THE HEART IS A JUNK DRAWER
Each second can be a new beginning. Let’s crawl into the back seat and make rough sense to each other. Read epistolary love narratives by the oven light. Tell you my story using letters? Sounds like every story to me.
I haunt lonely paths, look for you in empty rooms. The world intends to give me sharp edges. To remain soft is a radical act of rebellion. A forked path where my resolve should be. Our love is an address, not a residence. I go there daily to wait for you, but like Godot, you never show. I still recycle your junk mail. Perhaps the siren only sings because her song is all he left her.
I practice the imagined salutation again and again, like a yoga pose. Your words would hit the right tone; my bones would hum along. A power chord when we first touch one another. I write a dissertation on the creases of your hands, construct a language built of bones and tendons.
When the time comes, you can trust me to put you down without hesitation, to practice my faith by slipping a key under the doormat. The tundra swallows you whole and spits you into my memory frozen and refracted. I page through the anthology of you that I have edited in my mind. The heart revels in its own reality—mine is a junk drawer, your love among trinkets as a cherished possibility, a locket picture of the patron saint of improbability.
My blood reaches for what it has known for centuries: you reign among mine. I say come to me when you can, be near me when you will. Until then, I remember how to disappear in crowded rooms, how to gracefully surrender to discontent, and other Old South doctrines I burned to the ground. More scripture than woman, mistranslated and taken out of context.
Yet I recognize the landscape of my childhood in your eyes, summer’s nightmeadows aglow with fireflies, and I envy the tissues stuffed in your discarded coat’s pocket, which I fish out with a constricted throat and a tremble in my hands that I cannot not still.
But some things one knows without explanation. So instead, let’s discuss the meaning of solace.
I am tired of my car reeking of work, draconian programs and fourteen active screens, DOS and system errors, and protocols and headsets and rolling chairs, and call after call pandering begging solving pleading that someone who wants only to be angry will choose my happy solution.
I am tired of congratulatory sticky notes remarking on the commendable empathy in my voice, being coached like a robot and lauded for my sincerity when apologizing again to a seething policyholder who’s telling me to die in a fire.
I am tired of smoking cigarettes until I’m sick disgusted obsessing incensed, guilty and shameful over my illnesses and lamenting the abhorrent grotesqueries of the physicality of being human.
I am tired of dihydroergotamine solutions and three pills a week at forty-five dollars each and injecting myself subcutaneously with a triptan and bleeding while the trigeminal nerve drives its mad forks into the flesh of my cheeks and my teeth grind in their sockets and my eyes throb and the capillaries in my brain burn bright in my vision, bursting florescent bulbs of pain until my skull sheds its casing and my stomach gives in and I am upended into darkness.
I am tired of idle small talk and preening and unchecked anxiety, and sedatives at parties and discussions disregarding the wretched circumstance of mastication and the proclivity to fuck everyone and the loneliness of a species that kills its own environment, and the irony of searching the universe for “other” intelligent life.
ALL CLEAN LINES
The clothes are folded into drawers or hung neatly in the closet. The dishes drip dry next to the sink. I have learned impatience. I take a towel and dry them, nestling each in their place in the cupboard. The floors are swept and steamed—they gleam in the tired light from my husband’s TV. The book spines are straight; they are shelved alphabetically. The cat box is scooped, the Christmas lights sparkle and twinkle.
I get the urge to go out to the market, but I have no cash. To caterwaul in undergraduate bars, to take in a game of sports balls. But I do not like sports. And I have just graduated. My textbooks have given up their ghosts.
I could go for a walk, but not without light, and it is an early and restless December night. Half-read literary journals line the desk in the attic, among boxes that have no home. No space for reflection, no room for thought. Not even a place to spread a yoga mat and meditate. It is all a cardboard metropolis sprinkled with dead ladybugs, rolls of shiny gift wrap, matte silk bows in plastic bags. I’d love to organize all these things, to have it be sparse and vacant, all clean lines. But the house that we struggle to afford has little storage, and this hectic scene has no meditative quality. A dying housefly buzzes in circles, madly throwing himself against the CFL bulb of my lamp. I yearn to trap him, crack a window, dump him out. But more will come. The futility of the cycle overwhelms me.
The phantom urge still lives to get to work on some assignment, the blinking fright of a deadline or passing memory of some scholarly article. Moments exist when my body responds to a stimulus my brain misfires, and I jump to start to frantically occupy myself with whatever classwork I’ve somehow neglected. But there is no work. So I alphabetize files and shred tax documents. The shredder can shred fifteen hundred sheets of paper per day before it overheats. I sit and pull staples, and feed small stacks into its slimline maw, and unjam it when it jams, empty its belly when it’s full, the tiny spirals of paper tilting and whirling on their flight down to the red-carpeted floor.
At quilting class I was scared of the machine. I had flashbacks of my grandmother scolding me when I flinched away from the pistoning needle of her 1960s Singer, so I tried not to care if the needle pierced my flesh. One more battle scar on the old bag of animated meat. I watched my fingers guiding the fabric under the foot into the needle’s path, my hands beginning to remind me of my mother’s hands when she was my age, the skin starting to loosen around the knuckles.
I don’t know why I started it, first with the nude photo shoots, then with the sex videos. I wasn’t unhappy in my marriage. Everyone told me I had everything in my husband. I believed them. He came from a traditional background with egalitarian duties in his household. I turned eighteen still needing to read the directions on a box of macaroni and cheese. We complemented one another. He filled my domestic voids with his tidiness, and I filled his life with music, art, poetry. His prowess in the kitchen was intimidating, so—since he worked from home—I was fine with coming home from work to his fancy meals, seasoned with spices his parents had brought home from Morocco. We connected on a deep level. At our wedding, my mother stumbled over and declared, “Lia, I’m so glad you waited so-o-o‑o long to get married. You waited for what you wanted, and you got it. You two will celebrate your fiftieth anniversary.”
That day in quilting class, as I had in the days that followed the wedding—days that turned to weeks, months, and years—I pondered what my mother had said that night at my wedding. Her prediction of our golden anniversary hung over my head like a gloomy corridor into eternity, one dimly-lit hallway with nondescript walls and tiled floors that always need mopping, the tired stench of nightly meals, and the long droning hum of a future with no exits. I wonder if she had never said those words, if I would still be married, would still know who I am.
Basting, binding edges, the exacting precision needed to make the cuts of fabric for the quilt—it all seemed overwhelming to me, like trying to thread a thousand needles at once. When my husband found out, he looked it up online to see for himself before he accosted me. My mother-in-law had called with the news. I had been found out, my darkest secrets, my most revealing poses, were out there for the entirety of his scandalized family, and the world, to see.
I felt reality split when he asked for a divorce. There was the path I could have taken, the long corridor to eternity, which continued past me even still, but out of my reach forever. Then there was the new path that I had set into motion: the path I would walk alone into my forties after a decade of marriage. My idea of who I was shattered into a thousand pieces.
I raised the foot up and slid my finger underneath. The needle stabbed hard into my fingernail. I plucked my hand away, thread trailing from the wound in my nail bed. The pain had sharp peaks and craggy canyons, and ebbed and flowed, quickened and slowed as if driven by its own heartbeat. I studied my pierced finger in mute horror, my blood a dark poppy on the blue field of white dots on the fabric.
“Do you have a question?” the quilting instructor asked me.
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, cheeks reddening, and resumed my sewing. I refilled and rethreaded the bobbin and continued to sew my fragmented shapes into something that made sense, an art I could control, a whole that would tell me more than the stitching together of its parts.
Tamara Burross Grisanti is editor of Coffin Bell Journal and associate editor of ELJ — Elm Leaves Journal. Her poetry and fiction appear in New World Writing and other journals.