1. At sixteen years old, I have “never been kissed,” a phrase I find politically and personally loathsome. I am six feet tall, capable of biking eighty miles a day—I do not require someone else to impose kissing onto me.
One day, at the local park, a tall, loose-limbed boy with purple pants and a pronounced walleye says hello. I show him my learner’s permit—why? I don’t know—but then we exchange numbers, and so it begins. He is a math Olympian with an endearing dorkiness whose first show of affection is to lend me his LP of Crass’ Penis Envy. On the front cover: a close-up of a blow-up doll’s face, with a forever-willing, perfectly round, gaping hole of a mouth. Never having listened to or even heard of Crass, I wonder if I should be insulted.
At home, alone, I listen to Eve Libertine howl and rant and am awed and humbled and giddy with want. My lover and I, we kiss the big, wet, sloppy kisses of the inexperienced. I pine for more. What does his chest look like, his penis, his armpits, the slope of his lower back? The fifth child of nine, he seems nervous about doing anything but holding hands. “I want to kiss you more,” I say, a complaint veiled as a come-on. “Let’s not do this ever again,” he replies. This is the first time I feel betrayed by my own desires but it won’t be the last.
2. I awake to the feeling of sunlight on my face. I’ve slept late again. I blink my eyes open and take in my surroundings, as familiar to me as my own face. The sun is bright. The house is quiet. The walls of my bedroom are painted lavender and the ceiling off-white. I chose the colors and mixed the paint and draped the furniture. I picked which roller, which brushes, which pan. My father helped with the ceiling and trim. I remember the pleasurable tug and release of peeling the tape from the edges of the window frames. My father—a small pearl of spit moved from the doctor’s top lip to his bottom and back again as he spoke. I remember the spit, watching it move: it looked like a maggot, as if the doctor had eaten a bowl of them for lunch.
3. A child’s toy top could spin indefinitely in a perfect vacuum. But even with friction and gravity in play, a top doesn’t stop abruptly unless it collides with another object. Left alone, it will wobble first, unstable, still spinning, still in motion.
4. It’s Monday morning and we have an appointment with the funeral home. I have showered and dressed for the occasion. My sister’s boyfriend has made breakfast but I can’t sit in one place and the idea of eating makes me nauseous. There is a knock on the front door. I am closest so I go to the door and open it a crack. A neighbor from across the street is there. He is around my father’s age. He coaches football and has two kids of his own. He is a decent man. He is holding an enormous platter of food. He says, “I’m so sorry.”
I open the screen door and take the platter from him. Do I remember to say thank you or even hello before I close the door in his face?
There are deli meats and cheese cubes and anemic-looking carrot sticks. There are grapes and watery pieces of cantaloupe speared with toothpicks topped with cellophane flags. I take off the large plastic top to more carefully examine the obscene, ludicrous display of abundance. I see now that there are small pieces of brownie, and I pick one up to sniff at it in disgust. I am alone in the kitchen, and I can hear my mother calling that it’s time to go. I stuff the brownie cube into my mouth and chew, because what the hell. I take three more and stuff them in. I see now the chocolate chip cookies, and I take two and a cube of Swiss cheese. Eating feels ridiculous and outrageously banal—that my hunger and my father’s death coexist gives me vertigo.
5. We enter a large, darkened room with hardwood floors. A few feet away, a table, covered with a white sheet. Without warning, the director flips down the sheet to reveal my father’s corpse. My sister gasps. His skin is gray. I try to put my hand on his cheek but his skin is more repulsive to me than anything I’ve ever felt—more repulsive than the fetal pig, hard and slippery and stinking of formaldehyde, that wriggled out from underneath my grip as I tried to wrestle its eyeball from the socket in the name of science. I am struggling to reconcile this repulsion I feel for this corpse in front of me with the love I have felt for my father for my entire life. At first I feel ashamed that I cannot love this thing, this hull, but then I begin to feel angry and cheated and suspicious. In the hospital my father’s body was still his own. His face was soft, placid, beautiful; his skin still warm to the touch; his hair soft and delicate. In the hospital, I held his hand in mine, and his fingers, still malleable, closed ever so slightly around my own. Now his fingers are ice cold and as hard as granite. This thing, this cold, inanimate pile of flesh and bones is not the same thing we left in the hospital. Where has my father’s body gone?
6. My mother is in Michigan. My father is dead. I am a virgin. I invite boys over. The boys and my best friend and I smoke my dead father’s menthols and drink my dead father’s gin. I invite one of the boys to the living room and I pull down his pants. I put his cock in my mouth and suck on it. The boy offers to lick my pussy, but I’m not interested. What I am doing has nothing to do with pleasure or intimacy or kindness. I don’t know the boy enough to determine whether I like him. I don’t want him to be my boyfriend or lover or friend. Part of me believes that if I degrade myself enough, my father will come back from the dead to save me or punish me. Or maybe I am punishing him, punishing the memory of him. I want to know what it’s like to not care.
7. It’s hard to fathom how the body of a grown man, aged 52, height 6’5”, weight 210, can fit into an aluminum can not much bigger than a tin of Planters roasted peanuts. The word ashes make me think of the feathery ash that filled his favorite ashtray, a shallow turquoise bowl I made for him in my third-grade pottery class. I made it for him because he smoked. There was nothing in the creation of it that seemed strange to me. My father smoked. He did yoga. He taught Milton and Shakespeare. He drank beer. The sun rose in the mornings and set in the evenings. I loved him.
8. My father was alive at noon, at one, at two. By three, he was dead. It is hard not to feel like this sort of math could apply to everyone I love. I become vigilant, obsessive about details—where, when, how my mother will die. The goal is to preempt death. I didn’t think my father would die, but he did, so maybe if I think everyone I know and love will die, they won’t. This method proves to be psychologically exhausting and terrifying but profoundly successful: My mother doesn’t die. My sister doesn’t die. My best friend doesn’t die. No one dies!
9. When I graduate high school, I get a job as the cashier/soda jerk at the Italian restaurant next to Stop-and-Shop. My uniform is black pants, a white tuxedo shirt, and suspenders. I work nights. One of my responsibilities is to restock the ice cream counter at the end of the night, which requires a trip to the large walk-in refrigerator at the back of the kitchen. The cooks, all male, many of them not much older than myself, think it’s incredibly funny to turn the light off while I am in there. I can hear them giggle as I am forced to grope my way through the absolute pitch-black, knocking my shins against metal trays of marinating steak. Although I am a 17-year-old girl alone in a cold locker, I don’t fear for my safety. I am terrified of many things—my mother’s death, my sister’s death, bankruptcy, losing the house, losing my mind—but I have not yet learned to see my body as vulnerable.
10. To worry about money feels crass and petty. I hate myself for thinking about it, but without any income, we are going to lose the house, which means not only losing the house I grew up in and the comfort of continuity but also the land and everything that grew on it.
When it happens, we lose my father’s rose garden, the salamanders in the basement, the wild raspberries in the back yard, the lilac tree, the elms. We lose the hummingbird that visits in spring, the worms, the frogs, the beetles, the owls that hoot at us when we can’t sleep. We lose the lily of the valley patch, the rhubarb, the bank of pines where I’d taught myself to climb. We lose the mosses and lichens that bloom in the dark cavernous pathways after it rains. We lose the honeysuckle, the dogwood, the Japanese maple with its purple leaves, the chipmunks and the crabapple trees and our sledding hill and the local skating pond and the dirt roads where I bike down the middle without any fear of getting run over. I lose being a five-minute walk to my best friend’s house and a twenty-minute bike ride to the nature preserve where we used to spend hours wandering around without GPS or phones or even watches, picking crayfish from the sandy river beds and pretending to be pioneers in an unknown land.
11. I go to college. No one knows my father, so I pretend he isn’t dead. Or maybe he was never alive. Or maybe I didn’t love him. Or maybe he was never home, always working. Or maybe he hadn’t tutored me, read to me, put me to bed, taken care of me when I was sick. Maybe he abandoned me when I was little. Maybe I didn’t care one way or the other about him. Maybe he was like a sofa, serviceable but replaceable.
Springtime arrives. Trees bloom, the birds come out, everyone is in a good mood. Q and I begin spending more time together. We exchange combat boots and mixtapes. We spend hours lying in bed talking, not kissing, not fondling, just adjacent, like a pair of chaste nuns. Why can’t we kiss? Because Q has a girlfriend back home, because he loves her, because they’ve been together for so long.
So instead of kissing, we eat all our meals together, hold hands during lecture, and wrestle on the lawn in front of our friends. I am happy to like someone and be liked in return. I begin to want more, a more he can’t give. I weep, but it is a tender weeping. To think about something other than the impending death of everyone I love feels like progress.
12. A few months before my father died, I had a dream that aliens came into our house. Terrified, I hid underneath the dining room table and then watched as one of the aliens cut off my father’s head. I didn’t remember what the aliens looked like or sounded like or how many there were. I remembered only how his eyes fixed on mine, as if in judgment. I felt that by not intervening, I had killed him. When I awoke, I was determined not to tell him about the dream, but the image of his head severed from his body kept coming back to me. That night, I finally told him, hoping, I suppose, that by telling him, I’d forget; but of course telling him only reinforced the memory of the terror and shame I felt in the dream. But then, there is also his response: “You know you don’t have to tell me everything.”
13. One night, I was invited to a party by a boy I liked. I wore my favorite sundress and went to the party. The boy I liked was there, along with two of his friends. No other guests had arrived. There was a pot of basil on the kitchen windowsill. I commented on how healthy it looked. The boy I liked made me a drink. It tasted sweet. When I awoke, it was pitch black. I wondered if I was dead. I couldn’t feel my toes. I reached out and felt a wall. I began to see the outline of shapes and I determined I was lying on a bed on the far side of a room. I had no memory of going into the room, lying on the bed, pulling my underwear to my knees. Because the room was so dark, it took me some time to find my way out. When I did, the lights were on but the house was empty. I walked home by myself and went to bed. The next morning, I went to work at the co-op and arranged fruit. I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I didn’t say anything to anyone because I hoped that by not telling, I’d forget.
It’s been twenty years. I have not forgotten.
14. One of my favorite memories of you was when I had to get my wisdom teeth removed. I remember quite clearly sitting in the dentist’s chair speaking with the nurse while she prepped my arm for the needle. The cotton ball, heavy with rubbing alcohol, felt cold against the inner crook of my elbow. I remember the drug the nurse injected into my arm looked like strawberry soda. I had read somewhere that sometimes when people are put under, their brains remain on, like a faulty switch, and they can see and hear and feel everything but are unable to express the horror to anyone until it’s over. I worried that this would happen to me but the next thing I knew I was on my back in a strange room. I had no memory of the surgery itself or of being moved from the operating room to the recovery room. I had no memory of what tools they used to keep my jaw open or cut open my gums and pry out the impacted teeth. I had no memory of my blood and spit being sucked out from my mouth so that I wouldn’t choke, and I had no memory of the wounds being stitched closed, the needle piercing my flesh.
What I do remember is how happy I was to see you beside me, how comforted I felt. And I remember how tenderly you cared for me in the days after, how you helped me pull the bullets of gauze, heavy with blood and pus, from the back of my mouth, and how, reduced to an infant-like state of need and want, I stayed in bed, my head propped up by pillows, my body atmospheric and distant from the painkillers.
After a few weeks, my gums healed properly and I was able to get the stitches removed, but for months after, I’d prod the scars with the tip of my tongue as if to learn by rote the new, unfamiliar landscape of my flesh.
Anna Potter was a James Merrill House writer-in-residence. Her writing has appeared in/on Front Porch Commons, Contrary Magazine, jubilat, among others. She can be found online at: annapotter.org & @_anna_potter