Straw House

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I draw a tree over my healing bruise in ballpoint pen, the kind that smears when you look at it funny. Inky branches unfurl over a palm-sized wash of golden currant and leaf green and muddled blackberry purple, all colors that are absent from Los Angeles autumn. The roots are shaky and slender, blue like veins, extending far beyond the edges of the healing skin on my thigh.

My dad died when I was 21, so I’m no stranger to the unmooring power of grief. I think about death even when I’m not thinking about death: it’s a knowing, simple as breathing, that we are all hurtling down the same road at different speeds. Sometimes I forget to breathe, and sometimes I forget the way death presses its weight into the day-to-day, the invisible trajectory of each fragment of my life: a relationship, an injury, a reprieve. Everything reaches an inevitable end, but the darker things always seem to stretch on longer.

I sign the lease for my apartment on November 7th, braced for the unique difficulties of moving, living alone with a disability. I don’t anticipate feeling, one day later, that I am moving into a Trump-era bomb shelter.

The world is grieving. The world is terrified. I am not alone in this, and yet.

My home is just boxes and a bed. I stumble through November and December the way I stumbled through the months after my dad’s death, this time with a better understanding of the choreography, but pain and fear are a dance that counts on you losing your footing even when you’re sure you know all the steps.

I tell my therapist that the threads I am painstakingly stitching back together blow apart at the tiniest breeze. She nods and says: straw house. I lie on the floor of my apartment and stare at the ceiling, at a peeling square of blue painter’s tape that I notice and then forget about until the next time I’m on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I unpack one box at a time, one a day because I don’t have the energy for more, until there’s a cardboard mountain on one side of the room and the weight on my chest shifts just a fraction. I organize my books by color, and my favorite shelf has dusky blues and deep reds and warm greys, my dad’s prayer beads nestled beside a wheat-gold deerskin pouch stuffed with Virginia cedar runes.

I have blood work done the first day of December. The night before, I scratch lonely lonely lonely lovely lovely lovely loved loved loved into my journal until they become nothing more than the rhythm of the same word written over and over and over. That morning, I am straw and thread: every street light is out, roads blocked off, the clinic garage closed. My body is taut with hunger and exhaustion and I want to release it in sobs, want someone to tug hard so I can unravel.

My nurse’s name is Tamiko, spelled neatly in kanji and Roman letters on a sticky note pressed to a beige cabinet door. I’m fifteen minutes late to my appointment, and have forgotten to fill out my paperwork beforehand; when I apologize, flustered, she gently tells me not to worry, and pulls out a pen to help. She then tells me my hair is beautiful, and when I hand her my driver’s license, she wishes me a happy birthday.

I am more likely to pass out during blood work than most, thanks to my disability. I feel ashamed of this, somehow, want to explain that it’s not just a fear of needles, though that would be equally valid. I shift on the hard plastic phlebotomy chair while Tamiko prepares the bed. There’s a calendar on the wall across from me: December is a Yorkie in a velvet Santa costume.

I don’t like Yorkies, but I tell her the calendar is cute, that I’m looking to adopt a dog after the holidays. We talk about apartments, doggy daycare as I settle onto the bed and she gets the needle and vials; she had a pit bull, fifteen years old when she died, and at the end of her life she hired in-house dog sitters for long trips instead of putting her through the physical stress of going elsewhere. Tamiko was anxious, at first, about letting a virtual stranger have access to her home. “Material things can be replaced, but your loved ones can’t,” she concludes after asking me to release my fist, the vein in my wrist twitching as blood pumps through the needle, nothing more than a pinch under soft skin.

When I’m home, I organize my kitchen. I don’t have any furniture, so this is the one room of the apartment that feels like it’s already mine: a basil plant on the counter, postcards on the fridge. I move a whiskey bottle behind the basil, try to peel the label off its wooden stopper and lodge a tiny splinter into my thumb. It’s been years since I last had a splinter, and it hurts more than I expect it to; I pour white vinegar into a Mickey Mouse shot glass, soak my thumb until it prunes as I rummage one-handed in my medicine cabinet for the hotel sewing kit I put there the day before. I pour alcohol into a paper cup to sterilize the needle and sit cross-legged on my bath mat, tenderly plucking at my skin with a calm I haven’t felt in months.

I feel the same calm when I shatter a cup days before my birthday. It’s one I’ve had since I was small, tiny and fragile and white with plump bruise-red cherries on the side, a child’s souvenir from one of my first international flights. I sweep up the pieces, see if I can glue them back together, but the bottom is practically dust, and it ends up in the trash.

Days after the New Year, I adopt a dog. I wonder if the liminal state of my home will be too stressful for him, still just boxes and bookshelves and a mattress on the floor, but I get to the rescue and see the swish of his curled tail and his soft sad eyes and I’m gone. The young girl working there calls him osito as she scratches behind his ears, and I name him Pan.

I mean to crate Pan that first night, but after an hour of whimpering and scrambling against the wire I let him out. As I settle onto my side he climbs onto the mattress, curls warm against the curve of my belly, and I feel expansive, suddenly—struck with wonder that the two of us are alive at the same time.

Dream Twenty-Four

I’m meant to meet a man in the old hotel by the sea. I’m supposed to be French so I practice my phrases and accent. Je voudrais, je veux—

He doesn’t look like his photograph. I don’t remember what his photograph looked like. He’s not what I wanted, but I think I can make do.

There are flowers in bloom, fed by waterfalls, runes carved into the stone of the hotel and the stone of the cliff and for once I am not afraid of the edge. There are cranberries to pick in the white flowers, and a rose soaked in juice from the berries, pink and wet like the inside of a lip, a flick of tongue.

I peel each petal and eat them one by one.

A girl comes to me in the room I’m meant to share with the man and asks if I want to go somewhere with her. When I say yes, she’s breathless; presses fingers to the blossoming-warm curve of my cheek and gives me the softest kiss.

Teeth

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I had a dream the other night that my teeth were falling out. First whole, molars followed by canines, then in chunks and shards. No blood, just polished cream fading to baby pink at the root or the jagged edges where they splintered. I was afraid of swallowing them, but I never did. I spat them into cupped palms and gingerly tongued the gaps closest to the front, the ones most visible to others. It was my fault they had loosened, but I don’t remember why. I wished I could undo it, that I could reverse time and take better care of them, but I told myself that someone would love me anyway, that someone might even love the gaps themselves. I told myself it could be worse; you can live without teeth.

I’m smiling tight-lipped when he leans in to tell me that the worn green lines go “all over” his body, indicating, of course, his penis. He tells me that you should never hit against the muscle grain if you want to avoid bruising. He presses a wrinkled finger lengthwise on my arm to demonstrate, and I don’t know how to tell him I don’t ever want to be touched by strangers, so I ask if the tattoo hurt. I wonder how old he was when he got it, aware of the tension in my temples that comes with a clenched jaw, taut shoulders. He says when you focus on the pain it suddenly stops hurting, because all the hurt came from dread and you realize you never needed to dread it to begin with. His smile is all gums, laugh lines folding into delicate branches of skin.

When you look up “teeth” in the dream dictionary it comes up under “body” and only after “body situations”: bodiless, body being cut open, burnt body—where burn is painful, where the burning body is beautiful, leaving body. The subsection for teeth is longer than heart and bone but not as long as hand and blood.

There’s a lot about biting and gnashing and chewing before you get to loosening, spitting, falling: “This may be felt as the sense of not being able to get what one deeply wants, and so is experienced as a death, or a loss of self in some degree.”

We ask permission for different kinds of touch. We’re all drunk, and I try to make it sound like a joke or an off-hand comment, wishing I had someone to hold hands with while everyone else is paired off, but I almost cry when she skips away from her wife to twine her fingers with mine.

I’ve only kissed boys this year, and when I fall asleep with them they’re softer than I imagined they would be. They like being little spoon and I like that they never take without asking. I start the year reckless and now I’m so careful, and I’m not sure which is better when both feel like pressing on a bruise. I love them with ferocity and fear, because I never thought I could, because too often I spit love out with mouthfuls of blood.

The attachment glows purple like the strings of Christmas lights on their window, haloed and over-bright in my smudged glasses. It feels like the zap of a tattoo gun, tiny lightning sparks arcing between skin and wand, and I’m not sure I like it. When she uses herself as a conductor, it changes—jolts accompanied by a drag of nails, the warmth of human skin. We play with a chainmail belt, a whisk, a mesh tea ball, menacingly-sharp pinwheels, the cat’s tail swishing with interest as we shriek and giggle. If you use the wand on someone else, you don’t feel it at all; I expect the same when it’s my turn as conductor, but skin-on-skin thrums and prickles below the pads of my fingers, a cloud churning grey-black.

I ask permission to kiss his hand while she’s touching him, while we’re all linked. When I do, my lips spark, and my startled laugh exposes teeth.