“You’re your own predator ever after.”
—Gary Lutz, Divorcer
Her parents named her Apnea after the string of short, brisk, virulent breaths that induced her conception. In her babyhood they sang improvised lullabies about fragile fledglings on shivery stems then unionized to the tune of ennui while she slept in the same bed. Adolescence was plagued by premature take-offs and not-discouraged blowjobs. As an adult, she gives away her berries to birds of a certain and familiar feather. She molds her antecedents into an inert globe.
Now days graft one over the next, layers of yesterday perpetually draping tomorrow. She straightens her bangs, applies mascara and an array of creams and lotions, seeks voyage into a painting of the room she’ll walk into next. Terse rhythms of blood flow through her temples. An illusive voice hisses: You are being judged; you sleep late; you wake up brittle-eyed and upset. She listens to the gritting work of her teeth as she thinks of her man thinking of other women. The trouble with seeing substance in a person nobody else sees is the possibility that it doesn’t exist. He said: Sometimes I dream of sneaking around.
He tells her after she walks in on him alone but not empty-handed. The screen projects a silhouette dissimilar to hers. It’s not so much he’s flailing solo or even that he’s turned to a social networking site, but the password for the account he fancied would not have matched hers. Do you fuck her when you think of her? A fleet of mouse-clicks, ums, excuses and apologies ensue, but he has danced on the daintiest corner of the fringe of infidelity, enough to unsheathe the cold sword of emotion she could now prove swings between them.
Each day since, she treats him less like a man and more like a dog. Controlling as a regiment of rebuilding trust may be, she’ll be the first to tell you her eyes are selectively green. They inhabit an unreciprocated world. Days run by on soft toes, each step swifter than the last. The room she enters is not a painting, but books are strewn about like broken bottles nobody drank from and the air is sour with stale sink water vapor. A few things need replacing. She shuts the door behind her but an air blister intervenes with the bolt and its nest.
Yellow haze combs over the city, casts complete non-color. The breath of heathens and the collective sadness of commuters do their best, but cannot outweigh the sadism of tromping in flat soles for two miles. A trotting boxer leads a small Indian woman past her and she watches the mismatched pair round the street corner. The panting from her man as his loins seized to a Facebook page replays in her mind’s ear, so she plugs it with earphones. The cooing playlist takes the counterfactual day and whisks it into a puree of unmeant oaths. I’m sorry that I can’t help but see you. I’m sorry that you’re not sorry. Good songs: a reason to live when no others are apparent.
Math behaves like a parent: calculations lob one after another shortcoming and she stencils promises against distant walls. I will not cry. I will become better. My questions will not be phrased as strictures. Affirmations on billboards, clichés about tides and sunsets and hope bang their aluminum mugs against street lamps; the clangs blend into the crowd like other thoughts not being had. The information swelling her brain restricts her breathing; the words of loved ones slough off like dead skin. She checks it all at the door before punching the clock.
A forensic linguist, she analyzes suicide letters and death row statements. Her brain wraps around abhorrence and thrives on the dissection of anguish. Trained apathy is her escape from the world’s apathy. She reads a letter written by a woman her exact age who hanged herself. The snap of my neck is the song of my life. She researches the woman’s past. The pattern resembles hers: dysfunctional home, trouble in school, abusive relationships. The letter is eleven words, eleven syllables, twice as many barbs behind her retinas. The door opens, her nerves enter. Why can’t I decipher the language of my life? Tremors rattle through her until she is dismissed for the day.
Her boss drives her home. Air in the Prelude wafts redolent with dog shampoo. The suicide letter tumbles into a chasm of memory reserved for work. Now she’s thinking about her boyfriend again. She reminds herself she is not carved from ice. The road oscillates and lurches and each turn reveals something more unfamiliar than the next, culminating in a half-open apartment door. That lazy fuck. But she reassures her boss, probably airing out the place of diffuser musk. Be wrong. It’s okay.
Shoes paired like anchors, books like islands, a dwelling of dust and strain. How stupid can you be? In the bedroom under the covers slumps the bane of her love, the arcane delight of her life. He drained his day in repose. More of him lives in the mattress than the air. One thing: his smartphone features a fresh passcode.
Once she witnessed two crows coerce a rabbit to sprint to its death on the highway. The birds saluted her in the rearview mirror as she passed. They picked the roadkill clean within the hour; she remembered it for days. Another time a covey of redwings chased a hawk from a pillaged nest. The over-easy in her belly crept up her esophagus. Somewhere a branch bends under her weight.
She strips to cautiously washed lingerie and trickles underneath the sheets one morsel of restraint at a time. And what is he now, a nice, dumb black lab? More resembles a sheep dog. She listens for her pulse, awaits vague dreams to quell honed questions, cache them away with others like them, where one drop of vinegar could incubate an end-all outburst. The acolytes of not letting go do business everywhere. She felt it all. She feels it now. Where are her impenetrable blinds of indifference? A few things need replacing, and of course we dream of sneaking around.
Prowling is possible for her, too. She forages for diversion with her fingertips. The effort: His necklace is a phone cord. No, his neck beams with neon ink. No. A recessed dream of a spotted horse crosses away the vague hope of transgression. The sound of galloping. Hooves meld with the ground, minds with the sun, light-minded daisies mate with allergens. Then a leash is thrown over everything and she walks it off a cliff. Short, brisk, virulent breaths.
Streetlights illuminate the bedroom and she’s sitting up. Her man has retaken his given form for the time being; she could wake him and initiate worthwhile dialogue if she wanted. Instead she strokes his back, sees him in the best light she can give. A mixed breed. A mutt. Shh, it’s okay, boy.
Another three weeks burn through the air before he tells her it’s not him, nor is it her, but a third, and not who she thought: a silhouette of the same shade. Clandestine texting, unscrupulous web-surfing, drowsy daytimes, all of it the evolution of his unanticipated proclivity. She screams, You risked me. You drained my fortitude. He doesn’t hear her; she’s not talking, not crying, not looking at anything.
Apnea buys a ticket home to search for the child that once made a papier-mâché mask from Bible pages, not yet fated by the curse of her progenitors. Home begs away. A memory prods like a stinger; she keeps it undefined and stored with others like them and they work into the order of an equation. When it solves, she will need to sit down, but will stand, stride, deny the impending. The airport refuses her attempts to reverse course, a cab swoops her toward old haunts in an act of assumed permission. Roads are glossy. Manacled offshoots of unseasoned maples reach, offer ironic foreshadowing. The cab drops her at the corner of her youthful block. You used to scream and run here, too.
Directionally disinclined sway after sway later she no longer recognizes anything. It’s her front door. The bell rings anew. Her mother answers, formerly budding horns sprouted and keen. An hour and too many revisited journal entries later, she smells dinner. Casserole packed with paper clippings and baby teeth. She holds her breath, closes her eyes, dreams she adopts an entire animal shelter.
It’s not bad. She listens to a workshop on keeping a good fire, undresses in front of her mom and dad and permits herself invisible leaks of tears while they deconstruct and reassemble her to their idea of predestination. She’s told that to train dogs you need to invest that which you can’t afford. Maybe adopt a cat; they train you. They make her finish her plate. They echo the mantra of their family crest: I’m sorry I can’t help but see you.
A night on the town with the once-handsome initiator of her sexual missteps refreshes her of what she drained into her most recent converted relation. History’s heat inserts into her and she promises not to make eye contact as she’s refilled with youthful promise. A comment on her toes completes the transaction. She leaves with the founded sense that she’s meant to be alone. What is there left to say about blood?
A forensic linguist, she spends her life rearranging words into what coincides with their prearranged narrative. Mother and father say she fell into fragments the moment she moved away. She says her teeth were always loose. She says pieces always need picking up—you’re never sure where they fall.
Whirs from the plane engine encircle her and warn of cycles. The barren Midwestern landscape below inspires her to look up how to draw an atlas, a world devoid of codependence. What she doesn’t know: across her nonnative town, a nickel with her fingerprint on it vanishes down the throat of a hound she will walk by tomorrow and wonder how to make it hers.