From what she could remember of her early twenties, regret had been a long, winding, unpaved road in some rural place that was unknown to her. It was the start of a wintry nighttime there, always. She recalled that the worst part was that just when she thought she’d reached the warmth of her destination, the realization would come that there was further to walk and no telling when the road would end. Or if she’d need a bike to get the rest of the way. Or if there were creatures behind the trees. Having reached twenty-five, she didn’t go there anymore. To avoid that hazily-remembered, unfamiliar hellscape, she made only wise and sober choices. She no longer hurt the people she loved.
She had read somewhere that if one goes to sleep with an eye mask on, the absolute lack of light would cause melatonin to flow quicker to the brain, so she started using one to help with her insomnia. Soon she learned that as a bonus, her drift to sleep felt a bit like what getting high used to feel like, or at least a tiny fraction of it. The suddenness of the incoming melatonin, perhaps. Or maybe her reward center was just so starving for a substance that it had begun pulling whatever it could find from other sources, like siphoning gasoline from somebody else’s car. Since it had been almost exactly a year since a drink or drug had entered her system, she knew her body was in the habit of taking what rushes it could get: A melatonin-triggering eye mask that might mystically take her places outside herself if she only concentrated enough on her obsessive thoughts, like meditation in reverse. The intoxicatingly raw scent of lawn grass pulped between fingernails, sending that life-giving kick to the back of her throat – the taste of earth, itself. Most precious of them all: coming off Twilight after some minor medical procedure.
The eye mask also seemed to fuel her creatively bankrupt mind, soul, loins, limbs (she didn’t dance anymore), heart, spine, constitution (her therapist, while on a roll: what you are describing is depression/ her therapist, cooking with fire now: that is the addict in you talking). Just the other night she created one of her imaginary melatonin oil paintings during an especially prolific, especially lucid, naturally-amphetamized halfsleep. That sacred, jittery space between the slamming heart of consciousness and utter black: her studio. Like being put inside a room alone when chatty (eleventh grade: having observed a rare talent in her student, Ms. Hamlin developed an intense investment in the disruptive girl and during class started throwing her into her own private office with just paints, brushes, and easel – anything to keep her from continuing to try incessantly to make everybody laugh – Get in there and keep your mouth shut/I say this because I want you to focus/I say this because you have something most people don’t).
Like being locked in a room alone with no audience, when all you want to do is seem smart and seem charming and seem funny. Stop worrying what your classmates think of you and get to work.
Or like having become an adult overnight and getting lonelier than ever and not knowing it until your skin starts to crawl from electricity between two characters in a movie scene. Staring into a shelf of your art teacher’s books on impressionists. Willing the easel to crash to the floor. Hearing laughter on the other side of the wall and wondering how come everybody gets to misbehave but you.
In the eye mask, she wrote letters to the young man who was not in her house (on the painting) and made believe it was a wholesome, internalized art that was feeding her instead of something that she, a woman, wanted from a breathing man in a world that she, a breathing woman, inhabited (and was fed by). (She was still so young.) In the painting she got letters back from him. It was a forest scene, a New England winter just past dusk. Chilly, but no snow. An enigmatic wood (anybody could be out there). Neon cerulean skies laced with purple. Too far to walk. So, more letters. Sent from one hungry cottage to the other, each on both ends of the canvas. Each starving. So many dirt paths between them (all tangled up in their dirt). Endless breathless notes on paint, back-forth-back-forth-back-forth-back-forth. The pumping and tasting of colors. Hues she invented that summoned the texture of pine cones squeezed between fingertips when they’re wet and getting wetter from the rain and breathing and fucking breathing and fucking breathing and the smell of desire when it is the wrong kind and exactly what it feels like to have blood flowing to all the right places of your body so that, even in all that grit, you may stay sustained.
The content of the letters was filthy, but there were no betrayals there. He was someone she’d brought inside a capsule so that no matter what they did, both remained clean.
The next morning at a meeting she got a coin: Three hundred sixty-five days sober.
Once when she was pretty small she hit her head on the corner of a shitty hotel room’s bedside table. Except it was her half brother, and he hit his lip, not his head, but she still felt the blow. She or one of their cousins had pushed him off the bed when they’d been jumping and it had caused a lot of guilt in whichever child it was who did the pushing. As it turned out, a lip was a bad spot to get hit by the sharp corner of a cheap piece of furniture and so there was blood everywhere. The unreasonably-adored father ran in. The blood had moved to his hands now and the brother’s plastic munequitos got ruined because the blood landed, angry, in their crevasses. So that even if she washed them a million times, they wouldn’t get all the way washed.
The real time she got hurt they were also visiting Colombia. They were at the finca with the whole family for the summer and she and her older cousin had just come from the water. They were freezing cold, purple-lipped and shivering. Pulling off soggy bathing suits, they clambered like small, wild animals into the shower, the cousin’s warm, even, brown skin goose-pimpled and beautiful, the girl’s blue-white skin, pink in patches from the sun, looking like uncooked chicken after it had been too roughly and too unevenly scrubbed. Because it was the countryside on the outskirts of Medellin they were in, kids had always been warned that the water was very cold until it was, without warning, boiling hot. But they needed warmth so badly. When the water turned, it happened fast, like a quick breach of trust or a slap, and the older cousin screamed so hard that the younger one would never forget the sound. In the commotion, the older had desperately scrambled out, all the while yelling get out get out, but the younger had been too frightened. She’d panicked, slipped and fallen on her back, and when the older finally managed to pull her from those jumping, beating blades, the older’s forearms were scalded from her heroic act. The steam in the bathroom had risen so thick they could hardly make out one another’s faces. Matters appeared so bad it was as though one of the two might never come back.
In the relatively short amount of time she’d been getting pelted from above, splayed out and writhing in the tub, the water had somehow missed her face. Or at least it had only managed to hit her there in what felt like a sort of biting mist-spatter made up of a thousand tiny dots, which strangely enough felt only a bit more intense than the sunburn she already had. The burns covering the front of her body were a different story (worst areas being stomach, thighs, inner left arm) but although it would take some time, they would eventually heal. Anyway, she would wind up not remembering the pain at all. It was her father’s panic that stayed forever in her memory. His expression and the sound of his voice, blood already all the way drained from his face, shouting with such desperation, such fear, as he burst into the steam-filled bathroom. His instinctual use of his first language, which, while she was accustom to hearing it from him on a daily basis, especially while in Colombia or with the family, she’d never heard spoken directly to her. (Her mother, who did most of the raising, was American, and had been divorced from her father since the girl was a baby. Her father, now living in a different state, never got around to teaching his only daughter Spanish, even though her visits were frequent and her mother had urged him to. His son would learn because of his own Colombian mother – all of which is to say that the girl was the only one on her father’s side of the family who didn’t speak their language.)
Whatever he was saying in that bathroom, she didn’t understand a word of it. But she could tell, just from knowing her father’s ways, that it wasn’t because of the language barrier. It appeared he wasn’t making sense in any language. Getting the impression that no one was listening to him because he had become so disoriented by the shock of what was happening, it occurred to her that for the first time she wasn’t the only one ignorant to her father’s thoughts as he voiced them.
As a result of his frantic yelling, the whole house had come rushing in (she was too unnerved to be embarrassed by her body’s exposure). No-nonsense aunts and uncles, concerned little cousins who were getting themselves promptly told to leave. Her father had lifted her, limp and naked, as though she were not eight years old but three, all the while still wailing in Spanish like a lunatic. As she looked up into his eyes in a sort of clear-minded shock, it was decided upon that she had never seen him so afraid.
Almost five years later, she would be pulled out of a Romantic Poetry class by her favorite teacher and brought downstairs to see her mother, who had initially wished to speak to her outside for privacy. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, the mother she found standing there was almost unrecognizable. Her beautiful face seemed almost disfigured by a horrifying combination of what looked like the result of unstoppable tears (despite her mother’s visible attempts to keep them in, they were unfortunately still coming) and an anguished sort of face-clawing. The girl screamed wildfire for her mother to reveal what was happening and refused to move from where she stood at the bottom stair until she or someone else did so. Too shaken to get physically closer to anybody without more information – including the mother whom before that moment she had trusted – she gave her mother no choice but to tell her daughter the news she brought right there in the lobby. Meanwhile, classes were taking place in the very closed rooms above their heads and aimless, confused teachers were lice passing back and forth with their vulgar stacks of papers.
Her father had not only died suddenly, but had died by violence that was apparently incapable of being explained yet by the police. She pulled the words out of her mother, his body was found because she wanted to hear the words body and found. It was a million years getting those words out of her mother and she hated her for it. She asked and she asked how anyone could know for sure that her father had not made it, as her mother had been repeatedly saying, and all she wanted was a straightforward answer. But there had to be the dance-around because of those two central facts that she was thirteen years old and her father was her favorite person. What no well-meaning counselor or loving parent could ever know was how much she needed that grotesque, earth-jolting visual of him: cold, stiff, maybe blue, eyes open – those eyes, at their very start of never seeing anything again.
Otherwise it was just a broken leg. Yes, she kept imagining he hurt himself and that information had been delivered inaccurately to her mother. She was certain her father was in the hospital. He would heal, just as she had healed all those years before when he had taken her to the emergency room and thought, incorrectly, that the world was about to end. No one could have known that she needed those four words to put a stop to her psychic defenses. She needed either to be whole or in pieces. Nothing between those would work. But eventually the words came.
In the anguished, maniacal frenzy that inevitably followed her mother’s reluctant surrender in language, the girl would be recalling her father on that afternoon in Colombia when she was burned. The experience was reversed in a manner so as to be perversely mirrored (she was her father’s daughter in all ways, but most of all she was her father’s daughter emotionally). She remembered the storm coming out of that machismo man, who, when the stakes were high enough concerning his kid, could be reduced to hysteria. The shrieking that flew from her chest while she hit the floor, avoiding her mother’s embrace (she wanted the floor) was both of theirs. She could even feel the steam of that finca bathroom clamming up her skin along with his. The way he wiped the perspiration from his cheeks with the back of his hand as he bent down on the tile floor to lift her. Take her anywhere but here. She would know then, because she felt it herself, like the fire in the pit of her (with its direct line to the pit of him, wherever that pit was now): He really did love her more than anything.
And yet, why could she still feel him there? The life coming off the current between them, his essence – the very human being he was and would always be – moving through her toward her center, vitalizing as ever as he allowed her, wherever he was (at her pit now, it seemed) to let go her wails. Let them fill this building and everything else that still defiantly stood. That question biting at her entire person, over and over, as she curled on the middle school lobby’s floor – How come she could still feel him there? Why was their connective tissue still intact? And that mutual choice to unhinge?
It would be a while until she ceased to be devoured by these questions, which were really all just one question. Since she didn’t believe in god, an answer was not to manifest itself. Adults with their he will always be part of you could fuck right off. But in later days, when the pain turned solid and was no longer molten liquid falling out of her eyes and ears and nose, she composed herself. She settled for
How come always dios mio que linda dos mio que linda dos mio que linda
Don’t make fun of your abuelita you know it’s just because she misses you when you’re not with us
I’m not making fun papi but that’s all she ever says
Oh come on stop playing like you don’t want her attention
and his babyish nickname for her that embarrassed her in public
and that birthday gift a grain of rice he had something really very corny written upon then put in a dainty glass capsule filled with oil on a cord made of leather that embarrassed her in public
and so she kept the necklace in her treasure box where no one could see it but her until the treasure box got lost in a move and she wished harder than she’d ever wished anything in her life that she had worn it every day because then it wouldn’t have gotten erased
and the purple circles under her eyes that they shared (she would never wear makeup there to cover them up)
and the smell of rain falling in any place that had felt oppressively humid just a moment ago
and the grooves between the buttons on her Discman while she played his favorite Santana album so loud it was her heartbeat
and he was her heartbeat
and clouds that shaped themselves into orange trees so that only two people in the whole world would know to look closely enough and catch them changing
and feel them changing also in their bones
It was a lucky thing she was not left with any permanent scars from the burns. Although luck really had nothing to do with it, since once they had returned from the hospital, her father implemented a strict regiment to prevent them. Every morning for the remainder of their stay at the finca that summer, the two of them would go out to the porch while everyone else was down swimming. He would sit her on his lap, a pile of freshly-cut, halved aloe leaves on the table beside them, and she watched as their bright green juices glistened and sparkled in the South American sun. Her father took a few sips of his coffee, then ever so delicately lemme see lay the gooey leaves facedown along the areas of his daughter’s skin that had become maimed when he wasn’t watching her closely enough. Concerned about her spirits lately, he had begun the habit of punctuating each aloe application with a playful kiss on the back of her head.
When the morning ritual ended, everyone still out, it would be just the two of them out on the back porch of the finca that had been passed down through three generations of their family. In that rare quiet they could talk about anything because no one was around to hear them and call their conversation too sentimental or strange. They had always had their own private language, and sometimes it was just easier to speak it with a cleared out house. Although this time would end up becoming each of their favorite time of day, neither would mention it in fear of breaking the magic.
One of these mornings, though, her father got rather serious. Too serious, the girl thought. He said: “You won’t have to carry this forever, you know.”
She felt swept with relief. Her nerves had been on edge since the incident, as she couldn’t help from looking down at her body and seeing the burns there. They were more itchy now than painful but the sight of them, not having gone away yet, had begun to frighten her. The pink and purple marks had even followed her into her dreams, where they would spread like a rash up into her neck, face, down her shoulders, reaching all the way to her hands. What was most chilling about those night terrors was that in them, no one could see the infectious defacement of her body but her. Hearing such a declarative statement from her father felt immensely calming more than anything else. Instinctual wisdom from someone who knew better. She smiled and put her head back on his chest, which had become very warmed by the sun. Still reclined, she reached up and back with her good arm, the right one, and tenderly twirled his black, thick hair between her fingers.
He was thrilled by her levity. Apparently she wasn’t taking this all as seriously as he’d suspected; clearly he was the only one concerned about the healing. How he admired the resilience of his young daughter. She could take on anything, and there he’d be, practically reduced to tears just watching her thrive. What on earth was she going to be like as an adult? Satisfied with the image of his indestructible baby growing into an indestructible woman, he leaned forward so that she was forced to turn her head around and look into his face. He appeared in that moment very earnest, even stern. But his face was illuminated, dark eyes gleaming as they sent their distinct power into hers and she received it. She knew that he had returned to his usual kidding mood and was now making that ridiculous smile: “What,” he said. “You think I’m going to let that happen? Huh? Come onnn with thattttttttttttttttttt—”
As the smile spread across his face and then down into his girl’s, they both burst out laughing over how absurd that extended, nasally t was. Then he threw his head back in his chair, closing his eyes and using that familiar phrase he tended to whenever they were alone and things were getting mellow, the only phrase he ever said to her in Spanish (to her English-speaking ear it always sounded either like one long word or a sort of fast-spoken prayer). She knew she was behaving like a toddler but fell back on her dad anyway, lifting her knee up to get comfortable while he positioned his chin on her head, using it as a rest. Wiggling, she placed the bottom of her bare foot on his bigger, darker, warmer knee, using it as a rest. Her father, knowing his kid’s careless movements so well that it was as if those skinny, clumsy limbs were extensions of his own, placed his hand gently on the aloe leaf whose face was still sticking to her healing thigh as she moved it. His reflex was not to let it fall from her.