I know by the bruises on the inside of my thigh that Jake was over last night. I take full stock in the shower: four apple-shaped splotches on my left thigh, one on my left arm, and a row of brown teeth marks moving up my stomach. From these I judge that Jake might be right-handed.
It’s funny because I don’t specifically remember Jake coming over. I do not specifically remember him not coming over either. I just don’t remember.
Not that there would have been much to remember. He comes over sometimes and I pour him a glass of wine and he talks about his girlfriend who is a cheating asshole and how he would leave her if his mental health weren’t getting worse, and then we have sex until I can’t stand anymore.
I don’t like Jake particularly much. But I also don’t have anything in particular against him.
For a moment while getting dressed I can’t decide whether I want to cover the bruises or not. It is summer and hot enough to justify a tank top which would display the bruise on my arm in full glory. I compromise and wear both a tank top and a sweater. At some point I could take the sweater off.
I do not like work. It is not fulfilling. The people I work with are miserable in a cheerful sort of way. Everyone is glowing with healthy, happy enthusiasm. It goes some way to hide the dry rot that’s eating its way through their innards. I get off the shitty bus that drives from downtown to the campus. I walk in the main doors to my office building. It is a huge building, a warren of little offices and little green plants and the smell of carpet cleaner.
I breathe in once before stepping across the door frame. This my last free breath.
During the morning meeting I am distracted by my bruises. I poke them. I place my forefinger gently in the center of the largest one and press down until it hurts. Then I release. Press and release. Each time the pain takes longer and longer to register. A slowly receding cliff edge.
My co-worker Lindsey looks over at me. Her eyes narrow. I smile politely back. On the screen in front of us are charts made with little arrows and sometimes words that are underlined or italicized. I still do not remember when you should underline something and when you should italicize it.
In college I did theater. In my senior year I was Nina from Chekov’s The Seagull. Subject for a short story. Sometimes I pretend that I’m still in the play. I am the seagull I say over and over again. Eventually, though, the curtain will drop and I will return to my real life.
At lunch I walk over to Jake. He is sitting with his girlfriend. His arm is around the back of her chair but not touching her.
In his moments of repentance, he has told her about me. He has told her that it’s over. He told me this as well.
“Okay,” I said, “if that’s what you want.” Then we had sex again.
“Hey, Jake,” I say. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
His girlfriend does not like me, though I can’t imagine why. She shoots me a look.
“I need your help with a work-related project,” I say. I smile very broadly at his girlfriend. See what a friendly human I am.
“Oh, yes,” Jake says.
“The project,” Jake says.
I take off my sweater as we walk away.
We walk a short distance to a tunnel between the office buildings. The company, this gigantic malignant tumor of a thing, is in Madison, so winters get below freezing. All the employees bumble around in the underground tunnels like little worker ants. This tunnel is Star Wars themed. There is a painting of Chewbacca behind Jake’s head.
“Are you right-handed?” I ask.
“No,” Jake says.
“I just wanted to check,” I say.
“Did you come over last night?” I ask.
“What?” Jake says. He looks up and down the tunnel.
“Just wanted to check,” I say again. “I just wanted to know if we had sex last night.”
“Emma,” Jake says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
“Okay,” I say. “So we didn’t.”
“What is wrong with you?” Jake asks.
“Did we?” I ask.
“Are you accusing me?” he asks.
“Accusing you of what?” I ask.
“Don’t do this,” Jake says. And then he walks away.
I stand in the tunnel. I look at Chewbacca’s furry brown eyes. I wonder if they look sad. I wonder if anyone ever asked Chewbacca if he wanted to get a haircut. I do not put my sweater back on.
I go into the nearest women’s bathroom. I stand in front of the mirror and run some cold water in the sink. I slowly press into the bruise on my left arm.
Jake met me in a club. I didn’t meet him. He met me.
I don’t like clubs. I don’t know why I went except that some college friends had come into town and wanted to have a “good time”. So I went to a club. I put on the dress that made me look most like an object. I danced in the middle of the floor. It smelled mostly like sweat and just a little bit like vomit. The heat of bodies around me was warm and real.
Jake sort of appeared in the way that people do when you’re drunk. Magic. Not there to there in less than a second.
“Hey,” he said shouting in my ear, “can I dance with you?”
It’s mostly the fact that he asked. That’s mostly it. He asked later if he could kiss me. Which he could and did. With more teeth than I was expecting. I imagine that’s what it must be like to kiss a horse. All lips and teeth. But it wasn’t horrible.
We went outside after a while. The streets were dead. Post-apocalyptic dead. I can’t imagine why except that maybe my memory is faulty. We walked down a street where I usually get coffee.
I said, “That’s where I usually get coffee.”
Jake laughed and kissed me again. I stopped on the corner to take off my shoes. I thought about the millions of shards of broken glass, the urine and the shit, the cigarette butts. I wondered if you could die from walking the streets bare foot. I wondered how long it would take.
In my apartment, after we had sex, Jake said, “I really love my girlfriend.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“No really,” he said.
“No really,” I said. “Take love where you can get it.”
In the bathroom, I pull down the collar of my tank top and see more bruises, mouth-shaped and blossoming.
Once in college in the winter, I went outside without shoes on. I walked out into the snow to stand. My socks got wet and then my feet and then I stopped feeling anything. There were stars out, spread out against a background of uniform dark. I stood there trying to name some of them. I could see Ursa Major. I pretended I saw Orion, but it might have been my imagination. After a while, my roommate came out and yelled at me. When I came back in my feet were on fire.
A co-worker who I don’t recognize comes into the bathroom. She looks at me where I stand with my collar pulled down. Her eyes flash to the bruise, to the bottom of my skirt, and then to her own reflection in the mirror. She walks towards it briskly and begins brushing at her hair. I watch her pulling the brush through a tangle of dark brown strands. Pulling down over and over again. I walk out after a moment.
In high school sometimes I forgot whole weeks. There were just these huge gaps when I couldn’t have told you what I ate for breakfast much less what had been going on in class the day before. The first time I smoked weed my sophomore year, I felt safer than I had in a long while. Finally everyone else was experiencing what I felt all the time. The world fading in and out of focus. Little bits disappearing here and there. My mom used to smoke with me on Sundays, because she said it would be better for me to learn it in the house. It was our form of religious worship, sitting in the basement sometimes watching Rocky and Bullwinkle. The only reason I got into college was because I did well on standardized tests. Thank God for people’s obsession with little black bubbles.
On my way back to my office, Jake’s girlfriend stops me.
“Emma, right?” she asks.
I know it isn’t really a question. I nod.
She is a head shorter than I am, but unquestionably in better shape. Her arms actually have lines in them. Mine are spherical and flaccid. I press on the bruise on my arm. It is odd to know so much about a person without having spoken to them before.
I know that this woman doesn’t like having her ears touched. I know that she’s from New Jersey and that her insecurities come from an absent father in her childhood. I know she doesn’t ever empty the trash. She leaves her underwear on top of her dresser. I don’t know her name.
“What-” she stops and considers for a moment. “What were you talking to Jake about?” I know her first question was different.
“A project,” I say. I smile politely.
She looks at me and I feel very sorry for her. There is a lot of anger behind her eyes, which I don’t think is healthy for you and which make her eyes all squinty. Not a good look for her. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks.
“Is there something wrong with me?” I ask. I’m still smiling, but it’s beginning to hurt my cheeks. I wonder if you can bruise the inside of your mouth. I probably could if I tried.
“You should get help,” Jake’s girlfriend says, “seriously.”
“I should,” I say. “I really should.”
After lunch I start typing up a memo for the office. It’s supposed to be about a software fix that I’ve discovered recently. Instead I begin typing up a list of all the things I’ve forgotten. It’s longer than I expected.
Item One: My birth. Well, this was a give in, but I feel it really says something about me. I don’t even know where I came from.
Item Two: My third birthday party. My mother always tells the story of how I had just woken up from a nap. I walked into the room full of strangers and just started crying. She says it’s hilarious. I just walked in and burst into tears. I stopped crying when they gave me this little red ball and pink sunglasses.
Item Three: My grandfather’s funeral. I know I was there. I must have been there. I was four. My father, whose father it was who died, was around thirty. I have never seen my father cry and wonder if he did so at the funeral.
Item Four: What happened last week.
Item Five: Where my teddy bear is. I got it when I was one year old. I promised it that I’d never leave it. I used to say I’d be buried with it. If you see it, let me know.
Item Six: What happened last night.
I type up the memo and send it to the entire staff. You aren’t technically supposed to do that unless it’s for good reason. I don’t know if this will count as a good reason.
Last week I was walking downtown late at night. It was raining slightly, sort of a moving mist between me and streetlamps, me and benches, me and trees. I kept blinking to keep the moisture from my eyes. People were walking briskly from store to store, hiding beneath overhangs and ducking into coffee shops. I wondered what we all looked like from above. Little dolls dodging the rain. I made it to the capitol building and sat down on the lawn.
I had sat there for maybe five minutes, when the man walked up to me. I thought he was homeless at first, because he was carrying a number of plastic bags.
“Nice weather,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I said.
He had a patchy mustache slicked by the rain. His hair stuck out at odd angles from under a ski cap. I didn’t feel particularly frightened by him, though I suppose I should have.
“Are you waiting, too?” he asked.
“Waiting for what?”
“I’ve been waiting for so long,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do when it actually happens.”
I thought about it a bit. “That’s true,” I said. “Waiting can become an event itself.”
The man sat down on the ground next to me. A distance too close for comfort, but so that we weren’t actually in any danger of touching. I tried to inch away subtly, but my sneakers slipped on the wet grass and my legs went splaying. He didn’t seem to notice. He started unpacking his bags.
First came a tube of mustard, then a loaf of white bread, a pack of Kraft singles, and a package of sliced turkey. He pulled out a knife as well and started cutting the crusts off of slices of bread. He threw the crusts over his left shoulder.
“I tried to get Kathy to come,” the man said.
“Oh, yes?” I asked.
“She said she was too busy.”
“I don’t know if she believes me anymore.”
“I know that feeling,” I said.
“When did it happen to you?” he asked.
I thought again. “I don’t know,” I said. “You?”
“It was only last year for me,” he said. “It was right here. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It started with the lights.”
“Yes,” I said, “the lights.”
“Flickerings,” he said and threw another crust over his left shoulder. “Jumpings and flickerings.”
“Yes,” I said, “the flickerings.”
“They were gentler than I could have imagined,” he said. “That’s what Kathy doesn’t seem to understand. How gentle they were.” Another crust vanished into the mist.
He paused and looked out into the gray. “Of course, they did leave a mark.” His voice dropped. “By this they marked me as one of their own, by this was I made unique.” He pulled back a sleeve to show a dark gray scar running up his forearm. “By this will they know me.”
“Yes,” I said, “by this will they know you.”
We sat in silence for a while. He started putting turkey on the bread, cheese on top of the turkey, and lastly a squirt of mustard. He offered me one. I took it but didn’t eat. I sat running my tongue around the inside of my teeth, watching the mist move up and down the hill, watching the little dolls skittering in and out of doorways.
“Do you think they’ve missed us?” the man with the bags asked.
“Probably,” I said.
“I’ve missed them,” he said.
We sat for a little while longer. I started eating the sandwich. It tasted quite good. Eventually a woman walked up and started shouting at the man. I thought this might be Kathy. The man started crying when she tried to get him to move, big tears welling down the side of his face. Snot in his nose. I stood up after a bit and walked away. I don’t remember what else happened that evening, but when I got home I was wet through and my mouth tasted like mustard.
It doesn’t take long for someone to respond to my memo. My boss comes into my office.
“Emma,” she says, “we need to talk.”
“Probably,” I say.
“This is really unacceptable,” she says, “and more importantly I’m concerned for you.”
“Thank you,” I say. My mother always told me to be polite even in uncomfortable circumstances.
“I’m going to ask you to take a leave of absence,” she says, “and I highly recommend that you seek counseling. Emma, you can’t go on like this.”
“I completely agree,” I say.
“Will you see someone,” my boss asks, “please?”
“I am seeing someone,” I say. It’s not entirely a lie.
Before I leave, I stop by Jake’s office.
“I just want to say,” I say, “that while I appreciated our time together, I don’t see it continuing.”
Jake looks up. His co-worker who has been talking with him also looks up. His co-worker has very thick brows. They remind me vaguely of gorillas and other things on their way towards extinction.
Jake makes some vowel shapes with his mouth. He looks slightly angry. This is an unfortunate thing to be sure. I’d rather if everyone remained at least cordial.
“And if in the future,” I say, “you would like to contact me, please do it politely.”
I turn to go and Jake grabs hold of my arm. His thumb presses into the bruise. I would be lying if I said this does not in some ways arouse me. But it also hurts.
“Please let go,” I say.
“Emma,” he says. And his co-worker steps up behind him. Jake releases my arm.
I turn around again and go.
That afternoon I walk through the downtown on my way home. I stop by the capitol. I look around vaguely to see if the man with the mark is still there. He is not, obviously. I walk home.
At home I open the door to my apartment. I walk past my one potted plant that sits on the counter and reminds me that I should water it. I walk into the living room where my grandmother’s rug is lying, the rug that used to sit in my mother’s house until she gave it to me. It still smells vaguely like marijuana, but only if you lie down and press your nose into it. I walk into my bedroom where the bed is still messed up from whatever happened last night. I see a glass on the bedside table. I see some contact solution which is not mine because I don’t wear contacts.
I sit down on the edge of the bed. I look out into the middle-ground between floor and wall and wonder where everything goes when you’re not thinking about it. There must be a place out there, a lonely corner of the universe where it’s all collected. The socks, the underwear, the broken wings and little dolls. The people you met in elementary school. The first time you really cried. The cats and sisters and mothers. The air in the cabin of an airplane. The smelling salts from early Victorian novels. The last time you felt anything at all.
I press my finger into the center of the bruise on my left arm and wait for the pain to appear. It takes a long, long time.