The last time I saw L, he had overdosed on Klonopin. I visited him once in the hospital, gave him a shitty card with the phrase “Get Well,” even though I had the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that he would not, no matter how hard he wanted to try. It’s not that he didn’t want to get better—maybe he couldn’t. Even though there were so many times I resented him, for drinking too much, for blaming his drinking on his friends as if anyone forces you to drink, for forgetting to show up, for always getting what he wanted, for the stupid faces he would make during sex, I still couldn’t help but look at his arms—suddenly so frail and childlike—and love him. I wanted to love him, to be the person that believes in him so much that he would be able to get out of his hospital bed, and walk with me. Walk with me to Central Park then the Met, then City Island—and never walk back to Brooklyn or all the places we hate but go to anyway, especially when it snows.
He called me Baby Girl. Didn’t say anything else the entire time and I knew he was thinking of his mom whose cancer flared up again. She was supposed to be better. She was supposed to survive. But there are a lot of supposed to’s in the world. I knew, too, the way he said my name that he resented me too. For being timid, for never knowing where I want to go, for doing what everyone else wants to do, for being quiet, for being a victim, for being impatient, for wanting too much, for not wanting enough, for not asking for what I need, only what I want. We only knew each other for a year, but it felt like forever. But not the kind of forever you want to last, the kind where you’ve been together for too long and it’s time to go.
How can you comfort a lonely person when you are alone? How can you reassure someone that there is love and magic and reason for them to be alive when you aren’t sure you believe it? L saw that in my eyes too, saw the impostor that I am—and this is why he will never get better. Because none of us believe this lie. I so badly wanted to, even if just for you, L. I didn’t say this to him, just held his hand, maybe for the last time. He could tell.
I love you, I told him. I love you and I'm sorry I’m fucked up. I’m sorry I can’t be what you need. I said this to him as if he wasn’t even in the room, as if this isn’t the last thing he needed to hear right now—after trying to kill himself. He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time, as if feeling his body move for the first time, as if he were just born, as if he were an animal chained inside a cage surrounded by the most beautiful flowers you’ve ever seen, but could never touch. I wanted to believe he looked freer, happier. He didn’t cry or yell or try to make me stay. He never tried to make me stay.
The first time we met, he said no one could ever tame me, called me Baby Girl, called me Cleopatra. And the sad thing is, he was right. Part of me didn’t want him to be right. Sure, I lived with K even then, but we were already poly, something I wanted.
Maybe I’ll see you around sometime. I’d like to stay friends. And then I left. He texted me two hours later, saying, please don’t leave. I said I wasn’t, that I could never, but were we even right for each other, in that way? Could we keep pretending? Should we? He didn’t respond, but I could see he read the message. I thought of X, how only months before she drowned. She left. L barely knew X, but I wondered if somehow X influenced him, gave him this strange sense of hope in something else—in the possible world that exists beyond ours. I wonder if X saved him, if she somehow got his roommate to check in on him at exactly the right moment. Maybe there is still hope.
My mother called me after I left. I let the phone ring and ring in my bag until it didn’t. I let it go to voicemail. When I got home, I slipped into bed and stared and stared into the corner of the ceiling until it was just a black blur.
I couldn’t tell if I was awake or had just woken up or had woken up in a dream or if the dream was suddenly a new reality—but there I was in the middle of a lush garden surrounded by women dancing in dresses like cobwebs, a man with blue skin blowing into the ear of a nearly naked woman. It was like a Botticelli painting—like “La Primavera.” Except then I was the woman and the man was blowing into my ear, thousands of whispers and secrets filling my body likes curses, like gifts. I couldn’t make out any of the words, and yet I also understood them.
His face turned to mine, I could smell his breath—putrid like a dead body, as if there was another body rotting inside his—because his body glistened and glowed like life had never even seen it before. Or like life had never seen her body before. But she wanted that smell spread all over her, inside her pussy, her mouth, like a cool liquid. His face turned to L then to Uncle P’s then back to his then to mine then to Z’s. Who are you, I whispered back. Who are you?
And then he disappeared, and they all disappeared and I was holding a child. I was breastfeeding a baby boy—and I hated him. My body felt the kind of revulsion no matter is supposed to feel, or any human should feel for another living thing, but I wanted it off me, I wanted it to stop taking from me. My insides screamed. The baby knew I hated him, that I didn’t want him. So he stayed and seemed to smile, so large and unnaturally, I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move. My body was locked.
I opened my eyes but still couldn’t move. There was nothing I could do. I could still feel the baby suckling at my breast, his teeth digging in and feeling as if blood was seeping out onto my belly and the sheets. But there wasn’t anything there. It was just me. The whispers and the wind and the wind and the whispers were still echoing inside my crammed body, full of ugly organs that kept me alive.
And then I remembered the sister that I never had, the brother who went away to college before I could really remember him, the mother who never was home, the father who was always there but wasn’t there. I remembered all of the boys and all of the girls and all of the jobs and none of it really mattered. And yet, it all mattered. All of it. Even the times I cried in the bathroom stall at my first real job, because I fucked up a conference call or because I didn’t know where the closest restaurant to take clients to was. Because I was a mess. Because I would wake up and my fingers would be numb from anxiety and fear. Because men would follow me home at night, call me baby, call me mama, tell me my breasts were beautiful and I didn’t feel like a woman. I never wanted to be a woman or a woman. I wanted to be something else, something neutral, something all-encompassing.
Maybe, I thought, this is what L felt all along. And why couldn’t I see that? Why did I leave? Why am I always leaving? And yet, why do I never leave?
Joanna is a finalist in Rag Queen Periodical's 2017 Fiction Contest.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.