by Alice Martin
You think of him when you smell smoke. A switch in your brain, a splinter in your nose. Musty and rich, and just a little sweet.
His shirts smelled like campfires. For four years, the scent weaved into the threads of your sweaters. When it ended, you washed them five times in a row, sat watching the spin cycle.
“You’ll be fine. Better, even,” he said when you cried. “I’m not good for you.”
No shit, you thought.
Your roommate Claire says all the right, bland things when you tell her, as you sit beside each other on your couch and split a beer. At some point you wonder why you’re settling for half and keep the warming bottle against your chest.
“I never liked him,” Claire says.
You’d known this and it’d brought you a certain amount of pleasure. The way she’d flare, like a match catching fire, when he’d come to your apartment. Her searing smiles and high-pitched voice, the way her eyes pointed at him, pupils shrunken to the tips of two sharpened pencils. Once he asked you if Claire wanted to sleep with him. “Probably,” you said and tried to pretend the question wasn’t a threat.
Later that night, when Claire’s gone out and you’re in the apartment alone, your task is to scour your closet-sized bedroom for any trace of him. The soft-backed books he lent you, covered in his blade-like lettering. (You’d read his notes more carefully than you’d read the books, training yourself to read the way he did.) The empty wine bottle you drank together on his old apartment’s rooftop that you now use as a vase for dead flowers. (You’d never liked red wine until you had it with him and learned to find pleasure in the way your tongue would curl inward at its taste.) Some of the things you ball into a trash bag aren’t even his, but you know they need to go anyway: the vanilla hand cream you bought when he told you that he liked it when women smelled sweet; the too-short dress you wore to his birthday party; his favorite pair of your underwear. You shove it all in and carry it down to your apartment’s trash room.
You keep a stack of photos of the two of you together and a pack of his cigarettes that he dropped behind your dresser and never rediscovered. You take these things to your small kitchen, flick on the gas stove, and wait through four empty ticks before the range wooshes to life. You don’t have a lighter—you’ve never smoked when you weren’t with him—so you bring your hand close to the stove’s flame to light the tip of the cigarette. You keep it balanced in the front of your lips as you feed the pictures to the fire. You could have thrown them away, with everything else, but there’s just something about watching his face catch fire, smolder, and ash.
When it’s over, you stand by your kitchen window and think of all the useless information about him that you’ve stored deep in your head. It’s stuck there like a song, rolling over and over again, until it’s stale and out of tune. You think about how you once read that female praying mantises eat their mates after sex. This surprised you at the time; you’d heard black widows did this, but praying mantises? With their gangly, fragile limbs and big, childish eyes? Now, you stare at the image of yourself, superimposed over the dark glass of the window, bringing the cigarette to your own, unfeeling lips. You suck and you suck and you think it tastes like him but better.
Once when you were little you got your arm stuck in a railing beside the staircase. So easy to get in, impossible to get out. This was just after your father died of pancreatic cancer and you didn’t want to bother your mother with little things, so you sat on the stairs until your butt was sore, trying to pull your shoulder back through the vertical slates. You imagined your whole arm was a sleeve that you could pull yourself out of and leave behind. You convinced yourself it was that easy, to strip off your skin and walk away. It would hurt less, you imagined, than admitting to someone else what had happened.
She doesn’t call often anymore, your mother. Voices sound so distant on the phone, just echoed husks of bodies through dead space. It’s easy to forget she’s a real person, states away, with real blood and real breath. She doesn’t talk much about your father’s death, but when you look into her eyes you see it there, like the sheen of sweat on a forehead. It’s part of her body, even if it’s not on her mind.
You think about calling her for days but don’t. She knew your ex’s name, but she didn’t know much else. You wring your mind for someone else to call. He would nudge your knee with his if he could hear you, a casual roll of the eyes. You always need someone to call.
It was on his List. His List of You.
The list had two parts: his declaration and the way he declared it:
You can’t hide anything from me. You’re an open book.
Said like a tease. Like you were a sweater with a loose thread, and he was pulling you out.
You worry too much.
Said like a father to a daughter, but not your father, just some father. You’re still the daughter. You’re always the daughter.
You’re a good person, but you’re too nice.
Said in a flat line.
You wonder if he has this same list about every girl. You wonder what your list of him would look like, but you can’t remember a time, a single time, when you told him anything about himself.
For days after, you thought he’d call. After he said it was over you stood on the stoop outside his apartment on Lenox and 122nd for fifteen minutes because you were sure he’d take it back. It was cold, but your face was as hot as if you’d been slapped. You don’t remember walking to the subway or getting back to your apartment. It was like blinking, in that way. One second, you were there. The next, you were gone.
When Claire leaves for the weekend to her parent’s house on Long Island, you go into her room. The air there is warm and just a little stale, like wilting flowers and steam. You step over the puddles of her clothes to her closet, piled high with short-hemmed dresses and long-chained necklaces. She’s taller than you, and thinner too, but you don’t have anything that’ll do. The dress you choose is short and too tight for you to wear a bra. Your hair gets caught in the full-length zipper when you pull the dress over your head, teeth ripping at your roots.
In the Uber, you double check the address on your app. His name, the screen tells you, is Daniel, and he’s 30. He used one picture on his profile, of himself in a grey beanie in the park. He could be anyone. You posted a picture, too, but it doesn’t look like you. You wonder if he’ll be disappointed and then you tell yourself you don’t care.
In the end, he doesn’t look like his photograph either. When you kiss him, you map the differences the way someone surveys a room: where he was a battered but philosophical-looking couch, Daniel is a slick IKEA chair. Daniel’s apartment—or maybe it’s his hair—smells like antiseptic, sharp and monotonous. The refrigerator hums behind the moans you force yourself to make when he bites your lip.
He hooks his fingers beneath your dress straps and pulls you forward. As he pours over your cleavage you think of your breasts as two inflatable, plastic balls, rubbery and pop-able. You hadn’t realized it, but at some point you must have detached the real ones and left them in one of your ex’s drawers. Behind your back, you poke at your thighs, testing the putty of them with your fingernails. You wonder if any part of your body is real anymore, or if it’s just a suit you put on, tight and slick as this dress, as real skin.
You won’t go through with it, he says somewhere in your mind, a clip cut out from a conversation you once had. You don’t even know him.
You click open Daniel’s belt and as it whips out of his beltloops you almost think it whispers, Watch me.
You turn away from Daniel and stand, showing him your zipper.
You won’t, he says. His voice in your head is laughing, not mad in the way you’d hoped. Your anger, though, burns blurry holes in your vision.
Daniel pinches the zipper and tugs it down, down, down. You can feel your spine unzipping along the indention of your back, peeling open to reveal no muscle, or blood, or flesh, but air and polyester cotton, a mannequin’s innards.
You let the rest of the dress fall away as Daniel smooths his fingertips over the insides of your wrists. He traces the pale blue veins under the surface, travels up your bicep and down your sides, around the bloom of your inner thighs to your center, water circling the drain of a tub, until he reaches inside you. You wish you didn’t, but you feel the ghosts of past touches, of past prods, of past pokes and pinches. You can smell the memory of other skin, like the tepid residue of mold. You look at the veins in your arms and you can see the threads of other men that you’ve stitched into yourself. You can’t blame it on them, because you yourself pushed the needle into your skin, drew the fabric of their words and their touches and their looks through the suture, pulled so tight that you thought the thread might snap against the tautness of your skin, but it never did. You sewed them all into you, your fingers sticky with blood, until it wasn’t your skin at all that they touched, just the needlework of other men.
Once he is on top of you, inside you, he feels heavy like a bruise. You stare past his hair toward the kitchen where the light is off, and the refrigerator has turned over and started humming again, alone in the dark.
Does Daniel like his eggs scrambled and just a bit undercooked, like he did?
Does he prefer to drink his beer out of a glass?
Does he get quiet when he’s mad and cruel when he thinks he’s funny?
Does he only shut up when you dig your fingers into the tendons of his forearm and rub?
You follow the lines of his shoulder blades with your fingertips and read the shiver of his movement, the catch of his breath. You’re a good reader. You’ve learned many things. He gets louder, gruffer, more breathless, strains, and is silent. His body loosens on top of you, a dollop of whipped cream on top of a pancake.
The air around you halts. The city beyond this room is silent and you can feel your heart beat against the weight of his chest. As he slips out of you, you wonder, of all people, about your mother:
In that stillness just after the doctor told her your father was gone, did she feel like this? A brief, blinding flash of relief. The moment when she realized she didn’t need to remember anything about him anymore, didn’t need to curl her body just so in bed, or pinch her face into a smile even when she wasn’t happy? Only to feel a dread that smelled like smoke when she remembered that he would never leave her, and she would never stop.
Later, when Daniel has collapsed in postcoital slumber on the couch, you look at his unconscious body. His limbs climb the couch back like the legs of a tarantula, hairy and disjointed. Between his thighs reclines a softening piece of flesh that could belong to any man. He is an unfurled roll of uncooked dough, wet and limp and sticky.
You realize his voice has gone silent in your head and you can hear your own breathing, even as a ticking clock, soft as slippered feet.
You may never forget them, you think as you stare. They may never remember you.
You are here, dry-eyed and alert, standing over his body.
Alice Martin is a PhD student in English Literature at Rutgers University. Before pursuing her doctorate, Alice worked extensively in commercial book publishing, most recently at Writers House LLC. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Carolina Quarterly, Appalachian Heritage, and The Bookends Review, among others. When she’s not writing fiction or teaching, she’s a regular contributor at various book review outlets, including Shelf Awareness and Off the Shelf.