The first time you left your keys in the front door, you laughed. They spent hours there, visible for everyone to see. A limp pink lanyard. A tongue waiting to be sucked. Anyone could have gotten in and it would have been your fault. A week later, biking in place, you stare out your bedroom window and notice. Your car’s lights are on. You don’t remember turning on the lights. You go outside, open the door, and find your keys in the ignition. The car is still running. It has been hours since you left the house earlier and the car has patiently kept its engine hot, exhausting itself. The third time, you are halfway into the grocery store when you realize you’ve done it again. You run out to your car, the pressure of tears behind your eyes, hands pushing at an unlocked door. It’s been raining for the past two days. The red earth seeps in grief. You watch steam billow off the road, thinking of the boy you’d been with for the past year, the boy who left you two weeks before you moved from Morgantown to Oklahoma. You grip your keys to your chest. He might be right, you think. You might be crazy.
You press purple aster and place them in a silver envelope. You want to send them to him. You miss him, but you never mail it. You want to respect his distance. And besides, you never get a chance. By the time you build the courage, he has sent you a love letter and, subsequently, a flurry of rage-filled messages. Hail pounding on a tin roof. You’d confronted him about seeing other people, about just wanting to keep you for keeping’s sake. You can’t send this to me, knowing I still love you, you write back bitterly.
You touch your swollen eyes, your soft collar bone. He used to love kissing them both. You wear your shame like a used wedding dress around your empty house, the blinds all pulled shut. You’re fucked. You need help. You’re a clown. Good luck finding someone else who will put up with your shit. You are disappearing as he demeans you, his words floating past you as you try to catch them. As you try to make it right.
You lost a good man, he tells you. You lost, you hear. You lost. You wander around your small apartment, weeping into a pink blanket wrapped around your shoulders. You look outside. The sun is shining. Tomato plants, still green, stretch, working against their own skin. You try again, apologizing, apologizing, not knowing what you are apologizing for, head pressed against the front door, breath mushroom-clouding the glass, neighbor children chasing a dog in their front lawn. I’m lost, you cry to no one in particular. I’m lost.
You open In the Dream House by Carmen Machado for self-help, as instructed by your friends. You don’t remember noting any sections in particular, but find almost every other page dog-eared. You read through a chapter that resonates so closely that you feel a kick between your ribs. “The Dream House was never just the Dream House,” Machado writes. “It was, in turn, a convent of promise…a dungeon of memory. In dreams it sits behind a green door for reasons you have never understood. The door was never green.” You think about posting a picture of her words online then stop. Once, when you were together, you told him you didn’t like the way he spoke to you after finishing a book about girlhood, violence. He told you, You want a reason to relate to that writer so badly that you’ll make up reasons to say I’m abusive. You delete the photo, horrified by what he might say to you if he saw it. Horrified of your hunger to prove something to yourself that you’ve already known for some time.
While you are together, you don a tight, green leotard before going out. Your favorite. He looks at you, says, You’re so fucking hot. But, he pauses. Who is that for, anyway? You laugh. You, of course, you tell him. I mean, he continues, I won’t be the only one looking at you if you do that.
You turn to a mirror. Your sides seem to spill over your jeans. Your arms look like they’re being squeezed. You feel ugly. You leave that night wearing a loose black shirt. You give the leotard to your sister a few months later. I can’t leave the house wearing stuff like that anymore, you tell her, smile tight.
Once, in your kitchen, he shows you how to ska dance. He grips your wrists, spins you around until the room is a blur. You smile so hard at his thin limbed thrashing, your face hurts for hours after. When you show him your wrists, bruised, he runs his thumb over your bones with impossible gentleness, regret between his brows. It was worth it, you reassure him. It’s one of the few things you’re certain of.
He yells at you while you’re visiting friends from college. His voice is so loud the phone hums: a wasp against your ear.
He yells at you outside a club for wanting to fuck his friend. Drunk, he sits on the curb and lets a homeless woman wielding a paint set outside the venue color his cheeks. You think how you have never been so afraid of a face covered in flowers.
You try to explain to him after these moments that you were upset, that you were sorry. You started it, he tells you. You yelled at me. You were fucking drunk. You were blacked out. I should know. How could you know? You don’t know what you’re talking about.
He’s right, you know. You were drunk. Yelled back. But you don’t remember not remembering.
One minute, you are scratching at his dandruff, legs wrapped around his waist in your home in West Virginia. The next, you are squatting on your dark threshold a thousand miles away from him, from home, in Oklahoma, desperately patting at flames, trying to put out the fire that consumed the last letter he sent you. You can’t believe yourself for burning it. You can’t believe yourself for weeping openly in a t-shirt and a pink thong while mourning the charred leaves of paper floating down the street. You hear a car start. You stand up, look into a far-off neighbor’s yellow window, and suddenly you’re in his house, in Morgantown. You trail behind him and wonder why he does not face you. You cannot see the mountainscape skyline you know slouches west, but you imagine the hills carved, split like a cherry between two teeth. How did we get here? you ask. What happened? He turns off the light and gives you your answer.
Amanda Gaines is an Appalachian writer and Ph.D. candidate in OSU’s creative writing program. Her poetry and nonfiction are published or awaiting publication in Yemassee, Redivider, New Orleans Review, Southeast Review, The Southern Review, Juked, Rattle, New South, SmokeLong Quarterly, Ninth Letter, and Superstition Review.