Tonight I fall asleep next to the new boy. We are so brand new that we swallow our snores, apologies spilling from our throats. It has only been three weeks. We are so polite we can’t even dream.
I insist on laying on my side. He on his back, because he bruised his ribs earlier this week, bruised them so bad he can’t even ride a bike. I tell him I’m sorry it hurts. He says, thank you and I’m fine, I’m fine, pushing my sorrys back towards me until they drift out of his bedroom, slow and unwelcome.
He is not fine. I know that because I can spy the grimace underlining his smile each time he exhales or shifts. We are still pretty new at this, so he is embarrassed to hurt in front of me and I am embarrassed too because I don’t know how to hold it yet.
Last Saturday at the party the woman on the fire escape asked us if we were a couple and we paused before her question, each of us pulling drags from our single cigarette before Alex finally answered, “Um… I don’t think so.”
“Yeah… we’re friends.” I added.
And that is the best combination of answers we could’ve come up with, like if we were pulling answers out of a hat we would’ve been magicians.
In his bedroom we are boy and girl. I am not sure how to care for him but I know that I am doing it slowly. He is slow too. He doesn’t call me every day or invite me to dinner and I think he is in love with the woman before me because he cannot stop talking about her without the subtle shade of twilight behind his eyes so I am sort of off the hook in that way and that’s nice because I know that twilight too. I know that twilight so well that sometimes I can’t even walk along the water.
We pass the time flipping through old photo albums and laughing at the pictures of his skinny legs, the crooked point of a rifle, handwriting from the second grade. We exchange stories like old friends. It is the easiest thing in the world.
At night I don’t have much to give because it has all been spent on the man before him. I won’t have much to give in the morning either but I’m hoping that at some point I will. The radio promised me seven more years of heartbreak and I am just dying to let the breaking begin. I am just dying to fall in love more than once so I can come out the other end, fearless and broken, so I can look just like my momma, so I can call myself a grown up, so I can look God in the eye.
When it is time to go to bed he shifts his body careful and cautious. I move careful too, not because I have a rib injury but because I am trying to respect the gentleness, so I climb into bed as if my fragile is at the exact same level as his, as if we’ve been on the same page all along.
Once we are settled I slip into his chest and he pulls me by the hipbone and it feels like we have done this a thousand times like it is instinct. It does not take much for the fumbling to begin. I am on top and he is beneath me. I am sure if the doctor knew what we were up to he would wag his finger and say, “That is poor recovery.” It is an hour, maybe two before we finally give it up and go to sleep. Our bodies have already told a thousand stories, they know each other better than we even know ourselves so we follow in their footsteps and wrap ourselves in each other’s warmth.
Hours later he wakes me in the middle of the night. A dark cloud funneling our mattress, he is wincing in between breaths, all shifty and clenched fist. I know he mentioned earlier, something about a muscle spasm. How his ribs will contract, wiggling beneath his skin. The sort of pain buried far beneath the surface,
I am half asleep but I hear him as if he is all tiny and whimper, like the little boy from the photo album all over again. “Your ribs?” I murmur, “Is it your ribs?”
“Yeah” is all he can get out, “yeah, sorry.”
I can hear his grimace. I can hear it in his whisper, his exhale, and all at once it feels like I am spasming too, my mouth curling herself into an open twisted shape.
And I don’t know why it hurts me to see him hurting but I can barely stand it. And everything feels so familiar. Everything feels like a home video, like I have laid in bed next to him wincing in the middle of the night a thousand times except I know I haven’t done this with him but I’ve done it with someone. I’m wracking my brain and I can’t remember, I can’t remember, then all the sudden, I do
It was Cassidy.
This was my sister Cassidy. Of course.
Then I feel my mouth curl again, sharper this time.
This was the mattress in the blue room upstairs. This was the whimper that I woke up to. This was her spine and the way that she arched it. This was the husband I could not bring back.
I remember hearing her voice rise up out of the darkness, a cry that strung itself into pitiful sounds, “Jimmy” she was begging, “Jimmy wake me up, wake me up, wake me up.”
Oh, I remember now. Alex’ whimpering knocks against my ear like a bell I cannot un-ring. When I hear him groan I feel like I am watching an explosion happen in slow motion. I pretend I am enclosed in a small case. I can see him through the plexiglass, I can see his curling mouth, his muted cries. I remember if vaguely, what it feels like to be human.
All of the sorrys I offered before are gone now. For a moment I lie so still, I could blend into the furniture.
I remember what the scientist said, how everything is made up of atoms, how atoms repeal each other so if you think about it we’re never really touching in the first place.
Something inside me falls. I look up at the ceiling because it’s unsafe to look anywhere else. I'm walking a tight rope. If I’m not careful I will spill this way or that and he and I are still pretty new at this so I am embarrassed to spill in front of him and he will be embarrassed too because he won’t know how to watch it yet.
This is the part where I reach my hand out in darkness. This is the part where I cradle his abdomen, run my fingertips along his spine, or scoot close enough for him to feel my heartbeat except my body won’t do it. I watch him groan. I know exactly what he needs, I know exactly how to give it. But I don’t.
In the morning I will feel guilty about this. In the morning I will wonder if I am a monster, a ghost, but not now. Not while I am so busy walking this tight rope.