Yesterday I walked to the corner store, looked over the dusty postcards, and the shining lollipops in their crisp wrappers. The heat was almost unbearable. The air was as thick as cotton, my lips were chapped, my tongue swollen and dry. I licked my lips, providing minimal relief to the blistering cracks and reached over the counter for a large sapphire lollipop with a neon green center. It reminded me of the oceans in Greece for some reason. A mixture of both deep blue, and transparent green. Back then that ocean had made me tremble, had made me sick with anticipation. I picked out a cold wet Pepsi from the refrigerator. As I carefully counted the change out onto the counter, I caught sight of my dirty, chewed up nails, and bit my bottom lip until I tasted blood. Curling my fingers into a fist, as if that alone could push away the shame that I felt. Shame for how far I’ve come from the life I used to have, shame for whatever it was that I had become. For a split second, I wondered if I could return home. In that moment, I was convinced that I could turn this all around. I wasn't serious. I knew it was impossible. I walked out of the shade of the store and into the dry heat. Turned my face up to the ball of fire in the sky, and stuck out my swollen tongue. I was alive. Barely, but it was good enough.
I am having trouble waking up. I open one eye lazily, and realize that the sheets are sticking to my skin. A warm breeze is blowing the white lace curtains towards the ceiling. They float down slowly, the sunlight streaming through them, and onto my bedroom floor. My heart hurts. I groan and kick off the sheets in frustration. The white ceiling is diseased, the paint flaring up in angry boils. My hair is drenched with sweat, and stinks. Everything stinks, the sheets, the floor, the garbage, my life. I move the stinging hair out of my eyes, and sit upright. My head throbs, and I contemplate falling back to sleep before I hear scuttling in the kitchen. Perhaps a rat. I feel disgusted; my mouth tastes like poison.
I go into the bathroom, lean heavily on the sink, and run my tongue around the inside of my teeth. My gums are a rough landscape, the gum line uneven, jagged. I avoid looking into the mirror as I push my pinky nail into the flesh of an already healed gum. There is a shrilling in my mind, as I push the nail in further, past the pain, past the body’s natural fear. When the high hits, I stop, enjoying the sweet music. My eyes close, and I tilt my head back to the ceiling. The world is quiet, the racing in my body and mind have ceased to reach me, and all I know is utter and complete bliss. When I feel the high abating, I reach in and exacerbate the wound, but it’s always the first high that feels best. I pull out the strip of flesh, and arrange it neatly by the sink. I spit out the blood, letting it drip from my mouth, as I enter a state of bliss once more. This will be the last one for the majority of the day. If I cut too much, the high won’t be as strong, and I need those few seconds of perfection in my life. I dispose of the strip of flesh under the running water, watching ribbons of blood and spit swirl away with it. I clean the sink, and brush my teeth. When the brush makes contact with my gum line, my breath catches for a moment. I don’t feel the physical sting, only the soft rush of endorphins. My heart races, and I press the brush down a little harder. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My eyes are unfocused and full of tears. I stare at my sad reflection, and know not for the first time, that I have no cure for this. In some part of my mind, I always assumed that one day I’d grow out of it. One day I wouldn’t be in so much pain, in so much agony and panic that I wouldn’t need to cut in order to make it out of those episodes alive. Someday existing would be easy. I actually believed that for most of my life. I'm good at buying my own lies.
I dry my face with a stale towel and pick my way across the cluttered living room floor. I've turned the shabby but spacious living area into my bedroom. When I moved in, I pushed the gray couch that came with the house to the furthest wall, and now my bed sits in the center of the room. The lapis lazuli box that I found under the kitchen sink the second week I was living here, sits on the floor next to my bed. It’s beautiful and intricately carved. I knew it was lazuli the minute I held it in my hands. I can feel the weight and the humming of its energy every time I pick it up. Inside there are a stack of neatly written letters, all bound with blue ribbon. The envelopes have yellowed, but I can still clearly make out the handwriting, which is delicate and beautiful. At first, I kept the closed box by my bed, running my fingers over its carvings, not wanting to intrude on the privacy of whoever had written the letters. I had considered buying a coffee table just so I could set the box there, in prominence, and not on a dirty floor cluttered with the scraps of my life.
One night, as I tossed and turned in bed, those letters called out to me. I had cut numerous times that evening, my thoughts were feverish, and my mouth was as sore and agitated as my heart. It was a night where no amount of pain could shut off the screaming inside of me. And yet, I heard the whisper, felt the gentle breath over my ear. I turned, half expecting the presence to be fully fleshed out, standing behind me. Instead there was only the box. I turned on the lights, and sat with it in my lap. I ran my thumbs over the carvings, loops and swirls that intertwined and vanished into each other, only to emerge elsewhere; making them impossible to trace. Perhaps I could pretend the letters were for me. The first stack was the newest so I set it aside, and reached for the stack at the bottom. There weren’t many letters, so I decided that I would read them slowly, relishing the interruption of my lonely exile.
Two days to go.
I don’t know what I’m waiting for. I’ve cleaned the apartment at least twice already. I need a pack of cigarettes. I bought a phone and called Leslie today. She was worried. She asked where the hell I was. I told her about how animals like to be alone when they die. She didn’t understand. Which isn’t surprising. She’s upset, and scared for me. I told her I’d call her later. I made my way to the diner, even though I wasn’t on the schedule, and ordered a cherry coke and a cheeseburger deluxe. I settled into a booth at the back and kicked off my shoes. I watched couples come in, one after another. Holding hands, laughing, kissing. This cold is becoming poisonous. The juke box was glowing, but I can’t remember what was playing. Erika was working, and she grinned when she saw me. She grinned all the way over to me, menus in her pale skinny fat arms. There was, something lewd, and distasteful about her. Still, I found myself attracted to her. You know, first bad impressions never stopped me. Why do you think that is? Maybe it’s my need to indulge in what repulses me. Maybe it’s that always, in so many ways, I have needed to hurt myself, not consciously, but maybe it’s the subconscious that has been at play here. As I write this letter, I wonder, really why, why didn’t I run in the other direction? Not just about Erika, but about everything in my life? Why couldn’t I just take the opposite path, and save myself? Why am I so bent on my own destruction? Asking the why of things is useless. You know that. I know that.
But back to Erika, I’m curious to find out what it is about her that makes her feel so dangerous to me. She doesn’t look dangerous. Her pale blond almost white hair, is cut bluntly at her chin. She’s a small woman, with high cheekbones, and clear blue eyes. She’s crisp, like snow crunching under boots. She has the patient eyes of a reptile.
I watched as she wiped down the worn out counter with a dirty rag, when she turned to me. “What brings you here on your day off Mair?” The nickname rubbed me in all the wrong ways, and her question was stupid. She knew as well as I, that I was here on my day off, because there was nowhere else for me to go.
Another waitress brought me my food. I took a sip of my soda, and shrugged as an answer.
“You don’t like to talk much do you?” she asked in that saccharine voice of hers. I picked up a newspaper that a customer had left behind, and read the headlines. ‘Girl found dead in ditch’. I wondered how Girl’s mom felt. I imagined Girl’s mother going numb, while the rest of the world was telling her that her daughter’s name was no longer Emma, or Katie. She’s ‘Dead girl in ditch!’ now.
I remembered what it was like being told that someone you loved had slipped through your fingers. That you would never see or hear from them again. It was cataclysmic. I want you to understand that. It’s a pain that takes you far out into the sea, so far, you forget there was ever a shore. If you can, try to understand that I don’t even remember a time when I was safe or happy. Was there ever such a time for me?
“Listen, you really have to get out more. What do you say to coming to a small party at my place tomorrow night? You down?” I tried to shut my eyes against Erika's voice. Even then, at that moment, I knew that it was a bad idea. But she slipped in through the empty spaces. She grinned a Cheshire grin, and her white teeth flashed. A cold shiver moved violently up my spine, making my shoulders shake. I managed to smile back; maybe to hide my uncertainty. I should have said no. I know that now, and I knew that then. But I thought about going back to my dirty, and lonely apartment; suddenly I wanted to be anywhere but there. Without thinking it through further, I made my choice.
“Sure why not.”
This is how I signed over my fate.
This was the first letter. I’ve read it numerous times, passing my fingertips over the perfect cursive. Maryanne. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Maryanne. I’ve closed my eyes and tried to imagine what she looked like. There were no photographs in the box, and even though I’ve considered venturing up to the upper parts of the house, I haven’t. They are boarded up really well, and the thought of the work it would take to get up there makes me tired. I've looked in the cupboards and under the sink to see if there are any other boxes with photographs or letters. There's nothing. With no concrete evidence, I shut my eyes and try to visualize what she looked like. A pair of golden brown eyes look back at me. I used to be better at this game. Beth and I would play it. Touching random objects and knowing who they had belonged to. We never got one wrong. We were “touched.” That’s what they called it then. That’s what our mother called it, while we were with her. It had been a whole other life. Whoever I had been then, that person didn’t exist any longer. And along with her, went whatever gifts I had been born with. I fold the letter carefully and place it back into the stack the way I found it. I wonder if Maryanne is still alive, if she made it back to those safe shores of hers. I think a prayer in her direction, a hope that she found a way to escape, because I know, without looking further, where the road she was on leads. We’re caught in parallel currents. We’re headed to our deaths Maryanne and I.
My stomach pangs with hunger, and I think about the bagel shop in town. It’s quiet, and never crowded. But that’s why I moved here. To be alone. Good luck finding a deserted bagel shop in Brooklyn. Just thinking about Brooklyn makes my hands shake slightly. Unbidden, the smells and memories of the quiet streets at dawn slip into my heart. I push them away before they can do further damage. No amount of cutting or drug use can save me from drowning if I allow myself to be nostalgic. No. I’m here now. I slip my sandals on, sling my purse across my body, and give myself a mental pep talk before I open the front door. I turn the knob, swing the door back, and let the burning daylight swallow me whole.