping myself into & out of sleep.

*

at advanced autoparts, the cashier asks if i want him to put on my new windshield wiper blades.  can you show me so that next time i can do it on my own, be independent?  i always think it should be really simple to do; then i try & break every piece of plastic available to me.  i ramble.  i am exhausted after a 10-hour shift at work & preparing for the four hour drive to spend the next three days with the boy i’m seeing.  he says, sure thing, & i work alongside him as he instructs: pull toward you; no, flip it the other way; no, now it’s upside down; no– like this, & i say, thank you; thank you so much.  he smiles.  says, no problem, & when he calls me dear, i am reminded of how i felt as a child when i pictured my imaginary friend, billy brumble, who was like an older brother that would lift & carry my body; protect me; say, don’t you look so pretty, when i smeared my mouth with hot pink lipstick & wore a grey hat too big for my head, a scratchy grey dress draping my body like a table cloth.

*

after i stop for gas an hour & forty-five minutes into my journey, i spend fifteen minutes kicking clumped up snow & ice from my wheel wells at a truck stop.  because it has been snowing hard, i am wearing my reading glasses.  they fog in the cold from my hot breath.  a man gets into the truck parked next to me, & before he closes the door, he looks at me leveraging my snow brush behind the front wheel on the driver’s side.  everything ok? he asks.  i tell him i’m fine, that i feel safer with all the gunk beaten out, & say, thank you for asking.  he tells me to have a good one, travel safe.

inside the truck stop travel center, i buy a twenty ounce coffee & a king size whatchamacallit candy bar.  the boy who rings me up says, whoa, i thought i was the only person who liked these things, & i tell him he’s not alone, that they are my favorite, too.  he says, if you get a chance, you gotta try the ones coated in peanut butter that have chocolate wafers on the inside.  they call ’em thingamajigs.  i tell him i’ll keep my eyes peeled for them & thanks for the heads up.  he smiles, nods his head, then goes back to flirt-arguing with the girl running the register next to him, who wears blonde streaks in her dark hair, rings of black makeup around her eyes, & rainbow-colored buttons on her red work vest.

*

D & i spend our days off together caught in the cuddle zone.  we sleep late, his bedroom cloaked in dim, grey light, & open our eyes only to poke our heads above the pillows, peep at the time on the clock, & burrow back into bed.  when i pull the thick, dark curtains back from the windows, bright winter sunlight spills inside; we shield our eyes & squint, falling face down into our nest of blankets & body heat.  it can’t be daylight, we groan, our bodies static-clung, hand gripping forearm, bicep, legs crooked round knee & thigh.  on the morning when he goes back to work, i lie in bed staring at the ceiling, imagining my life if it were contained by these–his–walls.  i think of the night we spent in his hotel room drunk on his boss’s homemade blackberry wine, the slowness of our hands husking the clothing from our bodies, the way his lips shook & how i asked myself, do you want this? &, repulsed by my desire for the cupping of his hands, the curve of his biceps, the tenderness, many parts of me whispered, don’t.  i think of how, during our next encounter, i said, there are two kinds of people in my life–the people who care about me, & the people who sleep with me; how, when he asked, it’s not possible for someone to be both of those at once? i shook my head, saying, the circles of that venn diagram don’t intersect; how, still, our bodies joined, my mouth a cavern filled with a child’s howls, my face sopping tears & shuddering breaths.  the way he held my body, silent, his fingers brushing at my eyes, until i fell asleep, & how he returns, again & again, to the wreckage i am diving in.

then, i rise from his bed & tug the bedding into place.  in the living room, i fold our blankets, collect our coffee mugs & empty fruit snack packets from the table, & throw a pinch of shrimp pellets to the idiot fish swimming in their tank.  in the kitchen, i wash each dirty dish & pull half-wet laundry from the drier, draping each piece on a hanger, drying rack.  before i pack my things & let myself out, slipping his key under the doormat, i pull on a pair of his wool socks & tell myself to accept the kindness i find in this series of rooms, the heat that rises from the places where we’ve stood: vapor, love, intersection.  i make the going slow.

the mechanics of letting go

monday afternoon i put a pot of chickpeas & red beans on the stove to simmer, & then i fell asleep.  when i woke five hours later, my legumes were crispy & charcoal-black, popping & hissing in the quiet heat.

let’s not talk about the smoke alarm unhooked & idle on the little bookshelf next to the couch where i slept, its dying battery hanging, half unhooked, outside its body like an entrail.  let’s not talk about the haziness clouding my apartment, the way the smell seeped into my hair & clothes, how it lingered overnight & was here, still, to greet me in the two, three mornings that followed.

in my head, my mother scolds, junebug.  i say, i know, mom, my guts all knotted up, red-hot angst that makes me want to yell & shove.  i think of a cheap ring i owned when i was twelve years old, an amethyst-colored stone with sharp edges set on a gold band, & the way i dug it into the bathroom mirror, dragging, because something i’d seen on TV had led me to believe that expensive gemstones could cut through glass & i needed to know–was it real?  the way the stone scratched, nail on a chalkboard, & how the next day, when momma asked about the incision i’d made, i denied, denied, denied.

*

monday morning, before i left the town where my boyfriend lives, four & a half hours away from my apartment near the lake, i spent $4.50 in postage to mail my resignation.  inside the padded manilla envelope, a sixty-page manuscript written in august to this soundtrack, a beat up red cellphone my father pays for, & a letter that said, i love you, but i can’t go on this way, wishing you into a man you won’t become, any longer.

for days, a knot winds tighter, tighter still, in the center of my chest, until my shoulders draw in toward one another & my breaths are shallow & thin.  i stop singing in the car.  i drink less & less water.  my throat becomes a dry, squeaky reed, my voice a melody untuned.

*

over the past six months, i have done a pretty stellar job of isolating myself from the already-tiny social world i once inhabited.  my job exhausts me; my heart & thoughts exhaust me; my body’s autonomic functioning, this blinking & that breath, exhausts me.  i don’t have time for friends, for people who want to unload the details of their troubled lives into my lap but get squirrelly when i expect them to reciprocate.  it makes people uncomfortable: sadness, raw vulnerability, incest.  after expending most of my energy at work, where i care for eight grown men with various physical and mental disabilities, caring for myself when i go home is hard enough, & caring for two sometimes-whiny cats is harder still; so it follows that caring for others, right now, is implausible.

the trouble is, as i have sunken into this territory of isolation, i have become increasingly uncomfortable with being alone.  i don’t want my thoughts.  i don’t want this pain.  i don’t want to hear the sounds this tattered heart might make.

so i turn on the TV, & i allow myself to disappear.

months ago, i buried myself in dr. drew’s celebrity rehab, & i was struck again & again by the number of people with substance abuse problems who also experienced sexual trauma as children.  in general, the show made me uneasy–the clients showed such little regard for one another & were allowed to be purposely hurtful & disrespectful, i questioned the ethics of combining therapy with reality TV, & in general i didn’t feel like i was seeing many of the folks on the show get any healthier.  but i looked forward to the group therapy segments, where the patients all gathered together & hashed things out with dr. drew, bob forrest, & one another, & their conversations felt real & authentic in ways that the rest of the show does not:

jason davis: through my life, i’ve always tried to, like, in a way, change my father.  & every time i tried to do it, it always ended in a painful, horrible roller coaster.
bob forrest: it’s painful.  but now you need to be loved & you need to be nurtured & you need to be mentored, & your dad can’t do it & your grandfather’s dead.   let me ask you this, what do you want?
jason davis: i just want to have, like, a dad who, like, you know, i can turn to–
bob forrest: you don’t.  you don’t.
dr. drew: you don’t have that.  you don’t get that.

a coping mechanism i have carried with me since childhood is my ability to disappear from my “real” life & into kids’ movies.  on my days off from work, i watch & rewatch–sometimes as much as five times in a day–movies like the rescuers down under & labyrinth.  the hope is that, if i watch enough, until i have memorized all the characters’ lines & can recount, in minute detail, the plot, settings, & background music, that i will finally be part of the stories–stories where the “bad guys” get what they deserve, the “good guys” no longer suffer, & hope & predictability are the bottom line.

the problem with disappearing into these stories is that i carry a lot of childish ideas about the way life works.  if i disappear long enough, hard enough, i will wake up in another life where my problems don’t exist, or another world where a lot of people & creatures are willing to be kind to & help me.  if i am a good person, i will eventually be met with goodness.  & if i wish long enough, i can make my life into what i want it to be.

for a very long time, i’ve tried wishing my father into an amalgamation of the great ones i’ve seen on TV or read about in books–atticus finch, charles ingalls, danny tanner.  the part of me that is still a child–& it seems that a large part still is–doesn’t want to let go of that made-up father or the illusion of hope buried somewhere in his pocket.  because of that reluctance, that willingness to live in denial, mailing the package to my real-life father took a lot of steps & a very long time–in april, i bought the envelope; in august, i finished the first draft of the manuscript; in october, my brother & i purchased a cellphone plan & new phones, mine with a different number, together; in november, i wrote the letter; in december, i put it all in the envelope; in january, i mailed it–because at each step across those nine months, i was forced to accept part of the reality i am actually living.  i had to let go of wishing, which meant that the father i have dreamed of had to die.

*

so now i am panicking.  i am cranky & finding it difficult to care for myself or communicate with others.  the knot in my chest gets tighter, & i wake each morning with a headache & unquenchable thirst.  when i leave work, the muscles in my back are raw, tense, & i feel like i can’t breathe.  all day every day, i just want to eat chocolate & drink shots of cheap tequila, burrow into a nest of blankets & sleep away my desire to apologize.

instead, i comfort myself with pictures of cats wearing hats (& hoodies) & videos of zac hanson singing “don’t stop believing.” (there has to be goodness in the world, right?  when a boy that beautiful will strut across a stage in too-tight jeans with big biceps & a wiggly little belly & belt out a tune that renews hope with pipes that split my heart again & again?)  i apply to graduate school & try to ride my stationary bike every other day while watching an episode of my little ponies: friendship is magic on netflix.  i tell myself, it won’t always be like this, but i remember: the progress, the steps taken forward, & how terrible it has been to fall back.

i wait for him to show up in my driveway & knock at my door in outrage.  i wait for him to violate the conditions i laid out in my letter–don’t look for me, don’t try to call me, don’t show up at the places where i live.  i wait to get in trouble.  i wait for a reply from the school i’ve applied to that says, nope, sorry–we don’t want you.

& while i wait, i burn beans on the stove.  like an adult child who has believed she is dirty & bad her whole life, i punish myself first, before anyone else can, with impulsive, self-destructive behaviors.  i sleep, & each time i wake, my first thought is something like, fuck, i’m still alive, it’s still winter, & i’m still in this alone.  so i allow myself to fade back into sleep & hope for another life next time i open my eyes.

the reality is, atticus finch, charles ingalls, danny tanner–i don’t have that.  i don’t get that.

poppa, it’s hard to let go.

the devil on my back

when RB wakes in the night, he asks me, go pee-pee? & says, i’m thirsty; thirsty boy, a child wearing a fifty-four-year-old man’s body, his shoulders shrugged close to his ears.  i keep a cup in the bathroom for him, allow him to drink until the unrelenting thirst, a side effect of the lithium he takes, momentarily subsides.  on his way back to bed, his hands folded neatly in front of his chest, his pants hanging low on his hips, he looks me in the eye & says, smiling, i love you.

over & over i say, thank you.  you did a good job, RB; thank you.  when he lays down in his bed, i pull his blanket to his chin.  thank you, pal, i say. goodnight.

this is my work.

this is the job that i do.

*

some mornings, when RB is assigned to one of my co-workers to wake & bathe, he is agitated, his fingers pinching spit to fling from his mouth at the ceiling & my co-workers.  RB smashes his hands against the table, slamming his coffee cup again, again, again.  from the back of the house, where i lift men with a palsied bodies from their beds & into their wheelchairs, i hear him saying more–more coffee, more water, a ham sandwich & stack of american cheese slices.  my co-workers repeat, no–you have had enough.  always, in the two & a half years that i have been at this job, they are the people who determine when enough is enough.

*

on one of the mornings when RB is assigned to me, i find a string of finger-sized bruises fading on his upper arms.  he grits his teeth & claps his hands in the bathtub, muttering, wink, honey–you wink at your brother; smile, honey, or the doctor’s going to give you a spanking; take down your pants, RB, while his eyes dart & flash.  i say, where are you?  what are you doing right now?  are you taking a bath? as i try to pull his mind back into the room, the present moment, his body.  to quiet him, i sing m-i-c, k-e-y very softly, slowly, until he joins me: m-o-uuuu-s-e.  mickey mouse, mickey mouse.

*

tuesday morning at 7:30 AM, i hear RB pacing the hallway.  a co-worker says, get back to your room.  in a voice that shakes, RB says, no, no, i’ll be good, i’ll be a good boy.  i find him smashing his hand against a framed photograph of a flower near the doorway to his bedroom.  i say, come sit next to me; let’s take deep breaths.  he gets louder & rushes toward me, bashing the picture until it comes loose from the wall, dangles, then he rips at his window blinds.  useless, my head fuzzy from the violence & noise, i leave the room.  i wake my next resident, DS, & take him into the shower room.  most mornings i hum “leaving on a jet plane” or the only barbra streisand song that i know to keep him calm, collected, his hands busy soaking the sensation of the water spray against his fingers instead of slapping repeatedly at his head.  this morning, as a soap & scrub DS’s body, i am silent.  i keep my face & its tears turned away & hung low.

*

by 8:15 AM, RB has wailed on a framed picture in the living room hard enough, long enough, that the glass shatters.  after half the residents have been shuffled off to their day programs, after everyone has been bathed & fed, i isolate myself folding laundry in the back of the house.  our supervisor arrives a handful of minutes before my shift ends, & my co-worker casually says, RB broke a picture this morning.  the supervisor doesn’t say, what brought that about? he doesn’t ask, is he OK?  instead, he says, all right.  a shrug, a dismissal.  no investigation, no interrogation.  he tells me i am no longer able to keep a cup for RB in the bathroom at night.  particles from the toilet can get into it, he says.  health code.  i feel my face harden, my body stiffen.  i disengage, shut down.

*

when i get home that morning, my mind is raucous with frantic birds. to tire them & to forget, i pour two beers into a large glass & add two slices of lemon. i strip off my clothes, the germs & waste of eight other people’s piss & shit that cover me, & lie down on the couch.  over the next three hours, half-naked & sobbing, i try to wish myself out of existence as each bird in my brain wails, again & again, i’ll be a good boy; i’ll be good.

*

shame, disgust, despair.  i cannot stand to look at myself in the mirror.  when i eat, laugh, or accept love or kindness from the important people in my life, i tell myself, you are a coward & a liar, & you don’t deserve this.  voiceless, powerless, insignificant.  each day at my job, when i try to be an adult who is a brave & capable advocate, the agency & its culture reduces me to a child just learning to know her place in the world, & i remember fear.  i remember stillness & isolation, sickness & dissociation.  i remember father.

*

refocusing

so, it’s like this: you eliminate the last final method of punishing yourself & your body from your life, & you are left with a heap of feelings you don’t know how to process or manage. they pile up, strands of slippery kelp clouding into a puddle, & you wonder how you’ll get through this–not whether you can, but the ways you will learn: to allow yourself to exist exactly as you do, as a system of organs unified, not a brain compartmentalized from wild emotion separated from muscle & skin; to feel disappointed & mad with your job without throwing your hands into the air & walking out; to get comfortable in silence, in listening to your thoughts, without needing to sleep with the noise of the TV.

this is the way: you begin to learn the language of gratitude. yes, you have always been grateful, a girl moved to tears by gifts & others’ kind words, weeping rooted in feelings of unworthiness & deception.  dirty, damaged, different–if only they knew. & so part of this new gratitude becomes undressing your body of its shame, its desire to stay hidden or become very small.  a wall drops, one you didn’t know you’d built, & you are left out in the open, a pomegranate split & spilling ruby seeds, defenseless against plum-headed parakeets & long-eared jerboas in a desert that is very hot. the camera pans out, finds a new angle, & suddenly you see yourself as you haven’t before–not better, not worse, just different–& you begin to leak & warble, unsure how to pinpoint what is moving you this way & how.

if it’s true that somewhere, deep inside the wreckage we carry with us, there is an inner child—–you begin this sentence, again & again, patient in learning, in this new language, the words to complete the thought. you scoop that child into your arms, little song bird, bluebird of your heart.

*

*

december 2, 2012, i quit smoking.  for two weeks, i was tempted to quit my job before & after every shift.  at the same time, my brain was reeling with the effects of high levels of estrogen–a headache that couldn’t be cured, not even by half a bottle of acetaminophen, a moodiness that left me boiling with an anger that felt uncontainable.  with the thought i can’t go on this way any longer, i peeled the birth control patch from my backside & flung it into the trash, & i smoked the last cigarette in my pack of L&M bold menthol 100s.

that first day i busied myself painting, christmas shopping, & playing piano.  then it was three pounds of twizzlers and an eight-by-eight pan of lemon bars gutted in two days.  again, the thought came: i can’t go on this way any longer. 

next i began chewing six sticks of gum & drinking sixty-four ounces of water each day.   with those last changes, changes that felt healthy & slightly liberating, i also committed to tweaking my attitude.  after those two weeks of crisis, after i spent most of my days feeling apathetic, angry, & surreal, i decided: when something doesn’t feel OK, i can stop.

over the past three weeks, i can’t go on this way any longer has been playing on a loop in my life.

this, i think, is what gina was hoping i’d get to when she said, do something kind of yourself–beyond the bowls of chocolate mint ice cream & afternoons in my pajamas, beyond beezus & ramona & tiny animal toys.  it’s a scary place to be, because it means declaring myself as a worthwhile investment–not just to myself, but to all of the people in my life, too.  after a lifetime of working to make myself as small & invisible as possible, it is scary to be seen.  suddenly i am a high school freshman primping for my first homecoming dance, tucking & tugging creamsicle folds of an evening gown around my body & looking bashfully into the bathroom mirror, my stomach tied in knots with the question, will they see me the way that i do?   then, even more suddenly, i am a child in a flowery dress about to take my first steps into my elementary school & its kindergarten classroom, my black dress shoes shiny & new, my guts twisted with the thought, will they like me?

to go on, the answers have to be they will.  & it might be true, if my undergraduate public speaking professor was right when he told my class, “everyone in the audience wants you to see you succeed” & suggested that our nature as humans is to encourage & support.  if it happens that the answer to both of my questions is no, then i will learn whether these exercises in self-care have taken root inside me, if i will be able to face silence & strange looks & heads shaking no & tell myself–in lieu of i can’t believe you did that or well, that was really dumb or what did you expect, idiot?–that i tried my best, & that next time, i will do better.

so here i am, the pomegranate split & spilling ruby seeds, the songbird settled outside your window, shaking my wings of mud & dust, & these are the things that, in my language of gratitude, are synonymous with grace & presence, longing & forgiveness, struggle & growth.  i’m glad to have you here with me.

from january 17, 2012

Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on. In fact, things will even be worse the next time you open your eyes. That’s the kind of world we live in. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won’t make time stand still.
Haruki Murakami

*

here:
the body & its unbearable
      weight
of eyes, unblinking
if only to pause
the crescendo
of this watch moving
on

you become
a blossom, wilted
suspended by
an invisible thread

like the wishbone
from your last thanksgiving
as a family
still hanging, covered
in seven different autumns’
dust, in your mother’s
kitchen

*

the body cannot hide
what the mind denies
for long

it remembers:
somatic terror, the loss of one
simple syllable, like the shutting
of a window, or a hockey stick blocking
an icy stone.
the proxemics of touch: jelly
of spine, thimble of breath,
wiggle & knot of intestine,
& the staccato of a heartbeat
like a bird, again & again, beating
into its own glass reflection.

*

tell me this
is not the end,
that the sinew roped, years-
old, around the body
can shed.
that silhouettes will
not always haunt
these lamplit nights.
that beneath the spindles,
matted leaves, & rain, there are
still stones to be collected, carefully
the way i chose them as a child:
ostrich egg-speckled, white as
loose bottom teeth, crumbling & red
for writing.

recalcitrance

time & again she says, the ball’s in your court now.  this is the pattern: your counselor exposes every situation of your life for what it is, & you acknowledge that she’s right but resist acceptance.  you think this phrase refers to basketball, the sweat of players guarding & passing & sinking free-throws, the squeak of rubber soles on slick hardwood, the buzzer when the clock reads 00:00 & the game ends.  but you are reminded of chlorine & the smack of wet foot steps at the YMCA after your swimming lessons, of walking into the game room with wet hair & placing your hands on the slick, greasy handles at the side of the foosball table.  you watched the way older boys played, their square bodies moving at awkward angles, shoving & tugging as they cursed under their breath.  the way they scrambled to manipulate plastic red and blue men into slamming the ball to the opposing goal.  struggle.

*

composition, cursive slant, letters to the girl who lived the damage.  her eyes are closed but she does not sleep, listening for the whisper of the opening door, the pull of a car’s humming motor into a driveway.  hypervigilant.  exhausted.  she is a chimney expelling nicotine & secondhand smoke.  she is a drain accepting skunked beer & days old tequila & lemonade.  write: this is the story as you are living it.  then stand, you & the girl, at opposing sides of the table, your fists pumping handles & spinning knobs, the rush of your muscles & desire to win allowing muscle to work, feverish, blind.  say, together we will learn where the ocean begins.  the splash of little girls in purple polka-dot bathing suits leaping into the pool.  the ball is in your court, her court, & then it isn’t.

*

power–the way it rests heavy & hot behind my ribs, burning just along my spine.  the swell & choke of throat as i sink deeper into this body, the shell that closes like an apple snail’s abandoned exoskeleton.  father, how can i use this wisely or else shed this great responsibility?  first there was a man, & then there was a child, & then there were poor decisions.  unwise, unthinkable, unforgivable: choose an adjective.  pluck them by the fistful.  lose yourself in the yanking as the world funnels, becomes just a pinpoint: the bouquet.  you are elsewhere, absorbed, focusing sleepily.  this minute becomes an hour, becomes an afternoon.  you are stuck in a perpetual loop as time slides right on by.

years later, you will blink, lift your head, become aware for what feels like the first time of the bright sunlight, the purple of the petals fluttering from the stems in your hand.  you will ask, is this real?  how long have i been here?  the sticky, thick tar of sorrow & anger will coat you, will not be scrubbed away.  a voice will rise from the water.  you pray that your father will listen.  as you twist, angle your body, spin your little plastic men to kick, sink a goal, you pray that he will speak your name.

*

i float on my back in a shallow pool, wearing a child’s body & measuring my breaths.  light pierces the water.  it is a disc of glass, a mirror, a scope of cognisance that glints, blinds.  how can i say this, that whatever loom outside this circle is our unknown, a terrible darkness, terror?  the way uncertainty swells, widens, as the light extinguishes.  a quarter teaspoon, a heaping tablespoon: the breath, until it cannot be sustained, a consequence of his body crook’d, curved, around this, a child’s, body.  in the aftermath, man-shaped silhouettes hang from every corner of the room, the patient sea swallows your toes.  you pluck the petals from your bouquets: he loved me, he loved me not,   father’s shadow creeping in the dark.

washer repair

when her washer breaks, it takes weeks of hand washing underwear & dress pants & frilly shirts with borax in the bathtub before little-nothing calls her landlord. tips & tricks from google fail them both, so after a series of phone calls to 1-800-GE-CARES (which is a lie, the landlord said, because i’m pretty sure they don’t), she schedules an appointment for someone from the company to look at it.

she hopes the technician will be a motorcycle-riding woman in her mid-fifties with long silver hair, a broad-shouldered walk, & an accent that rolls southern-slow over words like dirt & grits, but gender schemas allow her to intuit that the technician will be a man. the week before the appointment, little-nothing fixates on that: you will be alone, in the one place that finally feels safe to you, with a man capable of hurting you. she sketches out a mental list of each person she could ask to be present for the appointment: the landlord who works as a welder & is married to a woman who sends monthly checks to christian organizations that give charity to children in third-world countries with cleft palettes; the ex-boyfriend who has not, will not, return the call little-nothing made in tears one week earlier while wishing she’d been able to tell her dead granddad, poppa is hurting me; the friend who plays video games late, sleeps till one in the afternoon, & only leaves her apartment to hang pizza coupons on people’s doorknobs in nice neighborhoods; the trio of professors who taught her to nurture her sentences & sat with her, one by one, to sponge up words like child & father & sexaul assault as she breathed them, aloud, into the air.

she tells herself to be brave. she doesn’t call anyone.

the morning of the appointment, she thinks of telling the neighbors downstairs, if you hear my screams, please call the police, or asking them to putz around out in the yard. again, she tells herself to be brave. she doesn’t knock; she doesn’t request; she doesn’t ask. she busies herself with her appearance: a too-big sweatshirt & work pants that suggest vulnerability, victim, & mess; a loose t-shirt that shows her bra lines & suggests ready, easy, & mess; a plain lavender polo shirt that says strictly professional. she worries about makeup & whether to wear it–if she doesn’t, he will think she is ugly & rarely approached by men, making her an easy target; if she does & he hurts her anyway, maybe the police will take her more seriously if she presents her most attractive face, her bounciest curls–but maybe they won’t. she doesn’t know, so she pencils on her eyeliner. there is no time for the mascara when he calls to tell little-nothing he has arrived.

the technician, who is tall, thin, & has an easy laugh, arrives a little after ten o’clock. he calls from down the street, says he’s knocking at the door. she walks into the road, says, turn around; do you see me? i’m wearing a purple shirt, & waves her arm high in the air. once he’s at the right house & in the bathroom, pressing buttons on & latching & unlatching the door of the washing machine, she can’t find the place in the room to pin her body. she hovers at the kitchen sink, clearing crumbs from the counter. if he comes into the kitchen & sees that it is clean, he will know she is good; she will be desirable in her cleanliness but untouchable. she stands at the edge of the living room very still, holding her breath for as long as she can. if she moves & he hears her, it means she wants him to come look for her; if she is so quiet & so still, he will forget she is even here. she shuts the bedroom door, because if it’s open, he will see the unmade bed, the pile of folded clothes waiting to be put away, & think opportunity. then she perches at the edge of a cushion on the couch, alice sebold’s lucky open in her lap. if he sees her reading, he will recognize the title; he will know the words inside, & he will have to decide whether she will fight him off or melt, boneless, into a soup of arteries & sinew.

nothing happens, her washer can’t be fixed, & little-nothing walks him out through the front gate. the neighbors are in the yard; they look her in the eyes, glance at the technician, say hello. her eyes settle on the ground, a lump forming in her throat, & she wonders if they think it’s all a farce–the toolbox he carries, the nametag he wears–& suspect that little-nothing lured him out of his clothes, lured his body into her body.

alone in her apartment, little-nothing wishes to fold her body in on itself. her mind lets go, drifts into the air. she spends the rest of the day disoriented, confused, the sound of her voice an echo from yards away.