Paige Clark ~ Dead Summer

The year my moth­er dies, my boyfriend catch­es me jump­ing out of the win­dow of our house. We live on the first floor. He stands in the yard with his arms fold­ed across his chest and one eye­brow raised. “I knew you were going to do that,” he says.

I am prac­tic­ing,” I say.

For what,” he says. “You’re too afraid to die.”

I am stand­ing bare­foot in my old gym t-shirt from junior high school and cot­ton under­pants. It is dusk in the dead of sum­mer and the grass is dewy. It is my mother’s favorite kind of weather—the cool relief of night from a hot day—and I can’t stom­ach it. I go inside and turn the air con­di­tion­er to six­ty-three degrees and sit on my bed trem­bling.

 

I am afraid of many things—getting pink eye, cross­ing the street out­side of a cross­walk, over­ly aggres­sive pan­han­dlers, dan­ger­ous amphib­ians. And I was once afraid of life com­ing to an end—of what I imag­ined would be a sput­ter­ing, spit­ting last gasp for air. But my mother’s body deflat­ed like a day old bal­loon and I held her hands as they turned cool. My boyfriend went to the hos­pi­tal lob­by to buy her favorite flow­ers and all I could think was, Hurry up, it’s get­ting cold, like she was a bowl of soup.

 

When my boyfriend comes inside to find me, I tell him to look at my web brows­ing his­to­ry. The dull glow of the com­put­er makes me feel like we are under­wa­ter and my boyfriend is a brine fish—nothing but translu­cent pale limbs. I think to myself, He is not strong, because I am angry this has hap­pened to me and not to him.

My search his­to­ry reveals I am con­tem­plat­ing para­sui­cide, because like my boyfriend guessed, I am not brave enough to kill myself all the way. He does not say this, but just holds me in his crus­tacean arms. The room is freez­ing, so when I final­ly fall asleep shiv­er­ing, I dream I am in a hos­pi­tal room with cream walls and a nurse who places a warm hand gen­tly on my fore­head. She looks noth­ing like my moth­er.

 

In the morn­ing when I wake up, I tell my boyfriend I am leav­ing him. The rea­son I give him is that I need to be alone for a lit­tle while. The real rea­son is that when he sleeps his breath­ing is qui­et and his del­i­cate hands are icy and I can’t tell if he is alive or dead. He says, “I will give you the space you want and I’ll be here if you need me.”

I sus­pect more than ever he is not real­ly alive.

He packs his things to go to his mother’s house. I yell at him, “At least you have a moth­er!” just to make sure he knows that even though I am break­ing his heart, I am still more bro­ken.

 

When I was nine, I fell out of a tree and broke my arm, so I know what it feels like to fall and I know what it feels like to be bro­ken. On the way home from the hos­pi­tal, my eyes still full of tears, my moth­er and I stopped off at the video store and bought the deluxe VHS box set edi­tion of The Sound of Music. I watched it on repeat while the painkillers wore off. My moth­er ran her hand across my face—my fore­head, my eye­brows, my cheekbones—until I could final­ly fall asleep. So when it’s on TV the day my boyfriend moves out, I can’t believe my luck.

But I’ve for­got­ten one thing: the Von Trapp chil­dren need a gov­erness because their moth­er is dead.

 

A few days lat­er, I try to call my boyfriend. But the con­nec­tion makes him sound like he is under­wa­ter and I can’t think of any­thing to say, so I just hang up. At night I can’t sleep and I lie awake in bed think­ing of a warm body.

 

I find this in my next-door neigh­bor, a man who is an inch short­er than I am and twice my age. I run into him at the super­mar­ket. In his shop­ping cart, there is a pork roast, sum­mer veg­eta­bles and expen­sive cheese. In my shop­ping cart, there is a pack­et of ibupro­fen and instant noo­dles. He invites me over to din­ner and I accept. He has a hare­lip and the unformed face of a baby born too soon, so I know like me his moth­er has failed him in some way. He chain smokes men­thol cig­a­rettes and is the fastest walk­er I have ever known. He is always over­heat­ed and his skin has an unhealthy, sweaty sheen.

Over din­ner, I exag­ger­ate and tell him I tried to kill myself. I watch him and know he is try­ing to find the appro­pri­ate response like There is some­thing to live for, but instead says noth­ing because he knows that’s not true. I reach out across the table and run my fin­ger across the scar of his hare­lip and his whole body shakes as if he is hav­ing a bad dream.

When I get home from din­ner, I have four missed calls from my boyfriend but I do not call him back.

 

My moth­er always hat­ed how Hollywood loves to kill off the protagonist’s moth­er. “Why not the father?” she would ask.

But she died before her own moth­er did, so she doesn’t know what I know. Lose your moth­er and you lose every­thing.

 

This is why three nights lat­er, I ask the man to spend the night at my house. I with­draw fifty dol­lars from my boyfriend’s check­ing account and buy a twen­ty-six dol­lar bot­tle of wine and expen­sive sham­poo. When the man arrives he says the smell of my washed hair is intox­i­cat­ing and I imag­ine swad­dling him with it like you would a new­born baby. I kiss him for the first time and he tastes like men­thol cig­a­rettes and sticky ner­vous sweat. He wraps my hair around my neck like a noose. Later, when we fall asleep, he cra­dles me in his arms and places a damp hand on my fore­head. It is warm. His heavy breath­ing echoes through the house and I sleep well and dream of noth­ing.

I wake up to a phone call from my boyfriend that I do not answer. He leaves a voice­mail that says, “I have booked you in for a ses­sion with a ther­a­pist. Please go.” I am furi­ous because my boyfriend loves to solve prob­lems by not doing any­thing at all.

When I men­tion this casu­al­ly to the man, he thinks ther­a­py is a good idea, so I decide to go. I trust this man because he has excel­lent taste in cheese and over­ac­tive sweat glands. He often says noth­ing instead of the wrong thing and for that, I think, I owe him my whole life.

 

The part Hollywood leaves out is how easy it is to die. How not breath­ing is just as easy as breath­ing. I spent the final days of my mother’s life dip­ping sponge-tipped swabs into plas­tic hos­pi­tal cups of thick­ened, lemon-fla­vored water and run­ning them against her dry tongue, her parched lips. At first her mouth closed around the swabs like a child suck­ing a paci­fi­er, but then she for­got how to swal­low and her mouth hung wide like an open door let­ting in a cold draft.

 

My therapist’s office is the front room of his house. I would not know it is any­thing but a liv­ing room except he sits on a black swiv­el office desk chair and there are rows of books that tell you all the things wrong with you—depression, anger, psy­chosis. There is a box of no brand tis­sues on the cof­fee table that look scratchy and too thin, as if they are dar­ing me not to break­down. My ther­a­pist does not say much except, “How does that make you feel?” And I do not know how I feel, but I know that ques­tion infu­ri­ates me.

I tell him that I left my boyfriend because he reminds me of a corpse and that I found a lover who reminds me of noth­ing except occa­sion­al­ly sex and cig­a­rettes. My ther­a­pist says, “And whose corpse does your boyfriend remind you of?” and I like this ques­tion even less.

My boyfriend picks me up from my therapist’s house and I know it immediately—the corpse he reminds me of is my own.

 

I used to be afraid, but now I am not scared of any­thing. I crossed to the oth­er side of the street if a stranger had an eye that looked the wrong way or unwashed hair. I held my breath when my boyfriend drove too fast on the free­way or a plane I was on encoun­tered tur­bu­lent air. I knocked on wood, a prayer the things that could go wrong wouldn’t. What I didn’t know then is that part of liv­ing is being afraid of dying.

 

My boyfriend dri­ves me back to our house and I do not ask him to come in. His eyes are fish­bowls of held back tears and he tells me that he miss­es me. I say, “me too.”

When I hear him dri­ve away and I check the win­dow to make sure he’s left, I call the man on the phone. He does not answer. I make myself a pack­et of instant noo­dle soup for din­ner but, since I can bare­ly eat, it goes cold. I try to wash my hair in the show­er but instead I stand there until the hot water runs luke­warm and I tow­el off shiv­er­ing with dirty hair.

I try call­ing the man again and this time he answers. Over the phone, his breath does not smell of men­thol; his flesh does not radi­ate any heat. He asks, “Are you alright?” and this time I am the one to say noth­ing. I imag­ine the next time I see him at the gro­cery store shop­ping for cig­a­rettes and Gruyère— our inter­ac­tion casu­al, as if noth­ing has passed between us at all.

 

The air con­di­tion­er has been run­ning for weeks but I will not turn it off until my lips go blue. I find my way to bed and bury myself beneath the cov­ers. For what feels like the first time I am by myself, no hand on my fore­head to soothe me, no body—warm or cold— to com­fort me except my own.

I sleep well and dream of my moth­er.

~

Paige Clark works in the spe­cial­ty cof­fee indus­try in Melbourne, Australia. She stud­ied Mass Communication Theory and English at Boston University. Her short fic­tion has appeared pre­vi­ous­ly in New World Writing  and in Menacing Hedge and is forth­com­ing in Weave Magazine. Find her online at paige-c.format.com.