It isn’t that she wants to recapture her youth, but that she can’t escape it. It is the drip, drip, drip from the bathroom ceiling vent that leaks into the pot on the bathroom floor every time it rains. Her husband has searched tirelessly for the leak for many years, becoming incensed up on the roof in the pouring rain looking for the place where the water gets in. Every time he is up there, the phrase, “the dam will not hold” ricocheted around her head, though she isn’t sure where it comes from or why.
She will be turning 40 this year and she finds life had gotten more and more like that, nonsensical, predictable. The mystery has evaporated, had it ever really been there, and the writing is no longer coming the way it used to, ushering in like a thrashing wind, electric. She still reads voraciously, that hasn’t changed, though some are prone to thinking that all this reading is a cover-up for what she will not admit or address. Though what exactly that was, her friends did not know, though they could hazard a guess.
Every time she sits down to write words come out, but they don’t feel like hers. Whose hand is this aching? She feels her bottom cradled in her warn out chair and re-reads the words, wondering if they really are hers, or maybe they belong to someone else, something she had read somewhere else once. Everything feels derivative. She has become a carbon copy of something: a lonely white woman in her small home, whittling away her days, returning to the same material of her youth again and again to slate her cloying hunger. The thought of herself, her life, a cliché from half the books on the best sellers list, revolts her.
She tears the paper from her notebook, crumples it, and tosses it toward the trash can where the ever growing pile of crumpled papers grows inside and around.
“For fucks sakes,” she speaks to the empty attic room.
Even her beloved writing room which she had painstakingly curated to be equal parts cozy and academic, the first room in the house she set up when they moved into the house, feels like someone else’s. Like a room from every movie set ever created for the character of the writer: mahogany desk centered, bookshelves bursting, and large windows staring back at the writer, wasting away the hours on a pursuit that made less and less sense to her as time goes on.
Pushing away from the desk, she laces her fingers and stretches toward the wooden beams that race across the unfinished ceiling, leaning one way first and then the other. Her tea grown cold, she picks it up, cupping it between her palms, and crosses to the window. Her breath creates fog on the pane and with one cold finger she traces out an old and forced to be forgotten name before rubbing her sweater sleeve over it in a violent swipe, terrified of herself, of who she can still become. Her toes ache from the cold of the attic, despite the wool socks, and she flexes them back and forth, trying to create sensation.
It’s late autumn and nearly al the tree are bare, staring at her, stark and empty in her tower. November is always to blame, ushering in the darkness, desolate and already creeping at the outermost edges of the lawn where the forest waits in quiet trepidation for the predators to awake and roam. The rain falling in concurrent droves stills time, a static channel. Suddenly, something shoots out from the shadow of the trees, landing swift and gracefully into the bright blue bird bath at the center of the lawn. Blinking rapidly and rubbing her eyes, she tries to figure out if her lack of sleep and imagination is playing tricks on her, but no, there in the waning light a small grey hawk stands statuesque in the center of the bird bath, filled to the brim with rain water. Unblinking in its feral beauty, an intense desire overcomes her and she rushes down the stairs, slips her feet into her mustard yellow rain boots, and yanks open the sliding glass doors.
As soon as the trundling sound of her boots smashing down the stairs starts, the hawk catapults into the sky, its wing span impressive, all sharp angles. It darts away as quickly as it arrived, and in her stomach, she feels forlorn, deserted by a great love. Still, she steps down into the squelching grass, boots becoming instantly mud-lined. By the time she reaches the bird bath, her sweater is already soaked. She stares down into the water, willing the hawk to reappear. She needs to see the cool gaze of its eyes. She wants to pluck them out and swallow them. But there is nothing there but her reflection wavering in the ripples on the surface, like a hologram. Not quite real. She swipes her hand through the water sending it spraying out the sides of the both, dashing her likeness away.
For a brief moment, she had felt something, but now the moment has already passed. Here she is again, hollow in all the wrong places. Bird bones. She stares into the ever-darkening woods, only finally shaken out of her reverie by the lumbering sounds of her husbands truck coming down the drive.
She had first tried to write about her youth while she was in it. Deep in the muck of the belly of that particular beast, adolescence. All that impetuous craving: thighs, hands, tongues thick with desire. 17 and so in love, no thing so sublimely unnerving as young love in a dying coastal town. It wasn’t essay or story that she turned to then, how could it be? Those forms better suited for the heavy fog of loss, which comes for us all eventually. No, it was poetry she turned to. Rancid, rhyming, unseasoned and volatile in its staggering badness. But what else was there? How else to describe that particular heat when you’re in it?
She could still recall a few lines, though she hesitated to do so. How could she have ever been so young? The relationship that had defined her teenage years was long and painful, not one single part of it anything but a tragedy; a reckless violent force of nature that ripped through town, leaving no aspect of her body untouched. She had gone to her knees for that love and she was on her knees still, palms muddied crying in the dirt, head bobbing between his legs, on her knees snorting a line off a dollar bill held taut in his hands, on her knees with him behind her, on her knees pleading, sometimes for more, sometimes the no, no, no of it still wrong in her mouth.
She steps through the back door of their house as her husband steps through the front. He slides his work boots over the bristled rug, scraping the muck off them before he looks up and notices her. Her sweater drips rivulets of rain onto the hardwood and the sound is what pulls his attention as he drops his lunch pail by the door.
“What are you doing?” he looks as her incredulously.
She bunches the pastel pink of her sweater in her hands, ringing the edges out on the floor.
“There was a hawk in the bird bath.”
“A hawk. I saw it cut from the trees and land in the bird bath.”
She slips her soaked feet out of her rain boots, strips the wool socks from her feet, and looks down at her body, as if she isn’t sure how she got inside it.
“But why are you soaked?” he pulls out a chair from the table and the scrape of the leg on the floor seems to reverberate through the whole house. A haunting. He unlaces his boots systematically, not looking up.
“Well, I wanted to get a better look, but it flew away once I was out there and it was raining really hard.”
She pulls her sweater over her head and it lands on the floor with a plop. She crosses to the fireplace and stokes it, holding her hands out to the flames, the bright red of her fingertips like cigarette embers glowing. He crosses to her, her back toward him and the pale yellow of her bra looks fragile across the canvas of her spine. He puts his arms around her waist, her skin clammy from the cold.
“So did you just stand out there in the rain?”
“Are you sure it was even a hawk? What would a hawk be doing in the bird bath when its pouring rain?”
She bristles, pulling way from him, her eyes the cool glaze of the bird.
“It was a fucking hawk,” she says, her tone clipped, but unsure why she is so angered by his question, “I know what I saw.”
He holds up his hands, like waving a white flag. She doesn’t say another word, just heads up the stairs and follows them up to the glow of the lamp at the top. On each step is the wet imprint of her feet, trailing after her. She strips in her office, depositing the soaked clothes by the door, and grabs her mother’s afghan from the back of the leather couch. She pulls it over her shoulders like a cape, picks up her pen and stares at the blank page before her. The chill of her body makes her feel alert, like she’s in her skin.
When she was ten her grandmother died. She knew it before she knew it, her mom home from work on lunch break, watering the wildflower seeds she had scattered in the front garden box that had blossomed into the most brilliant shades of jewels and sunsets. Her mother collapsed, her calf-length pink dress ballooned out around her, shoulders hunched and shaking. She looked like a cupcake on a beautiful summer day, but the cordless phone was dangling from her hand limply and tears rolled down her face.
She’d never seen her mom cry, not even once, and this is how she knew that something was terribly wrong before she was told. Her and her siblings watched her mom from the dining room window, separated by a pane of glass and an experience that only time can hold.
Years later, she would discover her grandmother had wanted to be a writer, but there’s was a large family, a working-class family. She spent her days rearing her children, caring for their house and their land. Her grandmother had kept a journal, and when she died it was discovered that she had collected all the letters back from the recipients she had sent them to. A living archive of her dreams, her thoughts, her worries.
All she can really recall about that summer and the funeral now was the sweltering heat, the way the blue and black plaid striped sweater and skirt set itched her skin as she sat in the grass at her moms feet, clutching her little brother, while the pastor spoke above the box she refused to look into that now held her grandmothers lifeless body.
She remembers the brick siding of her great grandmother’s house, how it looked at dusk as she peered through the window at her family, an outsider looking in, unable to process grief in a normal way, hiding her body under the towering lilac bush in the yard. The scent of lilacs so heady that all her life when the aroma reaches her nose she will find herself again under her great grandmother’s lilac bushes, watching her older sister pass through the kitchen on the other side of the window, her long dark brown hair so like their mothers, held off her face with a scarf.
It seems to her that nobody writes about what happens in the years after someone leaves an abusive relationship: how it alters you, how you hold your body different, how your body no longer seems to hold you. So often they write about the relationship, they write about escaping it, or worse, the terrible things that happen when someone doesn’t escape, when they never get their narrow miss.
She’s lying in bed, woken by the sound of the screen door slapping closed, the rattle of her husband’s truck firing up as he leaves for work. The wind is violent today. Everything trembles and shakes. The rose bush outside their bedroom window, which she keeps forgetting to trim down for the winter, no longer producing buds, scratches at the glass with each gust. The noise, like fingernails on glass, feels like it’s deep inside her skull, coming from within. So many things feel like an attack, bombarding her senses.
Her husband is a good man. And she doesn’t mean “good, but…”. He’s actually a good man. He’s calm. He yields. He’s gentle, never yells, doesn’t try to manipulate her, to pressure her, never makes demands, not even for love when she has none to give. It’s a kind of madness, his form of quiet loyal devotion. To her, it seems a madness. She is not gentle. She is harsh, moody and hungry and desperate and often unyielding. It becomes impossible to yield when your body did it for so many years, broke its back for someone else, it no longer bends that way, the spine stiff, no curve. It does not break.
The wind hushes and in the silence a rush of crows lift from the towering trees in the distance. Their calls ricochet through the sky and she tilts her head on the pillow, watches them fly overhead. She rises from the bed, grabbing her robe off the hook, and pads out to the kitchen. The counters have been wiped clean and the coffee pot is still on. Her favorite mug left sitting beside it. The sight of it there sends a pang through her side, like swimming right after eating. It’s been fifteen years, she thinks, how is he still not done loving me yet?
When she was 19-years-old she found herself upended. She had left the boy, the one with all the anger and the steely-blue eyes, the cobra-heart. The idea for the first book came then, the one she’d never finish writing. A memoir of her exploits. She would write it in secret, while her new boyfriend, the one with the dark brown curly hair and the wild laugh was out fishing on the Columbia River. In between her full-time retail job. In between the lines of oxy she had taken to snorting to survive those last few years with someone who made himself impossible to continue to love. In between fucking her new boyfriend and weeping while they did it and him pleading, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong. In between all that, she began the memoir titled I Was Crazy Too, not yet ready to absolve herself from what was done to her and the things she did in return to survive it. Not yet able to understand that she wasn’t crazy, what she was was abused, was traumatized, was desperately alive. That crazy was a word lined up like the 8-ball at the end of a round of billiards, shot straight at her with enough force to send her reeling. Lobbed like a molotov cockatil.
She wrote the beginning of the love story and then hid it under the seat of her car where no one would find it. It wasn’t until years later, reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, when she found herself livid that the world marketed this book as one of the greatest love stories ever told, that she saw the lie, first of Heathcliff as an unruly narcissist masked as a great love, then her own love story, which was also not a love story, but instead a story of great despair.
The story she thought she had been writing crumpled before her. It was obsession, bright and blistering and cold as a winter’s night. It was anguish and loneliness and cruelty masquerading as romance. There had been love in it, but it was a calculating sort of love, a love with checks and balances, devious. It wasn’t the kind of love that brought you to your knees, it was the kind that forced you there.
She’s wandering the woods, his hand pressed tightly in hers. Earlier, they kissed under the bough of a large autumn tree, crimson leaves falling down and the whole world mired in fog. They make their way over a bridge, dangling precariously low to the rushing water below it. Suddenly, they are separated. It’s pitch black out. She grows cold. She calls his name, screams it, but only the tumultuous crash of the river below answers.
She wakes, her mouth rounded in the shape of his name. It is a name she doesn’t speak in her waking life, hasn’t spoken in years for what the sound of it will resurrect into the air. Her eyes snap open. A breathless “oh” escapes and sends a puff of air int the silence as she discovers herself out deep in the woods behind her house. Wet pine needles press into the pads of her feet and the sharpness of the cold is a buoy to the rising panic.
Turning, she sees the glow of a dim light in the distance, barely illuminating the trail she must have followed in her sleep. She looks around in search of ghosts or other devils hidden between the trees, half expecting the silhouette of her past love to slink his way from behind a trunk, or come up behind her, sliding his hands around her waist, dipping below the elastic of her pajama pants, a man with strawberry blonde hair and flashing eyes greedy with the hunger she can still taste.
An owl hoots in the distance and the snap of a twig sends her heart hammering. A fawn, the back half brown and the front a dewey white, as if from a different world, steps out across the trail between her and the house. They both freeze, locking eyes. The cold night air seems tremors between them, in the deers gaze she feels naked with recognition, like it can see all her harbored selves. Her desire is there, where it’s always humming, between the lining of her throat, her lungs hammering as she swallows, deer-hearted. When it finally turns and darts into the trees, the bubble bursts and she is just a woman, cold and alone in the woods, chasing ghosts.
She steps gingerly, following the trail to her own back door and the life she built. Unlatching the door quietly and shutting it gently behind her, she is greeted by the last crackles of their dying fire and the light snores of her husband drift down the stairs. The terror from finding herself, a walking nightmare in the woods, makes her shiver where she stands in the dark of her kitchen. Surrounded by her own possessions, ones she carefully picked out, curated, placed around her house like a little museum to who she wanted to be, seem strange to her on the weird November night. Goose bumps rise like a tidal wave across her skin and she crosses to the stove, cranking the burner knob until the gas ignites and a flame flickers.
The chamomile warms her as she stands over their farmhouse sink looking out the window and wondering what would have happened to her if she kept up the dream and chased her old love through the woods all night. There’s an ache in the pit of her stomach. She feels she is still out there now, calling his name, that she has been out there all along, all these years. It shames her, this desire.
By the time she crawls back under the warmth of their winter quilt, dawn is creeping up the sides of the house, trying to get into the windows. Her husband rolls over, waking to the almost light. He is unaware of her departure, unaware of so many things. Unaware of who she used to be, who she still is now, her under the blankets beside him, who she becomes on the page or in the dark. He wishes he would feel it, her absences like that of a wound, the way she learned to love all those years ago. But he is not that kind of man, and that is not this kind of love. He doesn’t obsess. He doesn’t strangle or suffocate, though sometimes she wishes he would, just to conjure up the old feeling. She sometimes feels held by the quiet enduring love of his, yet other times it is a canyon between them and she is choking on the clear air.
He rises to shower and she keeps her back toward him, her eyes blinking against the rise of the dream as he pads to the bathroom and clicks on the light. The rush of the water starting draws her eyelids down and she doesn’t wake again until the sky has already turned from pink to yellow to blue. He’s long gone down the drive. The house is empty. All that’s left is the cloying scent of Marlboro reds in the air, though neither of them smoke, and the gnawing sensation that she awoke something in the dark.