I came into our room with hands red up to the wrists, having plunged them into the viscera of my body, an autumnal ritual, and it was you who washed them for me.
Slouched together by the dormitory sink and watching the crime drain away, it occurred to me that we might be good friends someday. But first the business of my misplaced desire, my dishonesty. All that and more crusted black under my nails. Cutting myself on the edge of your politeness, I asked if you missed your boyfriend.
I do, you said. We haven’t talked a lot lately.
“Maybe it’s the weather.”
You frowned. But I love fall.
The grime on the mirror only made you appear cleaner to me. I’d seen the high school photos, back when mother wouldn’t let you perm your curls straight. Golf shoes, pleated skirt, brown arms crossed around the necks of boys. I knew it wasn’t true, but I started thinking you were perfect. The long of your leg reminded me of rivers, the sad swimming brightness behind your eyes like some flower-powered magical girl’s. For much of the first year we lived together, I remember refusing to look at you, as if that would somehow prevent your opinion of me from spoiling. Later, I recognized it as shyness.
I, after all, did not possess half your charm; certainly not enough showmanship that I could punch my way through a house party and come home to applause from the neighbors. But you always seemed to find me funny. I wondered why you weren’t afraid. In those primeval days of August, everyone else saw the dark flat plane of my gaze, eyes driving hard and narrow into every moment like a knife into the entrails. I dragged my body behind me everywhere I went—a savage, wan thing that held together no matter how much I starved or battered it. It was vacuum-sealed tight around the shape of a rigid anger, it was blood-slick to the touch. Heavy were the limbs.
Autumn was the season of fire. Boys and houses burned pure white holes into the night, and I self-immolated in every room but the little one I shared with you. Though I struck rocks together by the windowsill and cursed your God, moved in and out of coherency, and later denied the flashes of grief like a criminal, you alone peered at me from your bed, almost amused, and had the wisdom to simply call my name. Yes, some mornings I hardly remembered it without your telling it to me between gasps of laughter.
Other times, you’d color-code your notes or phone your boyfriend (two years) to the watery background noise of me dousing the room in gasoline. Once I had my fun, you’d rub the sleep from your eyes, get up to fetch the pail, and motion me to follow.
Aren’t all men looking for that? Someone to wash out their dark, and through the unflinching dressing of their wound, love; that un-enunciated absolution. In that way, I am a man, too. I don’t have it in me to forgive trespasses or perform acts of service for worse things than I. Such inclinations ended the instant summer did. You must know that I am the one who needs you, running the water and pressing my hands palm-first into the clear cold.
But I love fall.
“Don’t see why.”
I cited unpredictable weather, horrible anxiety, no time to lay around and think. My love, which was not so much love as it was a black precipice or receding back or struck cheek buzzing, had perished in such a season—his unspoken name a lodged bullet puncturing out the other end of a suspended body, an ugly thing bleeding out onto the tile.
But life starts over again, you said. Everything turns beautiful.
“Or everything starts to die.”
Those are not mutually exclusive things. Looking at me and my unconvinced curl of lip, your eyes were strangely courageous.
There you go again. Teaching me something about, well, not heartbreak exactly. Its tender afterimages.