On the kitchen table I found: a small pile of lilac flowers, bruised, scentless; a greasy swollen peppercorn; a small sharp chicken bone, curved like a tooth; parsley leaves, withered. Milk of cilantro, dogwood in a greasy cup.
Or did you want a sentence from each month of the book of days I was supposed to keep? He left when he began to sense a still and squalid future of us doing the human thing. One night he said he wanted to be a citizen of the dirt. A true world-citizen. He laughed aloud the blood from his face, his desire craning toward the center of the world, his profound irritation with its surface.
A few weeks before he told me that when we had first met he had had a fantasy, that when we fucked I wouldn’t come like any girl. Instead something would come out of me, an instantaneous production. What would it be? Something flighted. Maybe a bird, he wasn’t sure, could be a bat. The bird would be the fascinating thing about me, released, and he would reach out and catch it. The disappointment in his voice was unmistakable. He had already mostly stopped speaking to me. When I left in the mornings he was always still asleep, turned away, his nose almost touching the wall, and when I came home after work he was in the bathtub, with only his head above water.
Soon after he left. Then his mother called me and told me he was dead. It was dark and cold. The sun came up like it was saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I guess I have to go
Then came the months on the bed in the holy stretch of grief, I having settled into the groove down its center, quavering in my still skin, upsetting the furniture in the mens’ dormitories in the boarding house of the heart. A year later, the same things were still lying on that table, now an inventory of small remembrances. A snail (shell), a goat (tiny, plaster, chipped paint on the front hooves, found beside a broken snow globe on our street), a wreath (flowers his little sister tied together for me at a picnic), a pearl (don’t know; not an heirloom, he insisted). A stack of petrified casserole dishes by the sink. No one ever came to clean up.
I thought of the others I had wanted before, one whose gold hair smoothed pearlly over skull. That one died in a war. I swept these things into a bag on a Friday evening, breaking in the process the delicate front leg of the goat. I left it all on the floor and went down to the graves.
he shuts his eyes when he enters her house, from a perfect instinct of irritation. one crumbling hand on the doorframe. she: alive woman fact of a body white hot spear of trying.
he draws her eyes behind him at a distance as they move through rooms. he looks over everything with patient disinterest. he remembers nothing.
This is not the one I wanted. I wanted the one with the crinkly eyes on the face unchanged from childhood. He lived by the sea. He knew everybody. He was a pearl hidden hanging on the inside of my dress. His smug roundness, his impenetrable soft glow deepening with the onset of night, his satisfaction becoming more profound, his living more expansive. My pearl, my ornament.
I was not prepared for this one, another terror of the earth. He came out of the ground where his mother planted him and forgot him, until tonight he cracked the crust of soil set so long in one place with the tip of his well-formed nose.
Immediately he begins to wreak himself on the rooms, inventing new rules for the teakettle, new phenomena to be honored in the life of the house. But he is not the sad sitcom father of the imagination, one of the tiny dictators who built themselves a world that will constantly, maybe lovingly undermine them, who contain violence real and of the moment and always just now happening, you are wincing under them and always only pretending to read and water the plants.
He arranges his limbs on the couch in a steep recline.
HE SAYS: There are many reasons Death would never want you,
and I agree with him.
You are too safe.
SHE SAYS: You are death,
your teeth are rotting out of your face.
HE CONTINUES: too learned in self-preservation,
too many creams, too many walls. I heard you watching Dirty Dancing with your work friend
when you thought I was asleep. You are dying,
we are all always dying, there is nothing to preserve.
Why are you here? Why do you stay in your house at night? The street howls at you its
vodka and screaming at the black windows
shrinking, begging to be ignored.
SHE ignores him: Are you dying?
empty of memory, empty of everything but divine exasperation,
HE: I wouldn’t mind. What makes you believe I want to be alive?
SHE: your hunger, look at your body, that hide
HE: Yes, I crunch cereal at the moon.
MINE is a genius of hunger worked in corn moons and stars, lightly sticky when I grab them in red-handed handfuls, go gummy when wet, melting against my teeth. The night clerks at the stores near my house are completely against doing their jobs. They hate to sell me anything. When I have money for them I buy the children’s cereal. I love it and how sick it makes me. My sister’s friend was a wild young girl and she would drink until she shook, and one time she didn’t stop shaking, she told my sister she had a lake inside of her, large and cold. Soon after she moved away and got married. That is how it feels, me full of cold milk and children’s cereal, the lion in his spacesuit on the bag. But only for a second. it ebbs away and does not leave me with the desire to make a home, a bed to go to nights. mine is a genius of hunger.
SHE: are you hungry let me feed you
HE: Don’t start. if you are a storm it is one whose eye is the lazy thing, the dumb and
mimic, your passion and pleasure is a comforting pillow of saturated fat, carrion call. I can’t stand it. i’ll eat
she moves her mouth to say something against him
HE: I’m looking into you, and there’s nothing to look at. Like you have no soul.
SHE: you are the worst and least promising kind
HE: No! No don’t talk anymore! It hurts me!
he flops down, lets his head fall back over the edge of the couch, his legs slung over the back,
slides to the floor
something sends a bubble up through her. indignation and a bodily revolt at having been seen by him. she begins to gather
SHE SAYS: I am a survivor of a war you’ve never heard of, I have a nativeness which is beyond your reach, and you have assented accidentally to this, the order of things, in your ranting definition of what the world must be, you must grant me this, even if you begrudge me love.
HE SAYS: But what does it matter at all what you think about anything? Your mind is a beggar, goes around asking people to let it be necessary, let the thoughts it thinks be the kind that people need, because that is the reason we think in the first place, for other people. We have to live for other people.
SHE: I think
HE: But you might as well not think that. You are an agent of deplorable softness. If my flesh has softened yours is still something worse, alive and not quite measuring up, you mush,
competing rot. but you invited yours. i win?
SHE: Well, no, because it’s more complicated than that for me. My parents were actually from Bosnia, or I mean rather they were from Russia, from Siberia, from Birobidzhan which is in eastern Siberia, they were moved there forcibly by Stalin, after the war
she looks at his leaking eyes
World War II
a small shrug of her shoulders, and he knows this was supposed to be obvious to him, she sees in his face that he is afraid, his mouth begins to open and stays there, with his whole body he reaches for her to tell her that
he already knows about World War Two
but the moment does not come when he is talking
and she is not, instead she is talking now about somebody’s grandmother, an old woman now dead—
—which was a shame for them, if you can call it that, my grandmother had walked across Europe
with my father in her arms—
Say father, father is better, the little light in his eyes when you talk about your father, he is in love with your father through you, oh it’s all sick, I can’t talk anymore, they’ve made me too sick, no I will
—to save him, to be safe in the Soviet Union with some people that my grandfather knew there, and she ended up marrying one of them, an alcoholic and they were deported, but not for the alcoholism.
Too blinded by that last wave of bitterness, can’t think for the next twenty seconds or so but he is rapt, I am succeeding, now even more afraid that it will subside and he will remember himself, remember his swollen tongue, but it will be worse than that and in the glow of my fear he will appear great, huge, a force of truth past his own death, a truth that negates me will be released and my lies, the lies that they are, will be undone, and me with them, this is the fear I know the best.
she smiles, small, charming, reaches down to unbutton the first button on the front of her sweater. It is short, poorly fitting, pulled up at the waist in front by her breasts. She blushes, looks into his eyes without catching them, continues:
My father was offered a job as a functionary in a plant in the Balkans, it was a program they had, they decided to move there from Siberia.
I am clinging too hard to the contours of this narrative, what comes next?
Later we were there, it was if we had never lived anywhere else, the laundry hanging over the balcony, it was all gold from the exposed lightbulbs, and also the sun in the afternoon on the crumbling wall of the building opposite ours, in transitional seasons.
I am losing this
She raises her arms over her head like someone is pulling on her, elbows first. Unbends them on instinct but without confidence, dully senses this is the right thing to do. He is attentive to every part of her motion and she falls into it, lifts her chin and her eyebrows, lets her hands fall to her neck and caress her head and hair with their backs, loose hairs caught through her fingers as she then lifts her hands palms to the sky, thinks carefully and chooses the best possible position, the muscles running down into her torso, the base of herself where it happens, a gesture she remembers from many hours of yoga classes, the careful positioning of her body almost a defensive action, if he understands it will be all over. The grammar of the motion will disgust him, he will cast himself out for her. She approaches fear, a physical stiffness that would be, cocks one hip at it and falls back. The fingers of her left hand come down to touch her arm, she turns her face into her arm, then peace, she will sleep there without him, do him this solid offense.
Why am I not doing this all my life. What is more what I am always doing than this
Her nose leaves a small greasy stain on her arm, there is the scratch of the rough skin of her lips as if they are caked with layers of milk, eternal dehydration also passed down to her, composed completely of parts, she breathes slowly and smells the sour ammonia stench of her armpits, obscured by wilted flowers, 48-hrs pungent, she wore the sweater to work and it’s after midnight. She remembers to move but does nothing.
Her eyes open.
A layer of voices appears behind the gummy surface of the music that had been playing, meant to be unheard, unperceived except as softness, a vibration that enlivens, maybe these voices are also violins, and when he speaks it will be a violin, unctuous, angling to pull me this way or that.
His mouth was still hanging open like he wanted to say something but his eyes were dull, not reaching for time anymore or for her. She waited in sweet and patient silence for the hook sounds of the violin, and when it came it was not that, it slid under the space she had made for it, where it was sweet, where it hurt.
She stretches herself on the floor, finally:
I am a soft science, she says, splaying
I am a very soft science
He’s a wolf, the mothers said, that’s why. They turned to one another and shared a shiver of delight. Without our noticing it passed.
But a lame one, more of a dog
He has a snout. It’s good to be afraid of it. We couldn’t bring ourselves to touch it. It’s bristly but not explicitly animal, fantastic neither, takes no imagination.
And his proportions are off, look at his long stomach and the mouth that can’t smile, those bound-up jaws. bone-cast, brittle. He’s not worth it. Instead there’s a man that happens later.
Dressed in faded blue, the only color he can identify for himself, for him it is special, and he saves up scraps of it, first a handkerchief’s worth, not that he knows how to use it, then a tie, a vest, a jacket, finally a coat, insulated by filth, that trails on the ground.
Did he make it himself? How?? He is lack lack lack. Must have the rags he can catch
sewn together by someone, another girl, stupid with love and enchanted with his strangeness. No child of ours. Remember he has teeth that you don’t know about, they need no jaws. He will use them on you when you are too close to run away. After you will be wounded and he will say he can help you but he can’t, he doesn’t know how, and you will live mutilated in the second world, the lower world of sad things. For now we keep you from it on our raised arms, the work
of our upturned palms.
Us mothers’ arms are lilies that have made it through the snow. Love enlivens the stalks. Remember we love you. Later a man will love you and it won’t be the same.
They turned to throw the garbage out the window, the chicken spines they collected
together from the weeks’ dinners, still raw and decorated with bits of yellow fatty skin. They landed in the snow outside just behind me as I walked away. A long-furred cat meowed deep in its throat, as deep as the winter it was desperate to avoid. It skittered over the crusted ice toward the remains and then caught itself back, disgusted by its own eagerness. It sat back to lick its dark colorless fur.
Our hair, the dilly greens we feed you on
Always on the edge of my mind you’ve been a dog, a dog in the house of love who tries its hardest to negate with its own being the house it crouches in, you are not a modern dog, the kind we love and steal good food to feed, you are the dog of antique metaphor, that is, less than a man but obligatorily loved.
I began later to see you as a year, as something only potentially human, made by humans for humans without being given human substance, optionally human but also doglike, a man-dog, creature down at its long ears. Your year of the dog, the one that was you all along, the one you really and secretly identified with, is long dead. You pad along without it, at your side nothing. But it is alive in you, you began to resemble it every month more, lying placidly behind someone’s television, a kind of friend under watchful eyes, the ultimate accessory. I hate you.
HE: The house of love insists on its people. It will implicate you in its structure, you may feel yourself indispensable, without you it might collapse into a pile of flesh, of sad, of purposeless flab. All warm-colored and seizing. My parents must still be there but my version would be wasted on them. It is part of them, they can’t really smell it. The walls melting to enfold me. It still stifles me when something demands dry confidence. Night and the walls seeping over me. Unwillingly I remind myself.
The house of love sounds fun but it eats its children. There are probably many. Mine was the one I knew, mine was for me. I was its only child. It was normal, it had a clock,
something you could do in one room you couldn’t do in another.
In the spring its roof would crack and unpurse itself and flood us with warmth, blinding like a disease with a name but no cure. Then it would collapse under its own received heat, then summer and us panting underneath, and the garden planted with good intentions reaching wildly over its - our - skin, the pumpkins left sad indentations and a moldering film when we finally removed them, they made lumpy lawn chairs as the season died. The same sad set of happenings every year. Why us all alone in our life together.
My father’s friendliness was global, and I wanted it for myself. My father had searched for building materials of unprecedented ecological friendliness. The house had certain chronic structural difficulties, a certain incapacity for being a house. When he asked me, when I was little, I said I wanted a house made from bottles, where something small could be stored in each. I imagined a wall of flowers for my mother’s birthday.
He didn’t tell us what he would do. For a few days he mentioned buying a horse, a warm animal that would be strange and scary to me but I was excited. A possession with its own smell. But then this. A house made half-alive.
He said it was a fungus but still I don’t believe it. It moved and seized, flaunted an exquisite sensitivity to touch. My father bought it as an experiment from an inventor who built it as an experiment, a home meant to exist symbiotically with its inhabitants. This means it needed us. If you stuck your hand out the window too far it lurched to coax you back inside. With its unapologetic clinginess it gave body to what we were too lazy to say ourselves.
It also did impressions, or rather it made them. My parents’ friends would come over and several hours later we would find shallow hollows in the walls in the shapes of their bodies, in poses always characteristic of whoever had momentarily leaned against it, laid in soft indent in the colorless wall, and it would be days before the wall would become flat again. The house’s slow excuse for wit. It felt mean-spirited to me, whether it really meant to mock or reveal.
Our house was the one successful fruiting body of the planned fungal complex, its inventor’s vision for an environmentally inoffensive subdivision. The rest withered, uninhabitable, or grew too well, crowding out the intended living space with turgid walls. Ours was expected to do one of these things but reached a size that was appropriate for us, our own miracle of distributed outcomes that shuddered every so often but held us nonetheless. We read it as love.
I was a dog in the house of love. I was the house’s beloved son. When I was a teenager I invited all my friends over on the weekend knowing my parents would know, because their living room would not lie to them. Everyone left late, and in despair or remorse I fell asleep leaning on the wall. I woke in the morning and the room was a dim grey. Light came in through clenched windows, the walls were bruised black and red, with the sad guilty brown of an old mushroom. My cheek and side where I had lain against the wall had a new red stain, a birthmark. It never went away.
My father hated me after this, I was sure. I liked to rest my cheek on the cool floor underneath the kitchen table My parents said nothing but kicked me as they ate, my father and my mother, he with his pointed shark-skin work shoes left on for this purpose, she too, though hers were alligator. She would desist after a few long minutes, but then with a look from him begin again, in guilty fervor, to stick her heels and toes all along my new birthmark which was delicate and painful, then with more enthusiasm in my nose and ears and eyes. This must be why I look this way, my skin of a poor animal.
My parents preferred me as a dog. My father took my mother’s heels to be sharpened every other Friday morning, and later had the heels replaced with steel points carefully painted to resemble the expensive leather. She had to learn to walk in them again. She admired the sharpness of the outline of her calf muscles in the mirror, after a few weeks of the new toddling. He took her for a walk in them. I watched from the window him holding her hand as the fine points scraped and shrieked on the sidewalk. I wonder if he scolded her, if he squeezed her hand.
I grew old on their scraps, beneath that table absorbing their scraps into my leather,
coated with months of food lost to their half-attention. Because I am not really a dog I cannot behave like one, my mugging cannot make me the creature of leavings that a dog is, that shows his owner the true value of the things he rejects after all in the soft grease of his fur. Look at what the least parts of you have made, says the dog. It is your garbage loving you.
Their lost food gathered in me, and my skin became shiny and thick. I can’t shake the smell. When I don’t move, I mean when I don’t generate any heat from day to day, it recedes into a mild, powdery scent, like a perfume for old women. Gradually, then, I let my young old body uncurl, I practiced standing up in the night when the windows had sucked themselves in tight. One evening I let the door expel me.
I understand now that I am a genius of stillness. I lay on my friends’ couches for months, years, the world over. I was sweet and ingratiating. They watched me indulgently as I murmured jokes in a half-stupor. My vocation now is lying down a little away from people.
SHE SAYS: I have some soap. It’s lye.
HE SAYS: Okay. Why?
SHE: I bought it at the grocery store. On a little shelf in front of the checkout.
HE: But why? What could you possibly need it for?
SHE: For laundry. My old roommate told me it would work, and it was cheap. It made my shirts all scratchy.
She wants me to use lye on my skin. It wouldn’t hurt. I’m my own jacket by now.
SHE: I didn’t say I wanted you to. It was mostly a joke. Maybe you should eat something different?
I see her preparing to offer me a dish of tropical fruit, nearly wrecking herself by the urge. She is the dog! Leaping at my mouth. Waiting for love to fall out from my eyes so she can lick it off my cheeks.
HE: I carried the fungal patterns of my childhood into this new, false adulthood. Fungi are almost-plants that mirror the interest of their observers, anyone with the fleeting perspicacity and care to remember they exist.
Then I met a girl for whom everything was a prelude to invasion. When I met her, poor ugly scared thing, she was deep into a two-volume book on mushrooms, she would read a copy someone had stolen from the library for her while she was waiting for someone else to walk her home from work.
The fungus wanders under the ground creating tense and febrile connections from its clammy mycelia, the medium at its disposal. And so did I wander, to leave my tiny tender hooks in everything while taking nothing.
Now my love is coming to me, trailing time behind her, an heirloom shredded on her rocky path, to take everything. All I can hope to leave behind is a rubric for the next dog.
SHE: You are coming to my heart
There’s nothing to be done
One after another, she swallows. A snail, a goat, a wreath, a pearl, seasoned with dead flowers. They take hold and she opens, mortifying fuchsia parting skin from skin at the breastbone, an animal flower. There’s a room for you
HE: Ugh, god, all the powers in the universe have risen up against me
With drying lungs she sighs
SHE: It was you who shone at my ear and throat, made me sweet. I’ll carry you in my heart as a dead man.
HE: Come on, I smashed all barriers! I conquered death!! I am coming to your soul!
SHE: You are coming to my soul!!
He pitches forward, dissolves into her, a crystalline pink honey that lubricates their body, the twinned thing, that floods and bursts the paradise of the heart