Watercolor and ink on paper with digital overwork

Hope Henderson



I keep your memories, or shadows of your memories. Memories once removed. I remember, for instance, the woman you loved before me, the one I never met: her hair blond and damp in your hands, her legs in bright tights and shorts. The creaking floorboards of the old house where you met, at the last house party anyone ever went to, beer on her breath and on yours, the bare wood slippery in spots. I remember her uncle who bought fish on the docks at sunrise and cleaned and cut them for you. I remember her last lover before you, a memory twice removed: he must have had dark hair and a mustache and her hand wrapped around the crépey skin of the back of his neck before he went home and looked down at the sleeping pile of his wife in their bed. I remember how your memory failed when you were apart from her, which was often; how you thought of her only fondly, and how all your love for her surged up in you again when she was there in front of you, wet blue eyes in focus, that last time.

We had sex during an earthquake, you told me on a long car ride where we talk about books, and past lovers, and stop to buy ripe, irregular tomatoes at the side of the road. I minded the tomatoes in brown paper next to my feet; I held my jealousy in my lap and punched it down and down like dough. We had sex during an earthquake, and that was all you said, but I remember the rest. I know she was under you; that of all possible kinds of sex, you were two White people having sex in South America in the style we call missionary. I see the twin bed, and the bright, woven blanket. I see her whiteness spreading under you like spilled paint, and you, slim and tan, moving over her.

And then the bed shakes. The walls shake, and the paintings in their frames shake on the walls. The bedposts rattle against the wall, too, your legato now staccato. You stop moving, and look at each other. And then you laugh, still joined, while the world tries again to fall apart.



Let me play a song for you, you said on a different drive, and I leaned in and closed my eyes and let your Jeep rattle me. It was a song about trains and about suicide, and the woman’s voice had been run over on gravel. Wow, I said, sexy.

I dated her, you said, and my heart stopped and my blood stopped and my nails turned blue. We’d talked about other women, of course, but here is her face on the jewel case, miniaturized between my hands. And she is beautiful, and bare-shouldered, and she sings like a rusty-throat ghost. I sat, silent and cold, my own voice lost.

We only went out a few times. And then I went out of town, and she got back together with her ex, you said. I was out of town for two weeks and he stole my girlfriend! But it was probably better for her. He was in the industry, too. He could help her with her career.

You went on talking about him: the ex of your ex. My ex, three times removed.

I listened to the song a few more times, later, on my own. I looked at her shoulders, her spindly arms, and then my own arms, strong and thick with muscle and fat. I looked at her pretty, pointed face. The women in my family are better described as handsome: big, straight noses, square horse teeth.

Her face is framed in curls on the album cover, and I see you two in a restaurant at night with big windows. I’ve taken the restaurant you and I went to in Santa Cruz and moved it to Nashville; I’ve put the thin dark around you. You are the only two people in the room. You are dressed well, in a navy suit; she’s in something strappy, something that shows those glass shoulders. Candles light your faces from below. You talk til late, and the dates always stop here, in the restaurant; she never takes you home. I am sure then that you never slept together, though you did of course, didn’t you? You must have. Years later, you still can’t listen to music by her ex-ex, her now-husband. 

The thing is, I can’t either. Even after we break up, I turn off the radio when he comes on, full of my jealousy, and yours. When I still want you too badly, I remind myself of this—your wish for lives you don’t have, your FOMO we call it, using our hands to pull up the sides of our mouths—and that nothing, not even love, can sate it.




When I was younger, you told me, I only liked, like, scarily thin women. Now that just seems boring.


Your ex-wife did not eat meat. I remember what she did eat, what you ate together: scrambled tofu, bright with turmeric and lime; salads with tarragon, parsley, alfalfa; hummingbird cake from that bakery in Atlanta, nuts and cinnamon and rose water baked in a bundt pan. She liked formal dinner parties, you told me, with your lips in that half-smile of disdain that turns my stomach a little. There was something she valued in propriety and tradition, something in the core of her that was sparkling and hard. She was thin, and her desires were, too.


We’ve all been vegetarians, of course. You eat fish now, and I eat fowl, and lamb, and make soup from pork bones I buy at the Chinese grocer. At night, on my back, your face would get stormy as you ran a hand up my soft body. I want and want and want you; nothing here is thin. You look so good, you would say, always those words, always that cloudy, concentrated expression.


You didn’t have much sex the last years of your marriage. I wasn’t very interested, you told me, and I saw the brick house on the corner that you bought together. Your wife goes up the stairs to your silent bedroom at the end of a long shift at the hospital, still in green scrubs and white sneakers. You rise in the morning, tracing her steps back down hours before she wakes.


You found an old church pew at an antique shop, for the living room of the brick house I never saw. I remember you lying on your back with your knees hinged over the armrest, and reading, holding the book up over your face with both arms.


It took a long time for me to figure out how to have the kind of sex I want, you said.


My jealousy swelled up like something sprained or broken. I didn’t ask more. Whoever taught you, taught you well.


She was the best friend I ever had, you said, and I see you and your wife walking over red rocks in Arizona. But I know she went on the trip to Arizona without you. I stop, revise the image: she is alone in the red desert watching a lizard do his binocular push-ups and then slip into the fissure of a rock. I know it was in the peace of that moment, hearing nothing but her own beating heart, that she decided to leave you.


So you are not in Arizona together. I correct the memory: you are climbing mossy boulders together in Tennessee. This is where she is the best friend you ever had. I remembered this statement when you crushed my hand in yours as your mother talked and talked, pouring you the orange juice you had refused, and I was kind to her because you could not be. I remembered this when I laid out a take-out feast of our favorite Szechuan—spicy cold noodles, dry-fried fish, green bean jelly, the soup with pickled mustard greens and silken tofu that we were always trying to recreate—to celebrate your new job. I remembered this as I wrapped the headphones I bought for your new commute, chosen to shield you from the screaming subway tracks. I remembered this kneeling over you, digging my elbows into your sore back, and in the morning, lying still in bed for an hour, not moving til you woke.


Were we always having these conversations in your Jeep, or is that just where I remember them? What I couldn’t take was all the lives you’d accrued, stacked out of reach. You, too, you said, and fear ran between us like a live wire.


Your house with your wife was on the corner, in a neighborhood with so many barking pibbies and people sitting on their screened porches late into the humid, buzzing nights. In our apartment, with the buckling ceiling and the sink so narrow we had to wash dishes on the diagonal, I was nauseated remembering that big, beautiful house.


I just can’t think about it, you told me, and there were facts of my life like this too, that I couldn’t think about or I would go mad, that I wished someone else would hold for me a while, the way I hold your memories and your pain at losing that red house and that wooden pew. I’d have held any hot coal you gave me, for as long as you said.


I hate that you were married, I told you.


I know, you said. 




I would say you’d never tell me what was wrong, and you’d say there was never the right time to tell. I’d say you spoke to me with contempt; you’d say you didn’t remember. I’d say you betrayed me, and you’d say but you didn’t actually leave, you only threatened and threatened to. I’d say you broke it, and I tried to put it back together.


I love you so much it drives me a little crazy sometimes, I said, laughing.


It drives me crazy sometimes, too, you said, your voice mean as gin.


I left. You’d say I betrayed you. I’d say I was only calling the time of death, and fuck you for making that my job, too.




Four months since we split. Eight weeks since we’ve slept together. Not more than two or three days since we’ve seen each other; not more than a few hours since your name lit up my screen. We talk constantly, still.


And then you take a trip to Nashville, your last hometown. I drive you to the airport in your Jeep. I can’t say much; I am busy trying to make myself into stone. You say the space would be good for you, and I didn’t want to make it harder for you.


The door closes hard behind you, and I pull through the parking lot back into the street feeling like I’ve returned to my primordial form: solitude. In the morning, my guts are heavy and coiled as a boa. I empty my bowels again, and then again, and then again.


I know that a woman you wanted still lives there, the ex of a friend of yours; someone who I know enjoys oral sex of all three Latin names. You say nothing about her, or about anything, really. The daily tick tick tick of our messages slows to a single evening bell. I send you an ill-advised email raw with love and fear: When I imagine someone else’s flesh, it is alien, it is dead chicken meat, cold and slimy on the counter. You say nothing. You have gone away, and you have taken yourself with you. Her saliva is on every last inch of you, or I imagine it is. Every secret crevice, every last toe, has been mawed by her soft, pink mouth. I drive around Oakland, sick. Electric shocks of jealousy run across my face on insect feet.


So, I share a drink with a man. He has light hair, blond or dishwater brown. Wanting no one but you, I let him kiss me in the receding light. I let him press his body, hard, against me, a stone wall at my back. My own body stirs a little, mechanically, just enough to go through the motions.


We kiss more in the backseat of my car. I let him touch me a little.


I think I’m ready to go home, I say. He shoves me hard against the seat.  




I say it again, and he slams my shoulders back with both of his hands.




I pull the handle once, and again, and again, but the door won’t open. Someone has hit the child lock. I duck out from under him and tumble into the driver’s seat, heart racing.


I have to go, I say, staring through the windshield, releasing the child lock and then gripping the wheel till he gets out.


I speed away, a little disheveled, wet and scared. Brake lights glow in a red ribbon as far as I can see. I think of you with her, testing the wound, and my face stays flat. I can play your song again for the first time in months, and without much pain. 




It’s been a couple years since he’s been in town; too long since I’d seen him to know if I still wanted him, or if I could want him again. High, it didn’t matter. High, my body is just an animal, again. It can be coaxed, heated, worked between the fingers and melted like a slip of butter. 


So, I follow him back to his room at the W, and he pulls out his travel kit: grinders and flowers, cartridges and edibles. We vape on the couch. I get higher than I meant to. I lay back and let him touch me for hazy hours.


I like how you’re not even bothering to touch me, he says into the dark, But do you mind if I touch myself?


I don’t care if you touch yourself, I say in his ear, giving him what I know he wants. I don’t care if you come. You’re just here for me.


I see him twice more. I don’t touch him except to pull his mouth to me, except to wrap my hands around his throat.


This is all you’re good for, I say, fucking his face.


I don’t tell you, but I don’t take pains to hide it. Why would I? You are back but so far away that you are really gone, really done, you’ve left your love for me in Tennessee. That’s a country song, isn’t it?


I agonized, you write to me, angry that I wasn’t more discreet. Maybe just angry. I think about electric ants running over you; I think about your body lunging and lunging at an enemy you can’t touch. Whatever happens, wherever you finally shed your love for me, this happened, once: you agonized. I will keep this word in my pocket for years.




I want to talk to you about something, you say a few weeks later.


It must be Lilia, who we walked home from New Year’s Eve with. Lilia who dyes her hair platinum blond and keeps it an even inch long. Lilia who wears ripped denim shorts and sundresses and black combat boots that make her white thighs shake like Jello. It must be Lilia, your hands are unbuttoning Lilia’s shirt, Lilia is leaving your house at dawn, smelling like salt and bleach. Lilia’s lipstick is on a mug I gave you for your birthday. On the plates I let you take when you moved out, my grandmother’s milshig china, rests a fork wet from Lilia’s mouth.


No, not Lilia. Not Lilia whose very name now brings a clutch of pain; not Lilia whose blond shadow I banish from my mind. I borrow a friend’s ex, instead: Lydia, I think, with some relief. It is benign Lydia across from you at the café, brushing sugar off the top of a molasses cookie and tucking back her safe dark hair. Lydia is bruising her thighs on your hip bones. It’s Lydia whose ChapStick is stuck between your couch cushions, and it’s Lydia’s head that has left your pillow warm and smelling like laundry. Lydia’s dry, bearable fingerprints are on the gold and black condom wrapper I avert my eyes to avoid seeing in your trashcan. 


I can’t do this, I tell you. I cannot talk about this.


She needs me to tell you about us, you say.


I can’t, I say, gathering my knees to my chest, falling backwards in time.


You are literally keeping me from moving on, you say.


I am a baby, just quaked out of my mother’s body into the bright, antiseptic cell of a hospital room.


If we need to not talk for a while, I say, then let’s not talk. I can’t do this.


I am an egg inside my mother, alone in the black hallway of her fallopian tube.


I met her—you start to tell me, and I interrupt you, raising my breaking voice.


I can’t do this. I am half an atom. I am sobbing, wet fear.


Why didn’t you love me this much before? You say, your voice rough with frustration.


You don’t tell me her name or stop talking to me. I don’t know where she went.




One therapist says, Give it time. Another says, Novelty is the best way to get out of a tough emotion. Try a different flavor of coffee tomorrow! Another says, You just need to meet someone who really loves you.


I still have your psilocybin in the door of my fridge, in a Costco-sized aspirin bottle next to the ketchup. I grind four dried mushrooms into a powder and make the powder into a tea. I lay back on the white couch. My mood lifts. The pigeons on the power line throb with my pulse. And then it all shifts back down, over: no marching rainbows, no celestial beings descending from on high, no revelations.




I open a tab. You know: late night, alone, body wanting as bodies do. But she is every pair of long legs, every ripe, halved fruit between them. Every faceless, approaching cock is yours. With each image, a shock bisects my chest and stomach.


I close the tabs. I let my body ache.




Matthew tells me about going into the hills to walk and write poetry. We talk about what his students are reading, and he drives me around the Sonoma coast, pulling over to get bread at Wild Flour and then walking on the beach, where he recounts lesser-known Greek myths. Later, we tear at each other’s clothes.


Are you good? He asks, his eyes half-closed, his handsome face flushed from climax.


It’s my turn, I say. Can you give me a hand?


Okay, he says, smiling. And then he rolls over and falls asleep. I roll my eyes. I put the black dress back on. It is suddenly too tight, too short. I drive home as the sun rises over Petaluma.


Inside, up the stairs, outside the door to my apartment, you’ve left a jar of grapefruit juice, fresh from your press. Did you knock? Did you see the grave empty where I usually park my car?




At intermission I ask, Do you need any concessions? I mean, snacks.


We break into matching smiles.


Yes, I need many concessions.


I’m only offering snacks. 




On the advice of a friend, I see a shaman. Maybe I’ve knocked out the first two steps of the 12 steps: admit I am powerless. Turn to a power beyond me. Be willing to try fuck-all anything.


She is maybe 65, with a Jewish name and a beautiful house in the Berkeley hills. She is small, with well-kempt curls and dark lipstick—a wealthier, combed copy of my own, far mother.


She lights sage and wraps me in the smoke, bringing the sage stick from shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot. She drums around me in circles, shuckling, the vibration of the drum moving through my chest. She breaks into laughter.


I see a bear, standing in a clearing, she says. I see a bear, holding a baby bear. I see a bear, shitting in the woods.


She explains that this is my spirit animal.


Walk like Bear, she tells me, and I lumber around the room in circles, my chest caved and knees slightly bent, feeling only a little ridiculous.  


Talk to Bear. Cultivate a relationship.


I summon Bear in the mornings before I get out of bed. I imagine Bear enclosing me in warm, furry arms. I imagine Bear telling me that she will protect me. I do this every day for a month, hoping to work up a feeling, for the emotion to follow the ritual, like a shadow following a cart.



Austin insists I’d gone out with his ex at some point; he shows me photos pre- and post-transition. Pham preaches that the mind can overcome any bodily ailment while I glower at him from my bad elbow. Chris calls himself a mystic, which seems to mean that he wants to lecture me on all the Buddhist precepts I’ve already studied. Faolan eats raw ground beef at the Ethiopian restaurant. Saying goodnight by my car, I put my hands on his, and he recoils, startled, startling me. My face stays in a cringe, scrunched like old wrapping paper, the whole drive home.


Anand and I share a love for the Southwest and buttermilk waffles. We are on date number three when he kisses me just before my subway stop, and the scent of his body rises up like bad milk. Benjy and I make out in the back of the bar on Valentine’s day, and when he tries again to put his hands in my pants after I say no, I let him because it is easier than fighting or leaving. Calvin and Hobbes turned Landon into a radical. I like his drawl, and I like imagining those comic books stirring something in his chest in the hills of central Texas. After the date, I realize the only words I’d said all night were my drink order.




When Bear won’t come, the shaman says we’ll journey to the spirit realms and find another guide.


Picture yourself descending into the ground, she tells me, while I lie on her couch under a wool blanket, breathing her smoke.


Pick something familiar, like the roots of your favorite tree.


I imagine myself taking the elevator down into the Ashby BART station, swiping my Clipper card at the turnstile, and then taking the stairs down to the subway platform. People grab at my clothes, and I walk and walk, brushing them off.


When the shaman sounds her singing bowl to call me back, a zebra appears and gives me a ride. She lets me off by the stairs, and when I ask if she is my guide, she gallops off down the platform, down into the artery of the earth.




After sushi, Janelle sends me an epistolary text and a link to a news article about something illegal she did while drunk. I don’t read it or reply. After telling him about my graduate thesis research in genetics, Peter tells me the whole story of how Watson and Crick stole Rosalind Franklin’s data while I repeat, I know, I know. Ryan and I share my first cigarette in a decade, hand-rolled, and I beat him at Boggle, but when we make out on his twin bed, all I hear is your voice, your threats to leave. I see your half-smirk of scorn, and my body stays cold under his hands. Daniel always brings wine or expensive ice cream: marsala and blood orange, cardamom banana. He has good manners and a dirty mouth, but he doesn’t know what he wants, and I can’t build another castle on sand. I kiss Mel in her truck after our first date, and on our second, she boasts about the zingers she got in fighting with her ex.  

Cameron likes putting his fingers down my throat, probing the vestiges of my gag reflex. I like kneeling to untie his brown leather work boots and rocking them off his big feet. We discuss his writing in detail, but when I send him mine, he says no one really has the right to comment on someone else’s work, do they?

Mike is so nervous that he clinches at even the slightest touch; he is a tall, thin marathon runner who had been obese and celibate for years previous, and touch still frightens him. After a month of text banter, Zion buys me a cocktail with 11 ingredients including homemade elderberry flower bitters. I sort of feel a general life-shame, hovering around like a fat fly, he texts me after, and then flakes on our second date plans.





Were you betrayed? the shaman asks. That’s why you’re stuck. Her remedy, after my failure to befriend Bear or find another guide, is a fire ceremony.


She had me prepare by writing down what I wanted to let go of. I go to her house at dusk and she lights the fire pit. I rattle, and she drums. She sings. And then I read my words into the mouth of the fire.


As I go on, the drumming gets faster and more forceful, rising until it is almost frantic. Get out, she repeats. Be gone, she hisses, over and over, a small brown nut, a witch.


Finally I have said all there is to say. I have watched each sheet of paper, covered in pain, turn to orange, then to black, then to gray powder.


In the days after, when I feel jealousy expanding like a balloon in my chest, I pause and picture the paper burning.  Not mine, I tell myself, and watch it foam to ash.




At the wine bar in downtown Oakland, Obasi tells me about his childhood in Nigeria, his boarding school in France, his most recent ex. We sit outside on the lip of a fountain. It is a drought; nothing comes from the woman’s open, singing throat or her stigmata. We kiss, and it is good, but I don’t want to go home with him yet.


You could at least drive me, he teases.


I pull up outside his house and get out to say good night. He grabs me, laughing, wide smiling neon in the moonlight, and pulls me towards his house with real force. I pry one hand from my arm, but it grabs me again immediately, like a reflex. He is still laughing, pulling me with both hands, and in my fear and confusion, I echo his laughter back. I pull his hands off again, and they grab again, and we repeat this octopus dance until his tentacles tire and I am quick enough to get away. I do not go on another date for six months.


I tell you about this one, shaken and sobbing. You are sweet, you stumble on words, you put a cardboard arm around my shoulder. We sink closer together, water washing over shore.




I don’t know what breaks you from your months of Boundary: no flirting, only quick hugs hello or goodbye, no compliments, no accepting of compliments. Just that I lie down on the bed in my studio apartment, full and happy after our warm little Thanksgiving meal together, and you follow. Your lips are at the back of my neck, and you say, Can we just have sex and not talk about it? 


Yes, I say. 

I need you, I say, again and again, above you, my hair in curtains around your face.


Is this mine? You ask, touching one pink part of me after another. We can both pretend we are only talking about sex.


The next day, I wear the gray leggings I know you like. You slap my ass, and it’s on again. And again the next day. I am ecstatic. I am narcotic. I knew I may pay for it later; I cannot care. I am chemically unable to care.


And then we go to that comedy show at The Center, and you say something cutting on the way back, small but cutting, and I pull my skin down a little to show you my heart.


You just like fighting, you say, a snake tongue flicking behind your teeth.


Is that what you really think? I ask, sincere, dismayed, stomach fallen to the floor. You don’t answer for a full minute, lip curled, for the millionth time slicing my heart like a peach.




And so you are gone again. You text a little, but you aren’t really there. I see you a little, but there is a veil over your face. Six weeks this time, longer than your Nashville drought, the longest time yet.


And just when I get used to it, just when I can eat again, you come back. I keep my word: we never do talk about the sex. We hug hello or goodbye, and the scent of your neck flares my body into desire. I sit next to you so I don’t have to look at your pretty face. We resume our normal rituals: Saturdays combing through milk crates at flea markets, Sunday croissants, swapping books, weekday texts at all hours. But when I don’t answer for an evening, you never ask what I’ve been up to. I never ask about your Friday night plans. We know better.




It has been more than a year. But god, but in your ripped pajamas, legs folded up, the back of your thigh is exposed and strangling me. When you wear a tank top, I look away so I don’t trace the stretch mark arcing over your shoulder like a vein in marble, or propose.


I know, I know, I know. I need to get ahead of the jealousy that still makes me skip meals when you are away from your phone too long, and swipe, swipe, swipe, half-asleep, while the coffee brews the next morning. But I can’t seem to fall out of love with you, despite following Dan Savage’s advice to shellac oneself in the saliva of at least seven other people.


So I give up. We learn to live with bum ankles, bad backs, thumbs that throb when it rains. Maybe I just need to learn to live with this. Just one more pain, just one more always-broken part.


Every day, I tell myself the facts of it: You’re going to see someone tonight. You’re texting her now. You’re kissing Lydia goodnight at the end of a date. Your hands move up her body. Your hands are on her breasts. You’re touching that fucking slut. This thought exercise, this homemade exposure therapy, always devolves into this: slut, bitch, dumb whore.




Nate seems kind. Nate, it turns out, is kind. His gray pitbull shares the bed with us, and I rub her knobby brow when I can’t sleep. We are two kind people, with not much in common besides. We never hurt each other on purpose. We never lie. We are always trying to be generous. We make it three months. I think this is success.



Maybe I need an imaginary friend. When the moon is full, the woman from book club stews herbs and molasses and spoons the green-black liquid into a cup for me. She calls it Goddess Brew and suggests a bodhisattva instead. She says Kuan Yin is easy to call. I’d heard of Kuan Yin years ago: She tried to contemplate all the suffering of all the beings, the Zen teacher said, And her head exploded! And she tried again, and her head exploded again! Her head exploded 10,000 times before she could hold the suffering of all beings.

Kuan Yin, I pray that night, alone in bed, I need to feel your love. After repeating this same, simple prayer every night for two weeks, she finally replies, full of scorn: You don’t even believe in me.

Does that matter? I ask.

I go back to my Zen teachers, my Stoics, my Thomas Merton: those who praise solitude, who tell you to fashion your suffering into a paddle and let it beat and beat the dirt out of you. 




You and I are talking about Bluets and A Little Life and those Dorothy Allison essays I gave you and we are sitting side-by-side in the apartment that is just my apartment again, on the white leather couch that is just my couch now.


Light collects on your cheekbone, and I cannot stop watching this shining peninsula, this streak of sun, this glinting blade. You duck out from under compliments now, the same way my new cat darts out from under your too-eager hands. But my will is worn from keeping my hands to myself. So I say: In my next life, I’d like your cheekbones. And a good singing voice.


You only get this life.


You don’t know that.




Our first fight was about my staying late with an old friend, Adam, after cooking dinner together.


You are unable to manage your time, you said, face flushed and furrowed, though I’d only been out til 11, and on a Saturday.


Okay, I said. Can you tell me how you feel right now? Do you feel angry? Jealous?


I feel, you said, like you are unable to manage your time.


I dreamt about Adam that same night: he put his arm around me, slipped his hand under the neck of my shirt.


Do you need to push the temptation farther? Dream-Adam asked.


I’m an adult, I said, and walked away. 


Three years later, I am cooking dinner with Adam again.  He’s another reformed vegetarian, and we have been learning together to cook birds: quail roasted with grapes, black chicken in coconut milk, duck with cherry and bourbon sauce, the squab whose skeleton he boils in hydrogen peroxide and then pins together into a small sculpture. In our small apartments, our cooking is dancing: we are always weaving around each other, close enough to feel the air move.


It’s 80 degrees out, and I’m barefaced, in glasses, in shorts, in a tight, ratty, now off-white t-shirt I’ve had for fifteen years. Which is to say, I am shocked when he touches the small of my back. And then, again, sitting on the white couch after dinner, when he puts his hand on my arm and leaves it there. I stumble over words. A bird beats in my chest. His hand moves to my bare thigh, and I am dumb, sweating, thrilled: teenage.


We don’t kiss that night, just hug a long time before the lighted hallway swallows him, before the stairs disappear him, before his old Subaru sputters into life on the street below and carries him away at midnight. 


I’m so tired, I say, a week later, across a cup of afternoon coffee. Want to take a nap? Our eyes meet in a game of chicken. The stone of a plum blocks my throat. I cannot talk, but I don’t look away.


I’ll meet you at your place, he says finally.


It’s light out still. His hands are on me at once, and I really thought this would just be a nap, with maybe a kiss or maybe two if it went right, but he is at once and gently, and I am all embarrassment, looking down, but letting my own hands wander finally finally—blond hair, boomerang collarbones—and then I force myself to tilt my face up blushing, and his mouth is on mine, and I never thought this would happen and it is so natural, and I can’t stop being surprised about it, and we kiss on the white couch, teeth and tongue, and he is all California, hot, soft mouth, he is all blue eyes, he is all blond hair, he is all lank and freckle and muscle and sunshine, hard body, he is all easy street, and I never thought this would happen, and he leads me to my bed, and he puts his hands inside of me, and he pulls all my nakedness out like a magician pulling cloth after cloth out of a hat.


I read a story once that said, After the world ends, you will fall in love again. What terrorism! I am not in love, we are not in love, and we never will be, but I do love this dear friend, I do love and adore this beating heart friend, and there is love here in his bent fingers, there is love here in his eyes that watch and watch my face, though he’s never said those words, though when he finally does, I will simply say, I know.




The wound doesn’t just close up. The feathers don’t gather themselves from the kitchen floor and reform the cat-mangled swallow; Santa Rosa isn’t reborn from flame. But it is, somehow, bandaged over by his touch.


I still dream about your mouth now and then; it is not so often as before. I still have to look away from your beauty on occasion; it is not so often as before. I still desire you sometimes, cutting and lawless as the first time; I am usually safe so long as I stay away from your neck, so long as you keep your shirt on, so long as we’re not in close quarters on a hot day.


It gets better. It gets a little better. Sometimes it gets a little better.


Mostly I just get better at it.

Hope Henderson is a scientist and writer living in Berkeley, California. Her writing has been published in venues including The Rumpus, Hobart Pulp, and The Rupture. You can learn more about her and see her full list of publications at

Artwork: “vorübergehend sind wir hier” by Mirka Walter

Watercolor and ink on paper with digital overwork

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