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.