Good luck with your necrophilia, your roommate shouts as your boyfriend lumbers towards his car, your bruised body draped over his arms like wet laundry. With everything that’s been ripped or bitten or sloughed off, you probably weigh about ninety pounds, the bone of your right calf sanded down and tied in old rags. The crows crowded along your windowsill squawk, and as your roommate laughs and your boyfriend reminds him he isn’t funny, you pull up your sunglasses to wink at them. A single eye, yellow as bile.
Here is the scene: your roommate drinks a screwdriver out of a chipped mug, your fingers trace the faded scar of your name that pokes out your boyfriend’s sleeve, and the rest of the undead on your street pantomime old routines: walking invisible dogs; mowing lawns with invisible mowers; collecting piles of unread daily papers with limp, corroded hands.
And here’s the trite dialogue, feigning concern for your friend’s predilection for being hammered by noon, as if you all haven’t grown comfortable with the chaos, too. Oh God, they’re still talking.
You loll your head back and count the remaining brown teeth on the jawbone that sits at the edge of your neighbor’s driveway, picked pristine by ants. It’s comforting now, seeing how little bones change. Your—
—brother interrupts me as I’m writing this, the pungent scent of weed still on his clothes. His routine is to drive back from Athens every few weekends, get high with his high school friends, force our mother to watch some prestige television that he loves and that she doesn’t understand, get high again, and then knock on my door, tentative as a baby deer’s first steps onto the highway. He explains that he wants to experience simultaneous self-actualization and ego death when our father grows old and invalid and tells my brother that he’s proud of him. Like an old arcade game resetting your score to zero if you win high enough.
I show him how to tie his hair back with a silver scrunchie and reply that lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books about parents dying. Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters Remix, for example, has a secret, autobiographical last chapter about filming the movie Choke, about David Foster Wallace committing suicide, about Chuck’s mother dying.
My brother says that our family is the only thing between him and suicide. My brother says he wishes we were close again. My brother says I’m on too many layers of irony to meet him halfway.
I avert my gaze because the burn is starting to spread behind my eyes and I can’t stand—
—crying, their wings black gashes across the ashen sky as your boyfriend drives towards the beach. Up ahead, the clouds are smeared pencil scratches. A dirty whiteboard on the floor tap, tap, taps against your bootleg timpani mallet. It’s better to go to the beach during mildly shitty weather, your boyfriend explains, ‘cuz no one will be there to bother us. By which he means no busybodies will be there to snitch you out to the shotgun-toting lifeguard, nor children to see if they can pop your arms off.
He turns the radio up, but either the speakers are blown or your ear-drums are turning to soup, because all you can hear is an already scratchy voice thinned by post-breakup anguish. His fingers drum along on the steering wheel in what you assume is—
—the story I’m ripping off, Chuck’s “Zombies," where all the smart kids take the heart defibrillators off the wall of a school nurse’s office, stick an electrode on each temple, and bite down on their wallets. A DIY lobotomy, the new teenage epidemic, suicide without the ruined wallpaper and the friends left to remake beds in empty, limping silence.
When the main character is caught about to chew his wallet, too (and this must be the part Chuck refers to when he says that this story makes people cry at workshops), the whole airport grabs hands and chants, one stranger at a time, You hurt yourself, you hurt—
—Me too, scrawled in sloppy, faded Expo when your boyfriend says he’s hungry. The zombie currently plastered atop the drive-through’s white arrow alternates between exploring the tire tracks in his sunken chest and waving at passing cars to peel him free.
He’s been here since last night, the cashier giggles joylessly. We’re a little too short-staffed right now to send someone out there.
The zombie gives another disheartened garble in response, but your boyfriend says, It’s alright.
He doesn’t ask you to translate. Instead, he parks before the tilted arches, greasy heat wafting into your nose, and reaches behind his seat for your cooler. Raw sheep brains, the ethical zombie’s veggie burger, to stave off the agony of being dead. The meat is a sweaty brick in a plastic bag, its biting chill boring trivia against your skin. You chew and chew and swallow a few pieces of your remaining teeth, but you don’t tell him.
He smiles, asks, ‘S good? through a mouthful of fries.
In the wing mirror, a mud-splattered truck, honking in triumph, shifts into reverse to run the other zombie over—
—again I revise this story to lessen the embarrassment. I wrote the first ending for my boyfriend two years ago, imagining, as I often do, his death or our divorce. I cried writing it and he felt nothing because it was fucking garbage. Two years later, I have yet to write him a satisfying love letter; all but my most flaccid, overwrought poetry leaves me whenever I try.
Anton Chekhov, in two letters for fellow writer Lydia Avilova, wrote, When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder—that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold.
My most recent effort is on a crumbled CVS receipt left to rot at the bottom of my drawer. The handwriting is so small and frenzied as to be nigh indecipherable, but a few choice lines are: He is my soulmate precisely because soulmates do not exist and realizing all over again how I am always running out of time and I say this with no butterflies in my chest or giggling excitement. I say it because it is a law governing the universe.
When I think of how much I love him, it looks and sounds a lot like a wound I occasionally debride for lack of other distractions.
Yes, what a wonderful thing to tell him for Valentine’s Day: I love you like my mother’s—
—relapses, slipping in and out of his arms, of your mother tongue he’s done almost nothing to learn, of feeling each cell die like millions of tiny collapsing stars. You’re having a good week, though, at least in comparison to these last three days, these last two months, these last five years. Your mind can’t help but wander, however, while he drives, his eyes on the road, on his mirror, on the exit still a mile away.
The last time he drove like this was when his first girlfriend had cheated. He’d called you for a midnight drive, playing staticky songs from his phone until both of your signals were swallowed up by empty miles of concrete and kudzu. The silence crackled in your chest. Out the window, you had watched the trees flash past and remembered your childhood fear that in-between each one was a hungry werewolf racing you home.
When he’d finally pulled back into your driveway, he’d cried, and you had rubbed his shoulders and said—
—that for months he replayed that last voicemail from his mother. One of my favorite of Palahniuk’s books belongs to a series about processing his parents’ deaths. He’d said in an interview that he’s figured out how to make God and Lucifer reconcile, and that when he's done, he'll have finished grieving, too. The last book came out eight years ago.
He also says, Every story is an experiment in collecting, organizing, and presenting details. . .Yes, all of this effort is being expended to preserve the memories of one person. . . I mean, I keep quilting together these moments I’ve loved, but as per usual I’ve failed. The heaped-up truths, they’re already starting to teeter sideways.
When I write this, my little sister has been out of inpatient for a few weeks. The night before she left, she curled up on my bed in the same spot where my brother would later sit, and asked me to listen to Miley and Noah Cyrus’s “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” with her.
Another thing my brother mentioned was the inevitability that I and our sister will be all he has left in the world.
Heavy in my chest was the temptation to ask my sister for permission to sleep in her bed, the same way she had asked for mine while I was away at college. Her handmade WELCOME HOME TAYLOR sign, all markers and construction heart and tissue paper roses, still hangs from my door. Her milk bottle soap still sits growing smaller on my sink.
During the song, she scrawled me a note to be read after she was admitted. It is only four sentences. It is better than anything I’ve ever—
—written across his face as he helps you out of the car, the soft roar of the waves like a faint bassline under the pleased shrieks of birds. Easy now, your boyfriend says, looking through you; Hang onto me. Your one good arm around his neck as he carries you down the sandy bridge to the shore, vultures dancing over the pallid carcass of a beached whale. The sky is still gray, but the wind doesn’t box your ears the way you’d expected it to. Maybe he’d planned for a rainy date, the kind you two once had after soccer practices, splashing through mud puddles in his battery-powered racecar.
One of the vultures stares at you.
Even a good hundred feet away, you want to ask him to move, but he doesn’t seem to hear your little noises of discomfort. He doesn’t flinch as his—
—grandmother was found unresponsive in the big, beautiful house her dead husband built for her. She was on the floor; she was covered in vomit. She has improved with IVs, but doctors don't know what exactly went wrong. Cancer has already eaten so much of her that last year she had her eyebrows tattooed back on. Every time I see her, I have a list of things to forget.
Before I learn that she’s stabilized, the news rests snugly in my stomach like a fist around which the rest of my body curls. Downstairs, I can hear my father and brother laughing. I realize maybe love is her chirp of recognition (Oh, it’s an Emmett!) at the hobo clown statue I bought her from an antique shop. The way she tracked down my address to mail me a thank-you letter. The way her Christmas lights twinkle off the tall glass case of her clown collection so bright that they break my heart.
It’s Christmas again and I’m sitting in her dining room trying to swallow my tears, her grandson on his knees, asking if I’m—
—alright? You’re awfully quiet. We’re driving past the Freemasons’ lodge and the custard shop, his eyes on the road, mine out the window. I nod. At least this is better than the hugs and the barrage of What’s wrong?/You’re safe/Just talk to me, please. We’ve finally outgrown that. We’re driving home from the bookstore and we’re both a little tired, but otherwise, everything is fine.
In the Vonnegut book I just bought, Kurt describes himself as unable to distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs. Hugging the adopted nephew about to leave for the Peace Corps is like rolling around with a Great Dane on the floor.
Then he describes his brother and the empty airplane seat between them that could fit a dead sister: We have hugged each other maybe three or four times—on birthdays, very likely, and clumsily. We have never hugged in moments of—
—grief, the aftertaste of love. The vodka, and love is the orange juice. On our last vacation to the beach, my brother handed me my first screwdriver in a cold glass bottle. I politely sipped about half of it away, and then let it sit on my nightstand for the rest of the—
—trip you two made often in college, not so much anymore. All the pieces are here: the checkerboard cloth, the cooler, the cola bottle sure to overflow once opened, the sandwiches and plates wrapped in wrinkled plastic. Your boyfriend braces you against the cooler while he plants an umbrella into the loose, strangely burning sand.
You watch the vultures hop about in the surf, stringy, crimson chunks jiggling in their beaks. The whale’s stomach is a cave big enough to hold the both of you. You’d ask him to investigate, but he has only now finished securing the umbrella, dusting his hands off on his yellow shorts. He pulls you against him but makes no move to eat. You take a breath, faintly smelling the sea, your raw meat sandwich, your boyfriend’s cheap aftershave and fruity three-in-one shampoo. You are here by the sea, on what will hopefully, eventually become a gorgeous day, and you’re with—
—my boyfriend on his grandmother’s bed in the big, beautiful bedroom her dead husband built for her. We are sitting in front of their portraits, eternally mid-twenties, eternally 1955. She had so much hair then, fluffy and bright sunshine blonde. She wears a red dress-suit while her husband wears a classic black tux, his dark hair combed over to the right. I tell my boyfriend that his grandfather looks like a Great Depression radio presenter. I tell myself that I have to steal the moment before his family finishes prepping dinner and this silence crackling inside my chest is gone. I tell my boyfriend over the muffled cries of electric knives that my grandfather was a traveling salesman. I tell him we knew my grandfather had brain cancer when he got lost driving to the hospital where my sister—
—asks me between slow bites of reheated sausage if it’s weird having a sister with an eating disorder. We’re sitting alone in our big, beautiful, sterile house we paid someone else to build. Her dark clothes swallow her up. The night she told me she wanted to be hospitalized, she was dressed for a summer party in a tube top and denim shorts, though all we were waiting for was my boyfriend and his wrestling teammate, fresh off a fight with his father. She showed me how easily her index finger and thumb could encircle her wrist.
Before us, on paper plates, are the sausages our father made before leaving for work and the multi-grain waffles I heated in the toaster oven, topped with strawberries and maple syrup.
I reply that this is something I’ve internalized and strive to regard as some boring trivia about my life. I want to tell her I’m sorry again, but I already said it the night she got home, the night before she left, the night she told me she wanted to go. My boyfriend says I say it too often.
Harold Bloom once said that Shakespeare’s plays are more about what has been omitted than what remains on the page.
Can you stop talking about your childhood, please? My boyfriend asked me one day as we floated down a sparkling North Georgia river in separate tubes. It makes me sad. And I still pretend I’ve forgiven him for—
—going back to his car and popping the trunk, as if you were too stupid to hear the rattle of your gun under the backseat, the nervous clicking of bullets huddled together in an old shoebox. You want to call him back over, beg as casually as possible to just relax with me a little longer. You wish you had your whiteboard to throw at him. You wish they hadn’t cut out your tongue. You—
—wonder how well we ever see each other, critic Tevis Thompson writes of his favorite golfing game and his grandfather’s death. I wonder how well we ever see ourselves. I worry that our love cannot find expression, that it cannot be spoken and truly shared.
I recited this quote in the only letter I got to write to my sister while she was on the inside. I was trying to explain how I could sob while writing something so terse and—
—dry everywhere but his eyes as he returns with two boxes. In his hands is your old shoebox, eroded by a dozen moves and five years of pet rats. On top of that is the heart defibrillator.
He opens his mouth to explain, but you sigh and shake your head, plopping back onto the boiling shore. With no blanket beneath you, your corpse will track sand everywhere, which almost makes you laugh. He’ll carry traces of you around for years because he’s too lazy to clean out his fucking car. No need, you mouth. I already know how this goes.
You want him to skip over telling you how much he doesn’t want to watch you suffer anymore, and skip to how living without you will be an ego death. Or a bad acid trip he can never come out of. Or a shadow cast over an unmade bed, the blood stains already brown.
He still tries to apologize, but you draw your hand across your neck.
You don’t have to apologize to the dog when it’s too old to play anymore. The dog understands.
Just don’t be silent as you make me bite down on the picture your mother took of us before Prom. Just don’t let the silence be enough, because love shouldn’t be staged like grief (at least that’s what I keep telling myself). Just try to say—
—I love you back to my brother, my future husband, and all my other debrided wounds, no matter how strange and coppery the words taste.
Bloom, Harold. “Foreword: Who Else Is There?” Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and
Directors, edited by Susannah Carson, Vintage Books, 2013, pp. vii–xiv.
Landis, Dylan. “Going Cold: Writing Emotion, the Earley Scale, and the Brilliance of Edwidge Danticat |
Palahniuk, Chuck. Invisible Monsters Remix. W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 300.
---. “Zombies.” Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread, Doubleday, pp. 28–39.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 1999, pp. 2-4.
Listen to "I Got So High That I Saw Jesus" by Noah Cyrus, selected to accompany Taylor's work, below:
TAYLOR DRAKE is a native Georgian named after the Cabbage Patch doll her mother had as a kid. Her work has appeared in Storm Cellar Quarterly and Persephone’s Daughters. You can find her on Twitter (@grilledcowheart) or her website (https://taylordrake.carrd.co).