Photo Credit: Unsplash
People ask me how I am and say, oh, you know. Dying slowly. I wake and fall asleep to this tedium and the only thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is the fact that I’ve become accustomed to it. I no longer need to adjust my eyes to the dark because the night is persistent. I am here and I am dead, yet I’m walking. Look at me—a stoplight, a lamppost, an old chair in dire need of upholstery. Turn me on and off like that lamp on the table, and watch as the bulb flickers and fades until one day it flares out.
The night he left, he said cruel things, horrible things you can’t imagine, and he followed me into the shower, photographing me. He took pictures of me crying through the frosted glass, even as I begged him not to. He said you look alive when you’re in pain. When I slept he poured a jar of ants onto my bed and he filmed me when I woke, screaming. He sat on top of me and fanned the camera from left to right. Look at you, Ava. You’re practically ultraviolet. I love watching them crawl all over your face, scurrying in and out of your hair. It was only when I was suffering did I come into color. I was all gray and black light, but that night, with the ants covering me, I was suddenly vermillion, emerald, and actinic blue.
Sometimes I hate myself for missing him. Don’t say his name—don’t even think it. Other times I allow myself to remember how his jaw moved like tectonic plates when he chewed, and his sour breath in my hair. [It starts with a J. Full stutter out—James.] Now all I feel are the crackle of bones beneath my skin. When I close my mouth I taste ashes. My body is a grave.
A year after he left, a woman fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and my building caught fire. I woke to the alarm blaring and when I reached for the broom to dismantle the thing [the hurt seized you], I smelled smoke. I felt heat rising up all around me, and light beside me. I grabbed my wallet, coat, and keys and made a run for it. Outside my feet curled in the snow. Socks. I’d forgotten them. A week later, a detective stood in the middle of my friend Millie’s apartment, picking up and putting down things as if claiming ownership of them. I was smoking a Newport and pulling at the edges of a skirt that no longer fit. The detective pointed to the smoke and said it was your bed, your cigarette. Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I shook my head. Shrugged. I knew there was a fire, I just didn’t know whom it belonged to. Besides, I was half-awake, drunk [black-out drunk, if you’re being honest], and thought maybe the super cranked up the heat for once. It felt nice to come home to a room where warmth cradled you.
No one pressed charges because the building owner took the insurance money and bought a house in the Keys [lady, you did me a favor; wolf-whistles all down the street], and the detectives had all been pulled in to work on a case of a serial killer who harvested his victims’ organs and left John Donne poems in place of what he had removed. Poor Donne. He never had a chance with that Cockney accent, and with Keats and Shelley fluffing their wigs and feasting on spiced lamb. Writing rich boy poems about how small they were. It reminded me of all my friends who would tell me about their sadness. They would talk about finding themselves lost in a place where cartographers failed to map, and I had to laugh because what they felt was a stopover in small town—a trembling pause in their overly illuminated life—while the dark spaces were my point of origin. They had their dark time while swathed by their money, husbands and families in waiting while I had nothing. So while I don’t understand the serial killer’s nocturnal habits, I understand the poet’s desperation. I understand a man who had to wade his way through an ocean with only a pen while others had ships, first mates, and clear skies.
A week later I flew to Los Angeles.
Will you always be your singular hurt? [Interruption—I am small, like sonnets and the architecture smothers.] Will there exist a time when you are no longer the weight you carry? Tell me, how is it that you’re able to excise so coldly? Was it because the wings you tore off flies made you sad? Observe their paraplegic limbs miming flight with a kind of disquiet—the depths of which only you know. [In contrast, my grief is epic poetry.] Or was it the way you arranged your hair—a fugue of roller-set curls covering a half-mask, your sadness filling the gaps. When it’s calm and the sun blows out, you can make a run for it. But before you go, ask yourself: why did he turn away from you? Was it because you shone too bright? Your eyes take on the quality of black matter and you press them shut in hopes that you can stop the flood, the inevitable tears. Like carp, you surface briefly for air only to plunge into the deep again. You’re wearing that lipstick again [I’ve got a taste for the manufacture and packaging of bruises]: a red slash on your lips against a landscape of bone-white and blue. You are forever covered in wounds.
You are worthless. You’re nothing, but how is that you still take up so much space? Don’t speak to me that way. In what way am I speaking? The way you always speak to me. I don’t want to do this now; my face hurts. How is it that I’m the only one who can feel my bones? Can you please not make me talk right now? I’d prefer to not talk. I’d prefer to pinch the skin on my body until the blood collects until it appears as if I’m bleeding beneath the surface because I am. Bleeding. These are the times when I hate you, immeasurably. Immeasurably? [Raucous laughter, rising to a cackle] Just stop. You’ve never been good at math and you’ve never liked me, James. Sometimes you make me feel like I don’t exist.
You don’t exist, Ava. Haven’t you been listening? I close my eyes and think about my mother—my first country, the only place I inhabited completely. I was a sliver of her continent, part of her main.
Back then, James and I lived in a basement apartment. We couldn’t tell when the sun rose or set. I liked that—the confusion. Sometimes he brought girls home and I’d have to sit and watch as he combed their hair, cut it, and shoved bits of it into my mouth. Swallow, pretty girl, he told me. Get every last bite. After he said, next time, can you wear that dress with the lace sleeves? I hate that dress, it makes me look like a doily. Ava, do you realize how fatuous you sound? A fucking doily? You used to be fun. You used to amuse me and now you’re a walking refugee camp. Can’t you do this one simple thing for me, after everything, everything, I’ve done for you? His voice was an avalanche I was desperate to tumble under. Ava, what’s the problem? If it makes you feel better, next time I’ll get one of those frail girls. Maybe an anorexic—they always have thinning hair and rings around their eyes.
Did you think I was pretty while I was choking on that girl’s hair when you didn’t even stop to get me a glass of water? I remember you. You wrote me a letter on the back of a Chinese take-out menu, and it was about how you spent months watching me. How you followed me to the ocean once. Watched me swim against the waves that were blue, green, salty and cool. You wrote about the pelicans that surrounded me as I sprawled out on the shoreline, my body a ticker tape of hurt desperate to be carried out by the wind and the undertow. And, all this time, I fell in love with a man who wrote me a letter, who delivered evidence of his devotion, and I never stopped to consider its contents. I never found it strange that a stranger was watching me because maybe I was happy just to have been watched. Now I watch what you do to younger versions of me. Take me back to that letter, James. Tell me one nice thing about me. James sighed, and with a scissor, he cut the ends off my hair. Your name is easy to spell, was all he could fathom after three years of being the light that blared over my bed.
What is it that you think you’ve done for me? I want to ask, but I don’t.
When I was ten, my mother took me for lunch in a small luncheonette on Long Island—far from the Jackson Heights apartment in which we lived. The luncheonette stood at the end of a long line of empty stores that flashed For Lease or Going Out of Business signs. We only had to walk a few feet from the train station to view the shack with its peeling green paint and faded Pepsi signs. A placard reminiscent of the 1950s read: Hot coffee and a buttered bagel for $.50! This was the sort of place where everything arrived frozen and left torched. I kept asking why this place, why here, and my mother shook her head and cried out: you’re killing me. Ava. Murder in the first.
Inside, a man sat in a booth tearing apart a blueberry muffin. What had the muffin done to deserve such aggression? I stood behind my mother and wrapped my arms around her small waist as she streaked across the room to the table where he sat. On a giant plate lie the remains of his breakfast—a massacre of berries and cake. The man didn’t eat his food, it was more like he attacked it and took pleasure in surveying the destruction. When I edged into the booth across from him, he pushed his plate toward me and said, have some. I didn’t want a muffin; I wanted a cheeseburger! I’m allergic, I said, to which he responded, the whole or parts of it? The man laughed and proceeded to flick blueberries at my mother who laughed while shielding her face and said, my daughter has a casual relationship with the truth. I’m allergic to all of it, I said.
This is Martin, my mother said by way of introduction. I know that voice, it was the same one she used when she introduced my father to people we didn’t know. It was the voice of intimacy, of possession; this is someone you need to know. This was the voice that would alter the days following this one. What kind of name is Martin? I said. The kind of name you’ll be hearing a lot more of, he replied, adjusting his Marlboro man cap to further obscure his gray eyes. Martin owned a fleet of trucks that ran food deliveries all over Long Island, which I imagined was a leap from my father who owned a grocery store that sold lottery tickets and malt liquor on Elmhurst Blvd. When we were flush, which was rare considering everyone in the neighborhood bought on credit, my father would take us to Chinese restaurants in Flushing or Indian restaurants in the East Village, where I’d stare at the carousel of blinking lights until I passed out. Money didn’t mean luncheonettes in beat-up villages. Money didn’t mean caps that shielded a man’s eyes.
That day I ordered French fries and snapped each one in half and imagined Martin’s bones. I held up a fry and said, with eyes black and cold like certain seas, look how easily you break.
On the ride home, my mother told me she was giving me the choice she never had. I could either come live with her and Martin or remain in Queens with my father because she was done with her primary life. It was as if she’d found Jesus in Martin and was desperate to be reborn. I pictured Martin twitching; I imagined him choking on a mountain of ruined muffins. I remember the way he kissed my mother and how he left her face slick like oil spills. I was ten but I remember feeling lethal. I remember feeling that it wouldn’t be safe for me to be alone with Martin. Safe for him, that is.
That day in the luncheonette I never had my cheeseburger, but I bought one the day my mother lugged two suitcases down five flights of stairs to a taxi that waited outside. I went to McDonald’s and ordered the two cheeseburger meal, and I unwrapped the burgers slowly, delicately, and after I was done, after I’d eaten the meat, drank the cola and devoured the salty fries, I tore off bits of paper and cardboard and tossed them out the window like confetti. When my mother left, my father cried every night in his room for six months straight. I’d hear the guttural wails, his anguish, and whenever I soft-knuckled the door and said, pop are you okay, pop what can I do, he swallowed his cries and said he was fine, just fine, and could I be a good girl and get him a beer out of the fridge? I tucked him into his bed when I was fourteen and made his dinner and combed his hair when I was nineteen, and still he never recovered. The problem with me is that I think people are good, he once said. No one is good, pop. When will you learn this? My father never resumed his former shape, and sometimes I’d ride the subway out to Brighton Beach because only the waves rivaled my anger.
My mother sent postcards from a town called Elmont. Why did she send postcards? Did she consider her abandonment a vacation for which she was long overdue? Whenever I thought my wounds were closing up, she’d find a way to jab her fingers back in. Over the years, I sent her newspaper clippings of murdered women—photographs of necks bruised, eyes gaped wide, and the requisite high school portraits that evoked the emotional refrain of: observe her purity and innocence—until there came a day when the postcards stopped coming. The morning of my high school graduation I mailed her my last clipping. It was the story of a young girl who hung herself from a tree. I remember the lamentation, the pieta practiced by the evening news and mourners. The cries of: she had so much to live for; she left us too soon. They spoke of the child’s suicide as a theft, and everyone—the Home Depot location from which she purchased the rope to her parents for giving her an allowance to purchase said rope—was accountable. I wept sad clown tears.
Underneath the girl’s class photo, I scrawled: After you left me. A decade later, long after I had moved out of my childhood home, my father handed me an envelope and inside were five words that had been written by my mother: I gave you a choice.
My friend Millie phones to warn me that the cannibalistic serial killer has expanded his footprint. Apparently, New York is too cold and dark in the winter, and he’s moved on to sunshine and bones bleached white from the sun. Already he’s gouging hearts and dropping sonnets along the 405. I tell Millie that I’ll take my chances. And besides, odds are James will get to me first. He phones to tell me he’s in L.A. for a thing and would I hook up with him after? James says he wants to make sure I haven’t brought my fire-starter proclivities out west. Would it be rude if he rolls up to my apartment with a fire extinguisher and a condom? I tell him I’m busy, and he says that I’ll come around in a few hours because Ava always comes around. Before I hang up I wonder aloud if he’s the man who’s going around putting innocent women on the menu, and he laughs and says he’s strictly a hair man. Have you kept your hair long, Ava? James asks. His voice is as smooth as mirrors. I can’t see you tonight, James. Even the slightest contact with you will break bones. [Start brewing your detachment; shrink down to fairy size.] You can’t call me anymore.
You’re the saddest little bird, he says. Leave your door unlocked—I’ll come by late.
He’s got cards missing from the deck is all I’m saying, said Millie when she first met James. Your man only just met me and already he’s running his fingers through my hair, and you know how I feel about people touching me, especially my hair. Back then I brushed her off, told her James didn’t know the rules, but she wasn’t buying it. Millie drew an imaginary circle around her body and said, this is my space and you don’t get an all-access pass unless you’re on the guest list. And there he was acting all VIP, practically drop-kicking the bouncers at the door. I told Millie she was being dramatic and she countered with I’m being honest. That man doesn’t know his limits—he doesn’t understand that there are places to which he’s not permitted to go. I don’t know, Ava. Haven’t you grown tired of loving the stampede?
By the way, I didn’t want to tell you this because I knew it might upset you. Mission accomplished, I snapped, cutting her off in mid-sentence. No, it’s not about James. It’s about your mother. I saw her the other day holding a little girl’s hand, and the girl looked just like you.
This isn’t news, Millie. You’re not telling me something I don’t already know. Later that night in James’s bed I said, tell me you love me. And he turned to me with eyes shuttering and black and said, tell me you love me. He pulled my hair and said, look at you shivering, my little haiku.
A month later I ran into the man who raped me. I don’t know if rape is the right word because his shouting yes was louder than my no, so maybe he never heard my refusal. After, he brought me a glass of cold water and rubbed the sides of my feet. On that day, I saw him I was with James and the man who raped me was bouncing an infant on his knee. The little girl wore a pink puffer jacket and white socks with lace sewn around the ankles, and James smirked when the man, seated across from us, asked of his daughter: so who’s my little girl? The child reached for the man with outstretched arms and all she could say was Daddy. There should be a law against this kind of male blubbering, James said. I opened a book, but didn’t read it, and when the man who raped me reached his spot, he carried his girl gently in his arms and I leaned my head on James’s shoulder and said, that man raped me. James nodded and said he wasn’t surprised.
Before I left for Los Angeles, I stopped cold in front of a photograph that flashed across my television screen. It was the man who raped me and his neck had been cut from ear to ear, and the only reason he was found so quickly was because his daughter was screaming in the back seat. When the police arrived at the scene, they took a photograph of the child and samples for forensics because someone had scrawled, using her father’s blood, the letters N and O on her cheeks. The killer slipped a CD into the car stereo—Nirvana’s Nevermind, which played on repeat until one of the officers on the scene pressed the Stop button.
Who’s the kid that answered the phone—a repeat of me?
I gave you a choice, Ava.
Is that what you gave me, you fucking animal?
I have to hang up now, Ava. I have to go.
Tell me, where does everyone go when they say they have to go?
I have to go, Ava.
Stop saying my name like that…
Like you’re trying hard to remember it.
I have to go.
So go, I said. You little world, that made me so cunningly.
In Los Angeles, there is no rain, only sun, and James slips into bed beside me and bites the back of my neck. I tell him I’m tired and he tells me he’s tired too, so we lay in a kind of half-sleep for hours until the darkness overcomes us and forces our eyes shut. When I wake, he’s gone, but he’s left a note, which reads: I loved you in my own way.
I stand in the shower for fifteen minutes before I turn off the water and sit on the floor with a towel specked with blood. I look at the towel. I look between my legs and I wonder whether this is my blood. Does this blood belong to me? Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I call James and tell him there’s blood on my towel. The line breeds static and James says, you and your convenient memory. You don’t know how much I miss you. Burn the towel in the tub and get some sleep. What happened to the guy who wrote me a love letter on a Chinese take-out menu? James’s pause was measured and pregnant, punctuated the blare of horns on the freeway. I never wrote you a letter, Ava. You wrote me. Don’t you remember?
I burn the towel. I get some sleep. I’m a good girl; I do as I’m told.
I think he’s in my head again, messing things up, I tell Millie over a telephone line. I tell her about the phone call, the bed, and the blood on the towel. After a familiar pregnant pause Millie says, that’s impossible. James wasn’t in L.A. last night. And how do you know this? Because he was with me, but before you freak out it’s not what you think. You don’t even want to know what I’m thinking. Ava, listen to me. I’m hanging up the phone, Millie.
I leave James 26 voicemails. He calls back and in a small voice he says, Ava, you gotta stop calling me. I hurl my phone across the room and shout, who’s the haiku now? I’ll see you in time.
I text Millie: I am two fools, I know.
This is the latest installment in Ava’s voice, which has been really fun to write. This is a pure first draft, so I’ll likely be making a pile of edits. Check out “Women in Salt” if you’re pining for more.