*Featured Art via Instagram by Mali Fischer-Levine
Taking off your clothes is the easy part.
Sometimes you don’t need the alcohol. Sometimes you leave the lights on, and not by accident. Sometimes you don’t apologize for the angry red stretch marks and bad breath.
His eyelids are damp like the stray black hairs on the back of his neck. I can tell he cuts his own hair from the strands that remain way in the back, and just below his earlobes. When he’s sleeping I can almost imagine what he looked like as a child, and I want so badly to tell him this that it almost slips past my lips when he wakes up. If I tell him that I can imagine what he looked like as a child, though, I’ll inevitably tell him about my childhood, and of course that means my mother, and of course that means her screaming. I’d tell him about the apartment in Omaha when I was four years old, how she crouched in the corner half-naked, screaming like the carpet was on fire, the flames coming for her. He talks, and in my head I have this whole other conversation running. When he begins to taper off and wipe his sweat I tell him about a party I was never at, make-believe conversation included.
In third grade the girl nicknamed “the white Tyra Banks” tells me my mother is disgusting, and I no longer have anyone to eat lunch with. While forced to sit near the special education lunch table I tell myself that her JC Penny modeling career will never change how ugly she is inside, and that her mother will always be a gossip who shouldn’t work as an emergency dispatcher. Even the teachers talk to me differently knowing about my mother’s last stay in the psychiatric unit in Cherokee. The librarian goes so far as to ask if my mom liked her stay. Years later I’ll try to tell myself this is just a pitfall to living in a town comprised of less than a thousand people.
At my classroom’s morning meetings, I start talking about family I don’t have. They live in Chicago, a suburb of Chicago really. Big fenced-in backyard, a golden retriever named Charlie. She loves to cook big meals, and he’s a doctor. I talk about breakfasts my mother never made. I tell my class it was homemade blueberry muffins, not a half can of peas I had to beat against the side of the dishwasher to open because my mother was passed out, face-down, smelling like paint thinner on the linoleum. When I come home my mother is still on the kitchen floor, only propped against the dishwasher, her long, thick black hair in her face while she tries to steady a beer can. I tell her about what I told my class for the morning meeting; she clicks her tongue and winks at me, thanking me for keeping those nosy bitches out of our business.
Sometimes you lie so much you begin to believe what you say. Sometimes you don’t even have to say the lies out loud to believe them.
He likes to talk about ideas. He’s studying for the bar exam. Over our lunch he’s telling me about the current debate over the Declaration of Independence, especially the Second Amendment: was it written for us to interpret, or was it written to mean exactly what it states? I ask questions to keep him talking because his blue-gray eyes glimmer when he’s excited, and because then I don’t have to talk about myself. I like the way he has to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose because he’s gotten so excited that they’ve slipped down. I want to watch him resituate his glasses for as long as I can, but in the pit of my stomach there is a clock going tick-tock-tick-tock, move on, he’s not into you, you’re trash. You’re trash. You always have been, and always will be.
Before he picks me up for lunch, or comes over for sex, I practice my faces in the full-length, neon pink–framed mirror on the back of my one-room-apartment bedroom door. Maybe if I widen my eyes, he’ll see me sitting by myself in a lunchroom at eight years old, or maybe he’ll see the too skinny seventeen-year-old dancing at Book’em Dan‘o just down on South Main Street. I wonder if he’d imagine cradling her hips in his palms, if he’d be able to feel her hurt through just her skin. I wonder if he can feel my hurt now the way I can feel his when he talks about a half world away and the boy who came to the guard tower every day wondering where his father was. I could feel his heavy the first time we fucked, how afterward he asked if he could hold me. I could feel it in his ribs the first time he told me he didn’t know why he shot that boy in Afghanistan.
He writes me an apology email, wants me to know he’s sorry for making things weird, and tells me he can imagine I have to hear enough weird shit. I tell him it’s okay, and I like listening to him. Later I’ll go back and draft an email to him, tell him my parents don’t live in Dallas. Tell him I’m married, but my husband is gone someplace now in Kansas. Tell him about my baby sister and her husband that beats her. Tell him that I do the Backpage thing because I hurt, not because my office job is boring. I don’t send this to him.
After he leaves I pull myself from the bed even though I can still smell his sweat, and I practice telling him the truth in my mirror on the back of the door. I try to imagine what his hands would feel like on me if I let him touch more than the first layer.