Fireweed twines my thighs as we fight the thick underbrush; sun chafes the plane of my neck. (I’d do well to forget all of this.) We’re in the scrub of a summer forest, amidst tics and snakes and wasps, veritably every enemy of the body, yet my gaze hangs on the pimple by your shoulder blade. Later at home I will Google anatomy of the back, wondering just what muscle blossomed this blemish. Tender-red, raw in the sun, shiny with innocence—it makes me ache.
Somehow we emerge from the brush, disoriented by the meringue riverbank mud, its burbling tranquility: how it doesn’t grab at us, doesn’t bite. My sandals imprint the murk, making a record of every step. I long to leave pieces of myself here, where you are.
I’m not supposed to be lonely; I have no grounds to complain, having gathered the accoutrements of a beautiful life, which my best friend tells me as if I need reminding.
Truthfully, I thought I’d outgrown my loneliness, left it in storage with my stained baby blankets and outdated college textbooks. I’d settled into a life: routine, domestic. Sleeping beside someone every night, whiling away time at work every week. Walking the dog. Buying bulk groceries.
And then I met you, and there I was: lonely all over again.
Sunday morning. Burned-black bacon grits my mouth with char and the thinnest slick of lard. My words unfurl loosely, lazy with hangover and lack of sleep. I say: I surprise myself sometimes with my own cruelty (cruelty culled to its coldest kernel, cruelty cut like a scythe). I lose myself in melodrama as your smile rings steady. You say you are the same, you are cruel, too, so much so that sometimes you don’t recognize yourself.
I say, I can’t see that, that can’t be.
(As if I have any sway over your being.)
I say: but you are like the sun.
(As if the sun isn’t destined to die; as if it won’t swell like a cystic zit—red giant, the astronomers call it—and swallow Mercury and Venus—god of poetry, god of love—and maroon itself, luminous and all-consuming, in Earth’s place, finishing us exactly the way the poets and lovers foretold: by fire.)
You greet me for the first time by dropping a fishing lure on my foot. I am lost in a novel, and balmy with alcohol, when there you are: cannonballing through the front door so hard its handle slams the adjacent wall. Plastic bags hang from your arms like Christmas ornaments, and I stand to say hello, and there is that thwap of pain on my toes, there is your torso on mine. My mind registers oh and my soul pulses with loneliness and my foot complains, but I show nothing. Here is my poker face, potent as any declaration of love.
I am too nervous to eat around you, though within an hour you’ve piled every pot and pan I own full of food. As you whirligig around the kitchen, my eyes follow the slope of your sides: shoulders, wide like a swimmer’s; waist, lithe like a dancer’s. I wonder who thought you into being, because it surely wasn’t God, in no universe could it be God, you would stymie God. (You would stymie God—to indulge such a thought!)
It is the last night of June.
I’ve started at the mouth of this fantasy and meandered its every tributary. I know where it goes: a million times and million ways, it’s always the same: a blade in a vein. In most scenarios, you wound me. In some, we both come away bloody. I know this well enough to fill a river ten times over, and still—
still my heart marches out your name.
Midnight, July. Impossible that you are in my passenger seat, streetlights mosaic over your face, suggestion of the river on your skin; impossible, but here you are. If my passenger seat could speak, it would wheeze out the names of every beloved who ever held the place you grace now. That passenger seat—its emptiness—was home to so many ghosts. They hitchhiked with me cross-country, declining to die. They bored holes in my throat, infected my every breath.
Who are you to evict my ghosts?
I dread the inevitable lack of you: the size it will occupy, the time. The price of these nights my life.
The hardest unsaid sentences to redact:
You never brewed enough coffee in the morning for anyone but yourself, and even that selfishness endeared me.
The night I got too drunk to see, I reached for your right foot. I remember it, a threadbare flash of clarity in the tangle of it all: my need, your heel.
It moves me, being the same age as you. Thinking we’ve been under the sun for the almost-same slice of time. Thinking you’re the first person I’ve loved who shares that with me. Thinking of the twin 93s in our email addresses, so simple, so dismantling.
Your eyes are the color of the celery I fed my first pet, a guinea pig. I used to parcel spare herbs for her: cilantro from Mexican restaurants, curly parsley from delis. I see your eyes and I hear my guinea pig rustling in her cage, my dad fitting the lid on the saucepan, my mom cranking the volume on a sitcom. I see your eyes and home resurrects.
My four-a.m. runs lead me near your house; I’m reminded of it with every beat of my soles. I resist the tether that compels me to you, I abide by the boundaries of sanity, I do, but I wonder: wonder about the dull confirmation I’d get (your home, windows blinded, lights off) if I ever did stray. Wonder if my yearnings were borne out (you, parting the blinded windows, sparking the deadened lights, inviting me inside; you, dreading to let me leave, holding me between your sheets like a secret, rewriting my life with your smile) how I could possibly survive them.
I frame your face in my mind as I wade through the dark.
Your manners: relentless as the dawn, disarming me at every turn. Every door held, dish cleaned, check covered—they pile up like pebbles in my pockets, weight nagging for acknowledgement.
The question of your middle name. Thomas. O Thomas, will you fall toward apostle or doubter? The Bible calls Thomas “the Twin,” though theologians believe the nickname references his double-mindedness more than his sibling status.
You: not a twin, though a Gemini. Gently mercurial, expressively coy. Sun-dark shoulders and moon-bright lips. Question unanswered.
Forever I will think of you when I drink gin. I know this from the first sip of the first cocktail you make me, know it even before you pour the concoction into your canteen and treat yourself to a taste before passing it to me.
Green Tanqueray bottle on the counter, bad 80s music hazing the background, slab of meat crackling in the pan, and your shorts, low-slung on your hips.
Countless personality quizzes have already informed me that I crave a savior. Rather than seeking practical solutions to your problems, you fantasize about a rescuer who will banish your unhappiness. Trite, but true. Also trite but true: you and I in the grocery aisle at five minutes to midnight, giggling at the maple syrup selection. We decide to make pancakes in the morning, pancakes and waffles, maybe pancakes and waffles and mimosas. These are the only kinds of plans we make: liquor and sleep; liquor and food; liquor so the goodbye is dulled.
(Liquor until your girlfriend calls.)
Offhandedly, you mention you might request off work to celebrate my birthday. I love this image but I don’t dare trust it: it’s a butterfly poised in my palm, motionless for the moment but prepared to launch. Already it is August.
At the river, navigating shore to bank, you held out your hand for me. Ever the gentleman, ever the good son—I could have died right then and called it absolution.
You do not make time for me on my birthday, though you do the day after. You direct me to a dive bar where, over a flight of beer, you answer a call from your girlfriend. You lie about who you’re with. You tell her I love you and goodbye, place your phone on the table, and lean close to continue our conversation. You look like you could be comfortable doing this every day of your life.
The guilt. The detachment from who I was before you. I’m grayscale, a cardboard cutout, personality leached when you’re not around. My partner insults me and I’m too numb to notice. The rest of humanity recedes, pebbles flung down a long well, and I register those echoes but do not care. I make myself opaque for you.
You do not deign to reciprocate.
In the beginning, before I realized what you would be to me, before I abandoned all innocence: you picked a mint leaf and laid it, limp in your palm, for me to smell. You didn’t raise the leaf toward me, didn’t pass it off; instead, you nodded for me to bow to your hand. The most intimate gesture I’ve ever known: surrendering, timid and uninitiated, to your directive.
And then snapping up, feigning I was unfazed, unchanged.
Remember this, if nothing else: the infraspinatus. Long i, long a: in-fra-spi-na-tus.The zit on your back that day at the river, it bloomed on your infraspinatus, jeweled it like a crown. Though it—like the sun in July, the gin on my lips, the ballad of the past—
it has surely faded by now.
Alaina Symanovich holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MA in English from Penn State University. Her work has appeared in Quarter After Eight, Sonora Review, Superstition Review, and more. Find her at alainasymanovich.com.