Looking back, the efforts we made were desperate. We took walks. In bed, he fed me grapes; chilled, out of the refrigerator. We took weekends off work, spending money in small towns where there was nothing to do unless you had a field guide and a drinking problem. We drove hours out of our way, using all the gas in my car, taking detours at rock shops. I bought a jade pipe for $5 even though neither of us smoked. Or, I did, but not around him. In October, I moved 300 miles, thinking it the best way to break up. He still wanted to talk on the phone every night before bed. He said I love you as I pulled the phone from my ear, too late for me to respond.
Three weeks after moving to LA, I drove back to Oakland because I was horny and didn’t want to talk to strangers. I picked up Paul and drove an additional three more hours north so we could have sex in a cabin. Together, we were not creative.
I was already dizzy from the winding road when we stopped for bottles of wine. I looked forward to drinking. When he drank gin on ice he laughed more. He didn’t seem to notice when I stepped outside to smoke and came back glassy eyed, dry-mouthed, too tired to give a blow job. He’d pat me on the head and say that’s all right, let’s just go to sleep. He brought a thermos of rosé to a walk through the rose garden. I noticed, he said, that you like rosé. I asked him if he also happened to notice that I was a 25-year-old woman.
I missed the turn to park in the liquor store’s lot. Paul called me baby even when he was mad. Later, I would testify in the court of relationships: I didn’t slam the door. I closed it with purpose. I said I’d be right back, didn’t I? Then I’d turn to face the jury: What’s the big deal?
The liquor store had a meager selection. I made small talk with the proprietor and we both admitted we had no idea what vintage meant.
Paul was in tears. He would often cry when I treated him with anything less than doting affection. The first time, it scared me. He wailed in my bed. You don’t care about me. I wouldn’t let him leave my house that night. I was worried that if he had an accident, I would be held responsible. You are the worst. In the car, I adjusted accordingly. I learned to respond to his tantrums in a tone I would normally reserve for children and small pets. Soft. I was not actually mad, just mildly irritated, as anyone would be.
I drove 100 miles an hour. He gripped my thigh the rest of the drive. I focused on lint and hair accumulating on a sticky hand, the kind you win with two hundred tickets at an arcade. I braked harder to direct his hand from my leg. You should be softer on the brakes. I made a smile. Thank you, baby.
I had a corkscrew in my bag, opened the wine as he fumbled with the door. We sat in butterfly chairs on the deck, our heads craned. I tried to imagine stars. Families of pines obscured the sky. I went inside to drink. I tried to imagine I was in the movie Persona. I ate cheese cubes. I sucked on ice, bathed in refrigerator light. Full, I went to bed.
I was beginning to fall asleep when Paul crawled next to me – on hands and knees – and began the crying routine again. I told him to shut the fuck up, please. I stood on the bed, pulling a sheet from under him that I trailed behind me into the living room. The fire hadn’t been properly extinguished. Cinders sparked from charred logs. I poured a bottle of mineral water into the fireplace and fell into a dreamless sleep on a loveseat.
The morning of the accident I woke to the smell of bacon. Paul flipped pancakes. I pretended to be dead. Jazz saxophone played lightly through static on the AM radio, set between frequencies. He gave me a cup of orange juice in a paper cup. I drank it quickly, returned for seconds. I was very thirsty.
He held my knee under the table, even when it was more convenient to remove it, like when I was reaching for the maple syrup. Paul confirmed that what first appeared to be herbs in the syrup were hundreds of dead ants. It appeared that, in the cabin’s disuse, dozens of ants had crusaded into the plastic jug. Whole families had perished. I thought about mortality for a second but quickly moved on, pushing away my plate in disgust. I refused to eat. Paul scraped the syrup off to the side of his plate, ate quickly, dead ants on his fork.
Paul said he wanted to pick up sandwiches on our way to the pool. I was on a hunger strike. I shoved almonds into the pockets of my jean shorts, ate them alone in the bathroom.
It was just before noon that Paul became impaled on the wrought iron fence. The owner of the cabin neglected to leave a key for the gate. In a classic attempt at valor, Paul jumped the fence. I didn’t even want to go swimming.
I looked at the hole in Paul’s leg for a while. I was on the outside of the locked gate. I sprinted to the playground. A man sat watching his kids climb monkey bars. I could barely breathe. My boyfriend –how strange the words sounded coming out of my mouth – please help him.
I held Paul’s head and told him I loved him, which was a lie. I believed a person should hear they are loved if they are about to lose a limb.
Ten days later I drove Paul to have the stitches removed. I had to walk up and down two very steep hills to get to the hospital. I had brought Paul’s tote bag with me, which added an unpleasant imbalance to my gait. I opened the bag before walking through the metal detector. The security guard put his hand to his belt. Inside the bag were Paul’s kitchen knives and an apron, a small notebook and Sharpie.
I received a claim check at the safety locker and made my way to an outpatient room where he lay on a gurney. I held Paul’s hand and rifled through my mail, mostly bills I had been avoiding. I unsubscribed from spam in my email. The nurse took an ultrasound of his wound then opened his leg to drain out a clot.
I let Paul pick where we went for dinner. I told him we could even eat fried chicken. I drove to a Korean barbeque restaurant on a dim stretch of 56th and Shattuck. K-pop videos played bright and loud on every television. Neither of us heard the window of my car shattering. I ordered string beans. I took small bites, one bean at a time. I drank ice water.
Paul’s leather backpack was stolen but the Heath Ceramics pieces I recently purchased remained. At least we can be relieved, I said to Paul, the criminal did not have elevated taste. What the hell do you mean by that? Paul leaned on his crutches, the way the doctors tell you not to do so you won’t get a pinched nerve. Don’t do that, I said. It’s in the notebook. It seemed redundant to bring up the fact that my car had been broken into, so I drove him to get a milkshake. It was very cold in the car.
I left to LA the next morning. I drove ten miles over the speed limit and smoked five cigarettes. I spit sunflower seeds into an X-tra large Styrofoam cup that said CELEBRATION with pastel confetti. I stopped at McDonald’s in Burbank for French fries and a vanilla cone. I did some deep stretches using the tables as leverage and completed a set of calisthenics. I took pictures of myself in the bathroom.
Getting off the freeway I played Feel No Ways so loud my car shook.
And now you're trying to make me feel a way, on purpose
Now you're throwing it back in my face, on purpose
Now you're talking down on my name, on purpose
And you don't feel no way, you think I deserve it
I parked my car crooked and two feet from the curb. In my bedroom, I made a mess of unpacking. I lay on the bed. I made a strong cup of chamomile tea and pressed the teabags into my eyes. I dabbed lavender oil onto my pressure points, behind my ears and temples. I did my breathing exercises. I turned off my phone. I dreamt of water. I sat on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. There were no birds in sight. There was no breeze. I looked through binoculars, watching the blue turn green and grey and back to blue.