the nothing

If anyone asked me now what there was between us, I would swear it was nothing.

The last time we fought was years ago, three in the morning, his eyes red from drink, mine from crying. The others are wickedly hilarious at the other end of the table, laughing off the alcohol. I trace the last remains of pizza grease on the linoleum in front of us.

We have never touched.

The same classes, a floor below me in the dorm; every night, determined to prove each other wrong in the thousand things that seem to matter freshman year.

You’re wrong, he says. I do not know why, but I take it as a truth. I want to be better. He makes me better, I think to myself. This is what I want, I say.

He tries to teach me calculus, two blonde heads, headaches poured over a small table. A boy touches me when I do not want him to, and he tries to calm the tears. A friend tells us we would have beautiful children. The others tease us until he finds a woman who looks like me. They do not cease to tease. We do our homework together, us and the others, and the murmur of high spirits and my bark of a laugh make him snap. I cannot quite remember whether Albany and Buffalo is the capitol of New York. This is endlessly hilarious, even when I get it right.

I swore then that I never sought him out, never asked for the cutting wit that wounded me worse than the words of any other. We share the same friends, the same love of an argument that bore as close as young minds can to the ore of truth. It was the surprise of meeting a mind as supple as mine, the references fast and thick, the logic that twisted into unusual shapes that I could match and better, that he took and translated. The understanding of why we spoke what we did.

We sit beside one another at the linoleum counter at three in the morning and cannot look each other in the eye. We cannot fathom how deep we have gone. I swear as soft as I have ever.

Can’t you see you hurt me? He does not flinch, does not look me in the eyes. Why don’t you stay away. I try to understand how he can shun me so and yet search me out to hurt.

Either before or after this, I slap him clear across the face, hard and laughing and drunk.

He looked me clear in the eye and did not protest, liquor deep in him.

No one is ever going to love you.

The others laugh at the joke; of course it is deadpan, sarcasm is their language, of course he does not mean it, he is cruel in his kindness, it is only how he is, only his words.

He alone knows the truth.

Early on, he asks if I love him. I don’t know. I have not yet learned to love cruelty as well as I would later. He tells me he could never love me. You shouldn’t waste your time. I think, if he could, he would break my heart gently, let me down easy. I don’t want you, he says. I think for weeks about cruelty and kindness, and how one requires the other.

He hated me as much as I did, the sneer when I speak.

You will be a terrible mother, if you ever are.

The weeping that would not wane when I was alone.

The other girls ask me if I love him. I don’t know.

I laugh too loud. He rolls his eyes.

His smile when I am the only one who understands.

The others at the dinner-table only laugh at me when he does first.

The single time he apologized, as quickly as he hurt, soft eyes and please.

He taught me how to throw a baseball.

The single time he looked me in my eyes without begging.

You clean up alright. 

How he would stare when you wished him to look away.

The jokes at my expense.

I’m not attracted to you.

He held me when I wept.

The first time I drank hard liqour, a quick gulp and a burn that was a redemption for a sin I didn’t commit. I knew them only by halves, wanted not to please them but myself in my daring, a double shot, are you sure. A boy climbed a tree and I swang a girl in a swing, kept her straight when she could not, the joyful soft fall to the earth when she flew a little too far. I leaped over puddles, sang the songs I hummed in the shower. Arms around waists and new people to look in the eye, or perhaps only the illusion of clear sight in the dark. In the flourescent light of the dorm, the edges of my vision blurred and we fell to lean against the wall, the couch, and the floor became a home before our own.

How the others passed by, the bemused peering, are you drunk?

The giggled insistance, no, of course not, you are.

How they fetched him from upstairs and a girl, you have to see this.

How he came alone, how he walked to me. How I thought, in a blurred moment, he something like cared while he mocked me to my face with just a gentle smirk.

And he led me to the wall as I leaned my shoulder into the only solid thing that seemed to stay. It was not him, but beige plaster.

He talked me to the staircase, nodded at my inane ramblings, softly laughed to himself, and I thought how he never stayed, but always hovered just out of reach, close enough but never near.

The others gently led me up the stairs, arms over arms and my weight poured into theirs. In a blurred moment, I thought they something like cared.

As I slipped into the delicate dreams of the gently drunk, all pale fire and the fond memory of laughter, the illusion that I was beloved.

Towards the end, he told me that he loved me.

As drunk as he was ever, he mumbled that he loved me for loving him when no one else would.

You are too good for me.

He mumbled grateful, reeking of gin and whatever else.

I held him as he staggered, my coat around his shoulders.

We sit on the floor as he sweats the poison out, someone playing the piano.

His arms limp around me, his face in my neck, my lap.

You save me.

In the stairwell he holds me too close, glazed and gone.

The leer, confident and cold, the assurance that I would drop my life for him.

Thank you, he whispers.

I have never felt more shame for another breathing thing.

Never more shame for myself, though there was no shudder to the shame he made of me.

Slack and his feet stuttering on the stairs, my hand at his shoulder to keep him from falling.

He stares me down, dares me to kiss him, to have some closure for the nothing between us.

I do not kiss him. I cannot.

Three in the morning, and I scream silent. The others at the end of the table stare, though they hear nothing. Either he gets up to leave or I do. Some things it is better not to remember.

I know this is the last time we are honest and sober with each other; truth only comes with drink for him. He does not speak to me for weeks, cannot bear to meet my eyes. This is still the time when I am sure I am as much coward as he is. The understanding changes with time.

The first thought after the dark morning of grease and tears: what a disaster we have made of each other. What shadows we have collected in the other’s name.

In the dark mornings that follow, the weeping does not wane.

I swore that I never sought him out. I do not look his way when we sit at the table with the others, the dull habit of conversation and the mockery of thinking myself beloved.

I forget to breathe. I learn to hold my breath.

Blotchy heaving chest and the inside of my elbows are too tender to bend, the meals that are just tea and toast and tears and the miracle of hands of people who have not hurt me holding my own.

My hands start to stutter as I play the cello. My blood rushes too loud as the strings lie silent.

Someone teaches me to sing. My full voice is higher than I realized.

I forget books, poems long memorized, conversations, whole days, meals, what did I eat?

I do not break bread with them, but there is no hunger in their eyes for me.

Whole hallways are impassible, crowded with an empty that I cannot breach.

Sounds reberverate in empty rooms.

I hold the hands that do not hurt me. They do not let go.

I sing in a choir.

I cannot make music on my own.

But I can raise a joyful noise.

In the dark years that follow: turning too quickly, is he behind me. The awareness of the prey for the predator.

He has never had my phone number. There are no photographs.

We never touched.

As the years pass, the dull dark of him passing, the soft hope he will turn. Is this his apology. My carefully averted eyes, the bowed head, the glance away. The echos, I would have left long ago if I didn’t think you were worth listening to. The flinch from his voice. I am as guilty as you are. The eyes I still cannot fathom.

He never knew when he lost me. I don’t know when I was found.

How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…

Sometimes I still scream at him in my mind before I sleep, rage and grief, how could you. How could I.

I dream of him sitting down, coffee, the apartment where I grew up. I am sorry, he says. I wake weeping.

The last time I spoke his name to his face was the first forgiveness. The rest are slow to come, years. I swear this is the single time I write of him. I swear he is nearly banished from my dreams.

Let me forgive, if at last.

I did not have a bitter heart at the beginning.

I do not know what happened in the meantime.

Revenge is still a stone I swallowed without knowing how long it would stay.

There is gravel in my throat now.

It will be sand before long.

I think of all the poems I have written.

How they are pleas for healing.

How some of them are cries of joy.

Swallow blood to staunch the grief.

What bruises bulge beneath, soft flesh split,

which veins spill sadness: it does not matter.

Only someone must lick the wound,

as humble as dogs in the temple.

What shadows I have collected in his name.

What happens when the sun shifts?

What light have I become?

© 2017 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved.

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