Even years later I kept digging through my ribcage, searching; hopelessly trying to retrieve my lost organ. It had become obvious he was the organ I could never replace — The organ I kept searching for; collecting hearts of birds when what I was really looking for could only be found in elephants. Leaving me hollow.
There is a house. It stands alone on the hill. It’s fall and the skies are grey, I am seventeen, he is nineteen and we go there almost everyday. We sit on the abandoned floor, we sit on the furniture that is cloaked in white, we sit on the kitchen counter, and we write our names on the dusted mirror on the top floor. There is a house and the house is where we go to smoke cigarettes in the middle of the night, it’s where we bring bitter wine neither one of us really like. It’s where everything is grand and nothing is important but the unity of us. It’s where I tell him I love him and it’s where he kisses me as a response.
The house had been empty for years. It was almost like a ghost house with great arches and high ceilings. Its floors were rotten and creaky, as if the house whispered to you when you pressed your feet against it. The owners had tried selling it for years, but its foundation was unsteady and it was the kind of house no one wanted. It needed work and dedication, but to me it held so much beauty. I loved the house and all its faults.
Eventually we both grew up, and I stayed for a while. I intended for it to be temporary, but time has a way of moving on without you. It made me destructive, but it was a good kind of destructive, or so I liked to think. He grew destructive too. There were times where I couldn’t decide if we hated or loved each other. It started out innocent, we screamed and threw things, but everything soon turned cataclysmic. It went from words and objects to him bruising my skin and breaking my bones. I could only describe it as a quick snap in my spine, it happened so suddenly and I instantly went completely numb. There were times where I thought he would kill me, but it was also sensitive and soft. It made me a complete addict and I was popping him like pills. I wanted out, but that’s the thing about sadness and addiction, it turns into madness and you feel all possessive about it. It’s yours and you carry it like a wounded bunny; you hug it close to your chest, you feed it and you care for it. Soon the bunny grows mean and hateful, it bites and scratches, but it’s your bunny and you need to love it now. You’ve had it all this time after all, you’ve watched it grow and maybe it’s your fault it turned out this hateful.
We both enjoyed a good fight. He was the tall dark stranger everyone warns you of. He touched my back in the night as I sat cross-legged in his bed, in a way that had me feeling small and fragile. Like my very limbs were held together by his touch. He brought me water and massaged the soreness out of my shoulder blades. He kissed my hair line and pulled me down with him; covered with the softness of the sheets I lie with my back on his chest, my cheek touching his cheek, not feeling heavy at all. It’s all limbs and gentleness — He tells me about his father and how they fought about money. I listen and feel my heart sink to the back of my chest, to the back of my body and moving through my spine as if to touch his. He says me name in a whisper, “Alma” and I think my entire being caved in right there and then.
“We should buy the house,” his voice sticks to the walls, “it could be our project.”
I imagined it, I even liked the thought of it. I liked the thought of him building us a home, I could almost feel the bitter wine on my lips by the very thought.
“I want a brick wall in the living room.” I could hear him smile as I said it.
“Our house.” He answered.
“Our house.” I responded.
I think this was the moment I lost myself, drowned in the sheets and disappeared for years.
He bought us the house, and he built me a brick wall, while I picked out curtains and carpets. For a few years, I was okay with it. I was okay with my life because it felt temporary. Like I was still sitting in those old caped chairs breathing old dust, knowing I was still young. For a while, I was okay with it because I would wake in his bed at night. I would smile at the smell of him. I would yell because he spilled coffee on the couch, and he would slam his fist into the wall, and kiss me unnecessarily violent. He would scream that I made him insane. I would scream back, knowing full well what would come. I would tell him he would die in this town, then, in my anger I’d tell him I’d drown myself in the river behind his house because that’s how miserable I was. His eyes would go black and he’d push me into the wall — daring me. It was okay, cause I would shove back and the way he made my heart race couldn’t be compared to anything else. I was polluted with him.
I liked to mention it, that maybe I wanted to move somewhere else. Maybe I wanted to go back to school. I would say it flatly, while feeling his energy shift.
“I built you a house.” He accused me coldly.
So I stayed, and for a few years I was okay with it. Until I was not. It happened over night, suddenly I felt like an animal in a cage waiting for him to rip the fur off my back. The circus animal in a show no-one bought the ticket to see, only accompanied by its trainer and his whip. I slowly grew resentful, I silently rioted. I let him go to bed without me and I went out drinking, or just sat in my car for hours hoping he’d worry. I always wondered if he knew, or whether he was just stupid. Especially when I crawled into bed at seven in the morning, just minutes before he got up for work.
“You realize I worry when I wake up, and you’re not there?” He would say, his bitterness stinging.
“I’m here now.” But I wasn’t.
I could hear him breathe deep into his stomach, sizzling like hot coal, and pausing before getting up. I always wondered if he missed me at all, or if he needed me next to him in the bed out of loneliness. Maybe habit. But then again, he wasn’t the lonely one. I was. I hadn’t even showered, if he could smell the cigarettes of my skin, he simply ignored it. He simply left me there. Simply pretended to not care that I was drifting. Knowing the house leashed me anyway.
He came home early that day — migraines. He had them a lot, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was causing them. I felt like the warrior goddess, Athena; born out of a massive headache in Zeus skull. A motherless creature cracking his head open bit by bit, hammering away at him from the inside, climbing out already dressed to fight. We didn’t talk about it later that day, we never did, but we fought about the breadcrumbs on the kitchen counter, and the fact that I yet again had slept all day. Somehow, he cared about me sleeping all day, but not about me being awake all night. The more he ignored it, the more I fought. I was hungry for attention. It was cruel and in my starvation I would eat him clean, until there was nothing left but pieces of bone and muscle. I ate and ate, still starving, gnawing away at every part of us, until we were both left thin. Still I was hungry. Starved even.
I was sitting in our neat kitchen one morning when Mom came to visit. She often did when she knew I was alone in the late mornings, I’d make coffee and she’d bring brunch for us to eat. She filled the kitchen with her humming and the smell of freshly baked bread. It had become a ritual. I never walked down the hill to visit my childhood home anymore. In the beginning she had tried to enforce Sunday night dinners. It was clear neither one of my parents approved of us; Mom wouldn’t speak to him directly and there would be a tense electricity from my dad. They had noticed how I moved around him and that I didn’t really talk in his presence. They had seen the small creature in me and Mom had pulled me aside, worried and upset. I didn’t know what to say and I couldn’t really blame him either—it was not like I was innocent. It became the end of our Sunday nights dinner, whenever either one of them tried speaking to me about it, I had shut down and refused to talk to them for weeks. So Mom had taken it upon herself to visit me instead, she would comment that I looked skinny and scramble my eggs the way I liked them. She’d rub my bruises and poor me coffee, not mentioning the elephant in the room. It was not until he broke a mirror over my face that the elephant outgrew the room.
I had gone for a drive and snuck in at four in the morning; I had climbed into bed, moving softly as to not disturb his heavy breathing. He moved beside me, but didn’t wake. When I woke the next morning, he was sitting on the chair by the closet — staring at me. I knew his black eyes, and the fire in them wasn’t new to me, if anything, we’d grown close the last couple of years. Me and the fire. I can’t really remember how it happened or what we fought about, but I had screamed back and he had aimed the narrow floor mirror at my head. The very same mirror where I’d written ours names in the dust years ago.
When I woke he was holding a wet towel to my head — weeping.
Mom had stood frozen in the doorway that next Sunday, the cold New England air seeping through the open door. The side of my face had gone from black to deep purple, and dark yellow patches were blooming down my cheekbones, curving the right corner of my eye. She stared at me for what felt like a full minute before she broke down crying. She was on her knees in my hallway sobbing like I’d never seen my mother sob before. My sweet mother whom always hummed and filled the room with her sweetness. Tears had pebbled from my eyes too, burning its way through the soreness of my swollen face. The numbness had held be captive until that moment, as if my mother forced it out of me, and I had no choice but to look my shattered self in the mirror.
Eventually I left, he drove me to the airport were we both cried. He pretended to understand, pretended to care about what university I was going to. I pretended I wasn’t regretting everything. Not sure whether I was leaving because I wanted to, or because I had promised Mom in that moment of weakness.
“Love doesn’t mean you stay.” I whispered and pressed my chin against his sternum.
“You’ll be back.” His voice deep in his throat, and his chin rough against my hair. He handed me my bag and I felt his eyes on my back as I walked through security. Just like sitting crosslegged in his bed, like I being naked and exposed at the airport. Feeling small and scared. Like I always did with him. In the end I think he was relieved I left.
In the beginning we had called often, he had begged me to come home and I had cried.
“I want too, but…” I’d whimpered, not knowing how to reason with either of us.
On low days I’d go as far as to pack my bags, only to walk out into the humid New York air. I’d stand there with my bags, not knowing how to proceed. I would stand there watching people go about their lives for a while, then sheepishly drag my feet back in. Eventually our phone calls grew infrequent—quiet even.
It’s funny how it never seemed to fit just right. I regretted leaving for a while, but I somehow figured things out. I found other people, and I like to think I fell in love a few times too, but it was nothing like the violent surge of his sheets, nothing like the drop in his voice as he distinctly pronounced the “A” in my name; “AH-lm-uh”. For years I found myself sitting in rooms with strangers I claimed to love and care for. With men my friends declared handsome and “just my type”; men that would touch my thigh in the dark. For years I pulled nicotine down my lungs and passed out in beds that didn’t belong to me. Our phone calls had long since grown awkward and distant, before ending altogether.
Only two years later he had a baby. I still went to class. He got married, and I got high with strangers and pretended not to care. I wondered if he broke her bones too. I wondered if she screamed back and clawed his skin open. There was a small creature inside me that wanted him to feel miserable, because I did. The critter inside me wanted him to miss me.
I finished my degree and got a job I didn’t really care for. I didn’t go home for Christmas. One year Mom and Dad came to visit. They sat with forced enthusiasm in my small living room that didn’t have a Christmas tree and felt bad for me. I didn’t really bother to decorate, so Mom bought sinister looking reindeers and string-lights. She cleaned and hummed almost excessively, and you could practically touch her pity. In fact, the pity was like a bubble around the both of them and it was everywhere. It lingered long after I dropped them off at the airport, sticking to anything they touched. Mom hugged me for the longest time and I could smell it in my hair for weeks to come. The reindeers kept staring at me, their dead eyes making me anxious, until I eventually threw them out. Every year after she pleaded for me to come home, and eventually I caved.
There is a house, it stands alone on the hill. Its fall and the skies are red. I don’t go there anymore, but it has never felt more haunted. The house stands in the middle of the town, at least to me it feels that way. I’m home and it’s like being somewhere completely strange. I’m not sure he’ll come for me, but deep down I want him to. Deep down it’s like nothing changed. There are parts of me that seeks out the dejection. Craves it even. I guess it would be clever of me to stop and ask myself why, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do at the time. My parents are happy to have me home. They don’t talk about him. They don’t tell me how cute his baby is or how happy they are it’s not mine. They hang my diploma on the wall. Dad hums “my sweet home Alma,” you can’t really substitute “Alma” with “Alabama,” because the missing syllable ruins it, but he does it anyway and feels very clever about it. Mom bakes pumpkin bread and it’s all very obvious they are overcompensating, but I’m okay with it. I kiss their cheeks and eat pumpkin bread, even though I’ve never really liked it.
It takes him four days. I’m alone drinking coffee in the kitchen. It’s the middle of the day and of course I’m alone. People work in the middle of the day. I open the door and he stands there out of breath, as if he’s been running. His gaze is all tornados and hurricanes. It’s been six years, yet there he stands, the tall dark stranger everyone warns you of. Looking at me the way fire licks wood—unforgiving.
“You’re back?” It’s not really a question.
“Yeah.” I’m not, but I’m just so used to lying to him and old habits die hard.
I let him in and walk him into the kitchen.
“Coffee?” He nods in response, and I feel his eyes on my back as I walk to the cabinets. My spine burning. He doesn’t sit down, and I don’t ask him to.
“Are you staying?”
“Cream?” I know he takes it black.
He doesn’t answer, and he doesn’t ask again. I put cream in his coffee and hand it to him. He doesn’t say thank you. He still hasn’t sat down and I’m not sure how to be near him anymore, so I simply lean against the kitchen counter. He stands by the kitchen table— close to the entrance. He embodies a nostalgic kind of beautiful and I notice his frame. His very presence makes the kitchen feel small, even though it’s not a small kitchen it shrinks with him in it. He is wearing a grey t-shirt and navy blue jeans, the most basic of colors, but even color seems more vibrant on his skin—eerie perhaps. The urge to reach my fingers out, to touch the line of his jaw had never been stronger, but he had never looked more intangible to me, and it made me uneasy. Intimidated even.
“I’m selling the house.” He utters flatly, tasting the cream of his coffee.
I nod in response, but he might as well have kicked me. I felt like I was heaving through bruised lungs, my knees trembling underneath me, by the edge of his voice. It takes everything to not fall apart in front of him. His dark gaze is on me and for a second I can’t help but think he finds enjoyed in my stammer. He is the lion and I’m the zebra, but for some reason it feeds the critter in me and I feel it growing large. At first, all I can do is look down at the black content of my cup. He feeds off the dusk in me and it has taken me until this very moment to realize it. He moves towards me and takes the cup out of my hands.
“Does that make you sad, Alma?” ‘AH.lm.uh.’
I am shapeshifting under his words and the animal in me grows feline. I look into his dark eyes that glows with the desolation of me. He stands close enough for me to smell the warmth of his skin. He touches my collarbone, trails his fingers along the thin skin wrapping my bone. I feel marked, like cattle. His hand branding me. My empty chest pounds and hammers, and I’m growing under his touch. Something is lost and I don’t want it back anymore. I don’t think I lost my heart in his sheets, he drowned it in the lake behind his house months before that. I am washed clean and these are just growing pains.
I look up at last. “You should leave now.”