When I was 15, I lost both of my best friends: one to Japan, the other to murder. I understood how to lose someone to moving away: you wrote and sent photos and talked about your lives, one continuing in a place you both know, the other in a place only one of you do—a fascinating place with prefectures and tatami. I wasn’t so clear on how to lose someone entirely. When I saw the footage of my friend’s covered body on the evening news, my first thought was: She can’t be dead; she just got those boots. We had things to tell each other on Monday. She had homework to turn in.
That’s how murder is: it ends everything the person was in the middle of. Like ending a sentence with a preposition, you can never tack on anything else, at least nothing mutual—although we never cease to find evidence that our dead still speak to us. It’s an idealized conversation, free of misunderstanding or argument or ghosting. Only the living can ghost: an unreciprocated holiday card, an unanswered text. A conversation one means to have, next time: I should have said more when we used to talk. We like to imagine that our lives reflect our principles, but inertia—not regret, not desire, not even rage—is one of the most powerful forces on earth.
A Project Against Impermanence
I wanted to be alone, at the side of the autostrada
where the ditch is the color of marrow
and the bicycle seat digs into my crotch,
away from everyone who could offer no comfort, yet was not you,
the unmoved water glass that swirled with your energy ………like a lava lamp.
Now that we are separated,
I am jealous of the people you see,
the strangers who are more immediate than I am:
the woman who brushes you on the train,
the rush of excitement you feel when she presses your crotch,
your brief fantasy of fucking her in the bathroom.
I want these moments;
I want the electrochemical formula for your erections
and I want to kill in everyone else the pheromone that induces them.
I wanted to recreate the interiority of that night,
the extinction of the crowd, full of bodies
leaner, tanner than mine, with breasts trussed into halter tops,
bodies that hurt and reassure me with their temporariness:
………..These women will not, cannot, remain beautiful: they will give birth,
………..pasta and oil will thicken them, tanning will crack their skins like cheap handbags,
………..while I, pale and barren and timeless, remain in the shade, knowing;
………..But so am I temporary: fleshy and veined,
………..the talcum-scented rot that fills pews and pews at county parishes,
………..parsed with brittle husbands—
From any one of an infinite number of positions within this crowd,
I could be lumped together with the crush of lean, young bodies
halving and doubling around each other like corpses in a mass grave:
one more bright, senescing hull.
I am interchangeable;
by the act of selecting mine from this surplus of female thoraxes
you have made yourself absurd—
we could be any two symmetrical, unimpaired people:
our particular trajectory is no more inevitable
than the helioceras’s coil or the nautilus’s tabby stripes.
At best, I am a distant idea hovering like a thought balloon,
a mortgaged, eventual thing—a drudge, a certainty, a housewifery—
forever a pale omelette face in the same unflattering photograph,
no angles or animation to uncover the beauty ceded me
in anger, in ecstasy, in profile
Even if the cloud-people we will become
survive letters of unequal length, bad photographs,
the monstrous temptation to be fascinated by others—
I will be the formless, the baseline, the resting potential—
the ions waiting to be disrupted by the next outsider who captures your attention
so that I can struggle for it again as if it were a receipt for something.
Even in the awkward moments, when I am silent
as you speak a language that is home for you, that has encrypted
your thoughts, that you dream in, perhaps fuck in,
that recalls a place that has drawn its wide brackets around you—
When you recreate those syllables with someone, wrap them around the pair of you
like sweet, embargoed cigar smoke that you only sometimes lean out of to translate,
I realize I can never be home for you.
You are the desired one, nonchalant and guileless
as La Maga or Beatrice, free from striving—
your whim determines everything, you have only to glance at a beautiful face
and I try to match its contours.
I know that I will starve and vomit and cut my hair and streak it
and wear only black and wear only colors
and be drunk and effusive and be sober and controlled
and excel compulsively and learn your language and read everything and always miss
the moment of crisis, inferior to the 2.2 seconds of your conscious present.
I would not trade one joule of the potential before us or one fractal
………..of my own possibility, but I want it in the plus-que-parfait, the have-passed already;
………..I want to say to you, “I have done,” and not, “I might”; I want the vectors
………..recording your path to have streamed toward me like a ship’s wake
………..and chosen me—because you may not so choose;
………..the Atlantic may yet fester between us like a burn filling with fluid,
………..and I, who file memories neatly as spreadsheet cells, will always have
………..in my own wake the humiliation of having cared more.
Don’t you know that I was the one notch on your bedpost
that could have split it like an oracle bone?
Don’t you know that I affect some people,
that when I first undressed with a boy I had known for years
he stared as if I was showing him where I had been whipped,
as if every hurt ever perpetrated was recorded in that cleft?
Don’t you know that I mean something over there,
that there are people who cannot get over me,
that there is a small Midwestern cottage industry based in tracking me down?
……………………Maybe you were not distant at all.
……………………Maybe you meant to gather me to you gradually,
……………………like sawdust, pat my fragments into a willing heap.
……………………I remember your grip on my wrists,
……………………our kiss like a sealed howl.
You can give me nothing, you provoke in me only the ache that forces me to comfort myself;
you have offered me nothing, only another meeting and the knowledge that when I do anything,
it will be a response, a proof—
even the space I inhabit is full of intention, foreshadowing your arrival like a glass in mid-drop,
a spark just skimming a gas cloud, a swollen river, meniscus rounded a centimeter above sea level.
What effect do I have on you, in your stillness?
To whom can I compare myself?
I remember staring at your torso as you slept,
as if you carved records of women into your forearms like long track marks.
On your computer, a web search for my name, bound by pluses,
as if I were a proton string ………..as if the small wakes of my being comforted you.
I want to say that our skins will crumple like old scrolls and blot the ink from each other.
I want to say that our bodies will twist like crinoid stems and be locked into shale.
I want to lay my head on your chest like a heavy brooch and hear you say,
“that is not what I meant/at all”
……………………………and I want it to sound like home, like the smoke and the mountains
……………………………and the violence in any of the places I wish I was from;
……………………………I wish I could say something that sounded natural to both of us.
Where she leaves off being
Everyone was incidental then,
the glands agitating in me like heavy pearls:
I was learning that bodies are susceptible to one another.
I came to class in tears once,
and you put your hand on my head.
We used to share our candy in class,
a longing we were prone to,
sugary and faulted as we were.
In a letter, I said, bruises are the sweetest part,
thinking of bodies radiant with glucose,
brains flushed bright as marzipan fruits.
I should have felt the change:
the steps of your new boots into that dark
should have stirred me. I should have known
to lay my head in the snow
when yours opened,
loves darkening like toaster filaments ………..in the cold.
There was a rumor that you had crawled
off the tracks, that your nails were broken
and you had landed on your face.
My mother kept me home from the viewing.
Who knew what I would have made of you?
Agitated, I wrapped my father’s gifts,
folded the organless torsos of his new shirts.
But you could have asked me anything:
I would have held your hand as the shot was fired,
pulled you up the hill myself.
I say this as if you would have wanted anyone with you.
Maybe you preferred to be alone,
to prepare your final, quiet syllables to yourself—
parse your energy into vapor, sparks,
whatever you did with it.
I have burned letters to you,
let the vanilla script rise
to whatever of you is skyward, atmospheric.
There are grains of you in my diplomas,
warm cars, the views from trains,
anyone’s hand on my hair.
I still think of you,
all brainstem, heavy with milk and loss,
hair clotted on your wound
and already forgetting how to use your body,
but laying your face toward home.
I have stored in me vacuoles
where I keep the air I breathed with others,
the microbes living in real time.
In one, a city like a dark lot, a locked door,
appalling bugs roaming the walls.
Inside the terrarium,
the girl hides her papers,
filches back her worn clothes.
There is another, a guilty one
full of drugstore cologne and garlic
that atomizes around me now, in his country.
I could not have borne
what I would have meant to him here,
aspirating gulag air and stale bread.
Some would call it unfaith
to see me lift this balloon to my face
like an old rose
and suck the room we used to steep in,
the paid-for treehouse
where we did not even make love.
The unfinished thing becomes a fetish:
how a person eats or speaks, the stamped plaid
of his cheap shirts. It must be erupted quickly
and silenced, leaving blank plains
between the flares.
We were barely speaking
It would have been a relief, almost,
to send you away,
to withdraw my foot
from the plank.
I had forgotten your dog’s eyes,
the terrier fluff of your hair,
how touching you could be
after I had condemned you:
the rejected boy, frame girded
with weights and your meticulous diet.
I felt for you as I feel for my pets,
guilty of rousting a tender creature
and subjecting it to my care.
I knew what it was
to feel a needle in the scruff
when I had been only loyal.
I wanted to be a little cruel, still,
so I went to dinner without you
and watched a man with his crippled wife:
he hung her jacket and spoke kindly
as she ate, bending close to the platter.
He might have had a lover already—
but just then, he was hers again, his real date.
I know you will defer to me
as I retreat from my extremes
and sacrifice a leg, or a lit alley of brain.
In ruins, the remainder is the beloved part:
honored and in the way.
My Daughter, Some Thoughts
When my daughter visits,
she eats toast with that chocolate stuff she puts on everything,
she takes long showers, almost drains the hot water,
and jams the ice maker—
leaves the bastard running all day.
She still hunches forward to hide her chest
and stuffs the foil from her birth-control pills
under the other trash.
I read somewhere that teenage girls think they’ll die
if their fathers find out what’s going on with their bodies—
or maybe that their fathers will.
I wanted to tell her, it’s okay, I know, and neither of us is dead yet.
Instead, I said, this is how you check the oil and hey, how’s that math going.
I dragged her to Aco a few times to look at generators.
Buy one already, she’d say, don’t just visit them.
I wanted to tell her how powerless I felt,
how all I could offer was technical support.
Used to spend hours backing up the hard drive on our PC
just to feel that I was doing something.
After awhile, there wasn’t anything to back up,
so I saved and resaved on the same disks.
If they were paper, they’d’ve been worn through.
Being on the way somewhere was the only time we’d get to talk,
listening to a little Credence or Beach Boys.
She’d flip the stations around
or feed CDs into the changer like waffles into the toaster.
I liked a lot of her stuff, still do.
She’d jack up the bass and start telling me whose ass
she wanted to kick at school.
I knew she’d never do it—
a thinker, not a fighter.
She’d get to talking about her mother,
how she threatened to cut off her hair,
read her diary, searched her room, made her beg
on her knees for a ride to school.
My wife’d start screaming and I’d join in.
I figured mothers knew what was going on with their daughters,
so I yelled even when I wasn’t sure what to be angry about.,
and my daughter knew it.
She looked at us with those clear eyes, and wrote us off—
made my wife crazy. Crazier.
She went nuts when she found out my daughter was starving herself,
made her eat a boiled hot dog and frozen peas—
hell, I’d starve myself too.
She’s in the city now.
She left some boxes in my basement,
and I read her old philosophy coursepacks,
pieces about mind and ethics
and what it’s like to be a bat. I might perceive the color blue
totally differently from you, I tell her, but we still call it the same thing.
I think of my years on the destroyer,
how the slate-blue water slapped the hull, how I got to go to Argentina
instead of Vietnam, how her dark eyes were blue
when she was born, how she drove up
in her ex-boyfriend’s Sundance to carry my mother’s casket,
how she used to recite the planets back to me in order.
She’s playing Buddy Holly.
I can hear the violins swell and his voice telling her
it’s raining in his heart. She likes sad stuff—movies, songs, boys—
loves people’s wounds to a fault.
I should have said more when we used to talk.
I let her mother have her.
T.M. De Vos is the author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016); Co-Editor-in-Chief of Gloom Cupboard; and Reader at The Atlas Review. Her work has appeared most recently in Folder Magazine, Drunken Boat, Vagabond, concīs, Juked, Pacific Review, and burntdistrict. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s Sozopol Fiction Seminars, the Murphy Writing Seminars, the Summer Literary Seminars, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library.