I don’t know how the past can be in the present, and I don’t know where to start. I don’t have a beginning. Maybe the beginning is where I am now:
I was in the kitchen. I kept noticing Trevor’s beard. December, chill-your-ass-off air, so a thick beard. I was trying to grow one, too. To match. He was stir-frying, bell peppers, tofu, liquid pressed, broccoli flowers, salty-sweet sauce, chili for heat. I could tell he trimmed his beard that morning because I could see through it more, his skin. I also trimmed. What I love. About trying to grow a beard like him, I mean. I used his razor, electric. The blade was always flecked with bits of his hairs, bits of him, and then flecked with mine. The deodorant, we also share. I love his underwear because it’s warmer. Anyway. My mom called. Doesn’t happen too much. Nicky, she said. She said Nicky because I grew up Nicky, not Nick like now, she doesn’t know, and I don’t say anything. She told me, It’s Dad. Kidneys and lungs and liver and hospital, and this I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine because I haven’t seen him in years. What I could imagine was Mom, flimsy nightgown, eyes puffy, bubble haired. It’s how I think she looked on the other end, something tragic, but really, who am I to know? Her or Dad? They live in a different town than where I live now, a dirt patch in bum-fuck Kentucky, Bell County. Their house is where I grew up, there’s a road full of gravel, that’s all there is to know.
I live with Trevor now in this low-rent apartment where I can pretend I don’t have a past. He is a mechanic, brings in his work jacket, his name stitched, drapes it on a chair, splotches of oil, ink blots, the squid, the crab, Orion, a bear, Saturn. When he isn’t looking, this is weird I know, I pick it up and place it against my nose to take him in. Dad worked in the mines, back-break, I remember. At night, Trevor makes us keep on the night light, spilling from the bathroom. He sleeps turned from me, cradled, fetal, and I watch his back arch with breaths. His spine, bones forming a viper, it looks like, underneath his skin, and if I touch, it may break out and strike. My skin will blue and purple if it’s broken down, what I know from my ex, but we will get to him even though I may not want to get to him. Trevor and I don’t touch while we sleep, sometimes you need to be apart for comfort, lonely together, wrapped in sheets, clean on laundry mat day. I know his skin though, rougher than Dad’s but not as rough as my exes, and don’t worry, we will get to them both. Or Trevor’s skin, where I live now, might be how I remember but don’t remember my dad and my ex. When Trevor fucks me he faces me, his belly lipped against mine, and it’s always gentle in ways I’ve never known. So, anyway. So anyway, Mom was on the phone about Dad, and there was Trevor and dinner sizzling. What was I going to do, she wondered. Not much time and so much of what I couldn’t say. What I couldn’t say.
The point of this is to show you where I am now. I’m with Trevor now, without a past, but this phone call about Dad, maybe he could die, creeping into our dinner, this was the phone call reminding me I have a past.
Or how about starting with my ex? His name was Paul:
He said he was “Discreet.” He said he was “Masculine.” He worked at the corner minimart no one goes in except to buy drugs – he sold skunked weed and low grade heroin, his job a front – or the occasional moms would come in with scream-their-heads-off kids to buy fort-nine cent ketchups. When I walked in, he looked me up, down. I said, Hey. He said, Back here. His safety pinned jeans sagged at his waist while he led me to the storage closet. We didn’t bother taking off our clothes. He pushed down my pants to make a ring around my knees. He turned me away from him, he jutted in me, no prep, no saliva, raw, and when I yelled, he put his hand over my mouth, his fingers the taste of ash and sweat and said, Shut the fuck up. All I could feel: him inside, the V-ed bones of his waist thrashing into me. He pushed his knee against my legs, tilting them outward, opening, making more space for him to go deeper. I had met a few guys in town, all stilted, sterile dates at chain restaurants, none like Paul, I never had a stranger take my body, and I craved someone to take my body, surrendered, take me, and how Paul’s strange body wasn’t strange, not even that first time, like my body had been waiting for his. He pulled hair patches from my head. He spit on me, and I savored it. Afterwards, out back, I watched him smoke. He was the type who had a girlfriend, so I said, You got a girlfriend? He sniffed, loogied, said, Yeah. Her name was Wendy, and I knew her. She worked at the Sonic, a purple streak in her hair, nose and lip rings, lots of glitter and sparkle. I asked Paul his name and he told me. I imagined him pushing his cigarette cherry into my wrist, bubbling the skin, so I could feel the moment more. He grabbed me by my shirt and said, Listen, you don’t say nothing to nobody. You do, and you got problems. I nodded. I wanted to taste his smoky mouth.
He would text me to meet him, and I always did. Since moving to Paducah, the place where I moved to get away, all I did was go to my job as a Library Clerk and read about everything: mitochondria, elephant pregnancy, Watergate, Latin American politics, the history of jazz, Spanish monarchs, my favorite were the books about haunted places in Kentucky. My life was library, home, TV; library, home, TV. When Paul crept into my life, he broke up what needed to be broken, he gave me the touch and feel I needed. I would go to the minimart, he fucked me, then we smoked. The scent of him rubbed against me. I wore his body odor like cologne, so I could smell him hours later and bring him back. His grimed nails left half-moon marks at my hips. The third time, after we buttoned back up, he stood against a box of Spam, and he seemed so exposed, in that moment, standing there afterward, the look on his face softened, his spread-out chest more open, so I leaned in close, and what is it like to be close? What is it like to have a body close? I put my lips next to his, and he pulled back, clamped up, pushed me, punched me in the face, and there was pain, there was hurt I liked, and I didn’t know what to do with the liking of the hurt. You don’t fucking do that again, not ever, he said. I held my jaw. I thought he broke it, but he hadn’t. I looked at him. He was out on his second drug deal jail stint. He had a reputation in town. He was gross. He was trailer trash. He was disgusting. He was horrible. He was nasty. He was dirty. He was beautiful. He was stunning. He had a supple jawline. He had graceful arms. He had a comforting chest. He had a lovely paunch in his belly. He said, Don’t fuckin look at me like that. I liked the “Discreet.” I was something hidden. We were dumb, so we didn’t use condoms, and he would cum in me, and I relished taking him in, I held his attraction to men for him, the secret meant only us, and I wanted only us.
I eventually gave him my address, and I would wait for him in the bathtub, watching the ripples. Some nights he came over, some nights not, he ghosted in and out, and I didn’t question him. Against the bathroom tiles, I heard the echo of his knocks, and I would drip out of the water and let him into my cramped one-bedroom. He still turned me away while he fucked me, his front to my back. He started staying to watch TV. Then, while we watched Poltergeist, his face softened again, his upper body wide and open again, his face and mouth so elegant, and I didn’t know what it was like to be close, I tried it, I put my lips against his, and he didn’t pull back. Then one night, a Friday while Wendy was working a double and he was over, I said, Hey, you want to go to Dave’s Bar? He said, No. He said, Are you serious? He said, I don’t go to those places. He said, the real reason, What if someone sees me? I said, No one will see you. And if someone sees you, no one cares. We went. They put X-es on our wrists, and we played pool. He stood against the wall, gazing around, nervous, he was all clammed up, and I said, Want to dance? He shook his head, a hard no. I tried taking his hand, but he pulled away. Then I started swaying next to him, and he kept looking around, didn’t know what to do. I said, Come on. I touched my finger to his finger, that terrified looked on his face. It’s okay, I said. I hooked my pointer around his middle, and his shoulders relaxed, and I led him to the middle of the floor. I moved and rocked against him, he bobbed up and down, lights glittering, he cracked open a smile, pretending it’s only us, I put my head into the crook of his dirtied, thick neck, smooth-rough, the slope of nape, our bodies in rhythm, synced, close, touching without touching. I could be close to his body, and it was nice being out in the open for a change. We were in the bar’s parking lot, taking swigs off his flask full with Jim Beam, making out in the car. He said, I want you so bad. I felt finally like he longed for all of me. He stripped me, and I tested him. While kissing, I reached around, I slipped a finger in him, warm around the edge. He darted back. I don’t do that, he said. I said, Okay. Then, Why? He said, I just don’t like the idea, okay.
A few weeks later, I asked him in bed, Why can’t we tell anyone? He had a whoop-your-ass dad. Paul lived with these scuzz-fuck druggies, but his dad lived a few streets over. He said if his dad heard, he wouldn’t be able to take it, he would find him and beat him, maybe kill him. Okay, I said. We won’t tell anyone. I wove my fingers through his hair. I wore his wife beaters with tattered holes, constellations. He owned only one pair of underwear, so I bought him a pack. Then, one night, I tested again. I put a finger in him, and he moaned and didn’t tell me to stop, and I tongued him, saliva-ed, he tasted musky, and I couldn’t get enough, then I slid into him, that warmth, and he had this scared look, so I kissed him, and he let me. Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other Friday became our nights. I made him late dinners. That’s how we were for awhile: he would come over on our nights, we flip-fucked, bathed, him sudsed at one end of the tub, me the other, washing away, twining his fingers carved with skull tattoos, we watched horror movies, he popped bottle tops with teeth, we shared beers, then he would go back to his Wendy and leave me in my living room with the empties.
I could start with what happened next in my present, The Call ending it with a beginning:
I dreamed of blood water.
Trevor came home after margaritas with friends, and I could taste the lime on his breath. I was in bed, skipped work and had been there all day. It was starting to happen again since I heard about Dad in hospital. Paul. Dad. Trevor and I started a year after Paul ended. It’s not that Trevor was a change, it’s that he was different, not in a good or bad way, just in a way. Trevor slicked his finger over my hip, and I said, Did you have fun? He said, Yeah. Then he said, I have something to tell you. I said, What? He said, I had sex with someone else. I was turned away from him, the night light hazing my vision, and I said, Oh? He said, Yeah. I said, Who? He said, This guy named Donnie. I said, You mean this happened tonight? He laughed when he shouldn’t have laughed, and he knew it. Then he said, No, the other month. I said, And you didn’t tell me? It’s not that I cared he didn’t tell me, I was just curious, but I could see how it might come off like I cared. He said, I’m telling you. This is me telling you. I said, So what does this mean? He said, It was an accident. Or, well, not an accident. It just happened. Then Trevor started telling me the story. He said, Donnie asked me if I wanted to come back to his place for movies. Two other friends were there but then they left and it was just us, and one thing lead to. I stopped him and said, You don’t have to tell me. He said, It’s not that I want to be with Donnie. It was just sex. I don’t even think it will happen again. I still want to be with you. I still love you. The sheets needed to be washed, grainy against my side. He tried turning me to him, but I wouldn’t budge. It’s not that I cared. He said, What I’m asking is, maybe we should be open? Like, be a couple but open. I’ve hated feeling this guilt. I said, I’m sorry you’ve felt guilty. I said, I don’t care. He said, Wait, you don’t care that I feel guilty? I said, No, I don’t care. I mean, I don’t care about Donnie. I said, We can be open. Then he kissed me on my back and took a shower.
The next day, I had energy to go to work, so I went to work. My phone kept ringing Home. Mom had left ten voicemails. I knew what it was. I called her back, and with a brittle cry-voice she told me. Dad gone. I didn’t know how to take it. I had buried my childhood deep. I had buried Dad deep, and here he was gone, and now that he was gone, he wasn’t gone. I mean that what I buried came to surface. Mom told me about the funeral, the visitation, the wake, the practical stuff. The Visitation. Mom asked, You’ll be there, right? I said, Right. I said, I’ll be there. There was the question of Trevor. Mom said, Are you bringing your… friend… ? I said, I don’t know. And I didn’t know. Dad held me up on the monkey bars. That’s an image that came to me, my hands wrapped around rust, my muscles not strong enough to hold up, so Dad held up. An image that came to me in a flash and kept flashing, over and over.
Or I could start with The Ghosts; they’re as good a place as any to start:
Kentucky is a haunted state. I’ve read about them all: Boone Tavern in Berea, the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Distillery in Frankfort, The Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, The Vernon Club bowling alley in Louisville, The Coal Miner’s Museum. The most haunted is Waverly Hills, the old tuberculosis hospital, abandoned, fragile, preserved by The Kentucky Historical Society. Since working at the library for four years, I read all of the accounts I could get my hands on. If we’re starting from the beginning, it’s the kind of place you would imagine. Built in 1910 to combat one of the worst outbreaks in the country, on a high hill in Jefferson County, the edge of Louisville. The White Plague was rampant, the deadly airborne traveler, the wetland of the Ohio River making it worse, and the first building wasn’t enough, so construction began on a five story hulk of a place, completed in 1924, housing more than 400 patients. Treatments were archaic and misguided. They thought sun was the answer, so solarium porches in frigid winters. Crude and painful surgeries resulting in deaths: deflating lungs, rib removal, two or three at a time. Once the drug to treat TB was discovered in the 40’s, Waverly closed in the 60’s. It has a history between then and where it is now I won’t bore you with, passed from owner to owner, an attempt at a prison, then a neglectful, mal-practiced geriatric hospital, until it was abandoned, run down by teenage vandals, satanic ritual rumors, and finally preserved by the current owners.
There are so many stories – disembodied voices, lights turning on with no power, shadows moving along walls, doors slamming, the sound of a hearse pulling up to the body chute, cries and screams. The main ghosts seem to be: a little girl named “Mary” playing hide and seek on the third floor solarium; a boy named “Bobby,” sometimes it’s “Tommy,” once I read “Billy,” moving a ball, but in some accounts it’s Mary who plays with the ball; at the main entrance, a woman running out, her wrists bleeding spectral blood, shouting, Help me. Save me. Room 502 is the most notorious. Stories of people jumping from the window. The most popular ghost is the head nurse from 1928 who hung herself from the ceiling pipes. Some claim it was because she was unmarried and pregnant. Kids singing Ring Around the Rosy on the roof.
There’s this TV series called Scariest Places on Earth, and I watched faithfully, waiting for them to cover Waverly, and they finally did. I set it to record. Paul came over and watched with me, his ripped and dingy socks up on my table, we were feet to feet. In the episode, these girls spent the night. They screeched at different sounds only they seemed to hear, bolting from room to room, and the shaky cam was uneasy. Can you believe this shit, Paul said. I said, Shh. The girls thought they heard a voice saying, Get out. Paul said, Oh, come on. He said, They’re only scaring themselves. Their tour guide told them the nurse was murdered, and I was quick to correct him, telling Paul, No no, he’s getting it all wrong. She hung herself. And what about bloody wrist lady? He’s leaving a lot out. Paul said, Do you really believe in this crap? I said, I don’t know. And I didn’t. I believed and also didn’t believe. I’ve always wanted to go, I told him. To test it out. To see if I believe or not. And Paul said, You want to go? I nodded. He said, Well, why don’t we go? I said, I thought you didn’t care about this? He said, I don’t, but I want to see you scare the shit out of yourself.
We drove to Louisville, three hours from Paducah, for the Historical Tour. Paul made up a drug run for Wendy, trying to pass this shit off as China White to some idiot teens, he told her. We blasted Bone Thugs and Harmony and Tupac, Paul’s choice, we didn’t call it a date, but I think of it as a date, our only. Paul sang every word, and he was tone-deaf, but it was the best. When we got there, the tour guide kept telling Paul to stop smoking. The place creaked, and it was dank, what you would imagine, tons of graffiti. Our tour guide got most of the details right, nothing I hadn’t already read. I bought a disposable camera because I forgot my phone. We were on the fourth floor, the guide was talking about the cafeteria, and that’s when Paul grabbed my arm, said, Hey, Come on. He dragged me to a narrow hallway and into a side room. I don’t think we’re supposed to be here, I said. It was an off-limits spot because of the foundation. We were told it was dangerous. He said, Shut up. You’re always such a goody-goody. He said, You want to get up on me? You know you do. He pulled me into him, kissed me, pressing himself against my leg, jamming his hand into my pants. I heard a creak. What was that? I said. Paul said, What? I said, Over there. It came from that corner. I snapped a picture. He said, It’s nothing. Another creak. I said, That. What is that? Paul said, Nothing. I moved closer, but the boards underneath could collapse. I felt these prickles at my neck, it was hard to breathe, and this feeling, I can’t explain, that I needed to get out of this room immediately. Paul pulled me into his waist from behind. Boo, he said. I jumped. Stop it, I said. He said, You stop it. There’s nothing there. And I’m sure there wasn’t. I said, Let’s get out of here.
After the tour, Paul took me to a steak house and we ate steaks so rare, and he treated me with his drug income. We chewed together and cheersed our pint glasses. He said, It feels so fucking nice to be out of town. I didn’t tell Paul what I was thinking. I was thinking of asking him to move out of town with me, maybe Louisville or Lexington, to get away from his past so we wouldn’t have to be a secret anymore. I was going to feel him out on it before asking.
Will you look at this? I told Paul the next day. The photo, I developed. In the corner of that room was this lit figure, a white silhouette. He said, It’s the goddamn sun shining through the window. I said, Is it?
Then what happened happened.
About a week later, I was almost asleep, and the bangs on my door felt like a dream, then they were real, and I switched on the lamp, more bangs. I was scared to open the door, but I did, and there was Paul. His face. Bleeding from his cheeks, forehead, his eyes sunken in rounded bruises, his nose misshapen, his mouth twisted, lip split, I almost couldn’t tell it was him. I made space for him to limp inside. He held his stomach like it would explode. I didn’t have words at first, but then, What happened? He said, My fucking dad is what happened. He tried to kill me, like I fucking told you he would. He knows. I got him water, and he said, I don’t want fucking water. He took it and smashed it on the ground, shards flying. He said, My dad found out. I said, How did he find out? He said, You’ve been blabbing your fucking mouth. I said, I didn’t. He said, Wendy knew. I said, It was her then. He said, Well how did she fucking find out? I said, I don’t know. He said, You don’t know shit. He punched me, and it doubled me over. He said, You did this. It was you. He punched my face, and it slugged me back, and it hurt, and I wanted more. He punched me again and again and again until my whole face felt smashed. He undid my belt, punched me, yanked off my pants. Fuck you, he said, and then he picked me up by my hips, wrapped my legs around his battered torso, shoved me against the wall, fucked me hard, each thrust rougher than the last, his look angry, and I tipped my head back and pressed into him, my damaged body against his even more damaged body, letting all of him pour into me, his sweat, his cum, his spit, his blood. Afterwards he hunched on the couch, couldn’t put his hands to his face because the slightest touch hurt, and in between sobs he kept repeating, I didn’t do this, I didn’t do this, I didn’t do this, broken. I wash cloth-ed his face, soaked. I didn’t do this.
I could start by talking about My Father’s Body:
He was washing off the soot. I was pretending to be a bee, buzzing through our house, too-small, wood-paneled, I color penciled the paper wings, scotch taped them to my back. I wanted to fly into the bathroom to get my bathtub toys, and steam came through the door, and I tapped it open, and there: dad toweling himself dry, muscle strands from shoulders to arms, the kinds of striations, not from a gym, from labor, his belly big, hair-filled, his upper body glistening, thighs thick. I had never seen a body like his. He wrapped a towel around himself and said, Hey and picked me up, his dampness crinkling my wings. I didn’t know what to say, pressed against him. I said, I’m a bee, and he may have laughed, or that might be altered by time, maybe that’s what I wanted to say and how I wanted him to react, maybe I didn’t say anything.
He was a coal miner to the core, dropped out of high school to work in the mines. Bell County, Pineville, our town, relied on coal for the money. He mined deep and cavernous, came home coughing, hacked a lung. The mines were how they operated at first. If I were telling it from the beginning, I would tell you that coal was discovered in Kentucky, it was the land, the mountains, the air, the jobs, the life, it was the state. Thomas Walker, discoverer, found it and used it to heat his fire, before Kentucky became Kentucky, before the name. The first mine opened in 1820. I’ll stop with the dates and I’ll take us from the beginning to my dad. By the time he was in his forties, he had been mining since his teens, what he inhaled daily. If I were getting medical from what I read at the library, I would say the large conglomerates. I would say the upper pulmonary lobe, inhale the dust, no exhaling the dust, holding it in. I would say the radiating strands forming in the lungs. If I’m getting medical, I would say progressive massive fibrosis, my dad developed for years. It’s not something you do much about. It’s not reversed.
Then the blasting. The removal of mountain tops. This method, cheaper, more efficient they claimed, less workers, so after thirty years, they laid off my dad. They exploded the surface of mountains around us, stripped, the summit ridge, Pine Mountain, scattering the minerals into the air, the streams, the rivers, Cumberland. They claimed this was safer. The ash, uranium in the water to drink, to ingest, the valleys, the air for living. Dad’s lungs, his kidney, chronic, failure.
I left when I was seventeen. Dad clomped into the house. My mom, aproned, was about to serve us meatloaf, red smashed potatoes, and buttermilk biscuits. Dad said, You’re going to explain yourself right now. The Hartman kid. Me. Kevin Hartman was this guy from school, a little dumb, cute, his face kind, eyes buggy. This was during a time I didn’t want to go to school. I hated everyone, they pushed me in the hallway, the parking lot, after school called me faggot, fudge-packer, pussy, they mimicked my voice, mocking. I kept saying, I’m not, because it’s what you say. Kevin Hartman was on the basketball team. We all had gone to school together, to the one school, since kindergarten, and even though Kevin and I never talked, he had always been nice, he hung around with the other boys, but he was nice, a golden boy type, he had always seemed sweet. One day he said, Hey, we’re having a bonfire, you should join, and I couldn’t believe it. Here was this sweet, golden boy inviting me out of my house where I spent all my time listening to The Smiths or David Bowie in my room, pretending I wasn’t hurt every day I went to that damn school, and here he was, so nice, inviting me. I joined, and it was these guys in the woods, their trucks coated with mud from muddin, drinking Budweisers, tossing cans and cardboard and glass into the fire. Kevin said, Hey Nick, Come here, and he took me to the woods. He said, I want to try something with you. What Kevin? What is it? He said, Just come here. He was leaning against a massive oak. He had this big belt buckle, and it shined in the dark. What? I said. Closer, he said. I stepped closer to him, and this felt dangerous, what was he doing? He leaned into me, his lips moving closer than I ever thought they could, and is this what it’s like to have a body close? I put my lips on his, my body weak with adrenaline, wondering what would happen, and he said, What the fuck are you doing? He shoved me into the tree. Get the fuck off me, he said. I knew it, he said. They drove off and left me.
Kevin said I tried to kiss him, tried to touch him, tried to suck him, tried to butt fuck him. It got back to everyone because it was Pineville. So Dad clomped in, he said, Not in my house. He said, Get the fuck out. His face looked like a red balloon inflating, veins squinting in his temples. I went to my room. I stuffed what I could in a duffel. My mom was crying to Dad. Please, I heard her say. Can’t we talk about this? Dad said, No. He said, He wants to be like that, he’s gone. So, I left. Mom snuck me money for a Greyhound. I had a cousin in Paducah so that’s where I went. I got a job as a burger flipper, then a server. I saved tips and got an apartment, then saved more money and took Library Science classes, got the job at Paducah’s only branch. It’s what you do. You leave. You don’t look at what you left. There was no Dad anymore. When I thought of Dad, I thought of nothing, the blankness of an empty space.
I could get right to it and begin by telling what I don’t tell, the day I simply call The Day:
Paul moved in. His dad didn’t know where I lived. I bought a first aid kit and nursed his wounds. He didn’t have health insurance so he said no doctor. He hobbled like something pitiful. After a month, he was healing. But he couldn’t sleep, he lay in bed all day, was scared to go out in case he saw his dad or Wendy. Sometimes I would wake to hear a banging and faint mumbling, and I would go into the bathroom or living room, and Paul would be thudding his head against the wall murmuring, I didn’t do this. I couldn’t tell if it was sleep walking or delirium or what. I led him back to bed with me and held him tight. He hardly had motivation for anything. I tried luring him out of bed with dinner and his favorite movie, My Cousin Vinny, but he would grunt, and that’s all. I said, I’ve been thinking of moving to Louisville, I’ve applied to the library branch downtown and I think I’ll get the job, you should come with me. Nothing. A grunt. His black and blued torso was yellowing and would eventually swell down.
I got off work and was bringing home ingredients to make pasta with fresh basil, maybe Paul would eat something tonight. I twisted my key to unlock. I first heard the air humming, the sound of the bathtub running water. Good, I thought. Paul is bathing, this is a good sign. He was drawing a bath for the both of us. In the kitchen I saw the freezer door open, a few cabinets open, I closed them. Hey, I shouted. The shoosh of faucet. I’m making pasta, I said. The shoosh of faucet. I made my way to the bedroom, ready to strip and get in the bath with him, and in the hallway I stepped in puddles, the bathroom door closed, water streaming from underneath. I stood there still. I wish I could continue to just stand there. I opened the door. Paul’s naked body, slumped in the tub, the blood splattered on the walls, everywhere, the whole room sodden with water, brimming from the tub’s edges in hues of deep red. His naked body, his head slanted upward, his face, not blinking, his arms by his sides sliced open, an empty bottle on the toilet lid. I stared at him staring back. The shoosh of faucet. Then my body was gagging. I walked slowly to the kitchen, moving without awareness. I puked in the sink. My body was shaking and wouldn’t stop. I must have called the paramedics, I don’t remember. I stooped to the floor. The shoosh of faucet faded, and all I could hear was a ringing, the ting of blade scraping bone. I stayed balled on the floor until the blue-red lights flickered and uniformed people came in and out. I must’ve answered their questions.
The toxicology will tell you how Paul swallowed a handful of painkillers, then downed a bottle of vodka, so he wouldn’t feel the razorblade, doing it the right way, cutting up his wrists. The autopsy report will tell you how deep he cut, all the way to his radius.
Afterwards, I stopped going to work, missed my job interview in Louisville, and I didn’t leave my place, I stewed in the same boxers and T-shirt for I don’t remember how long, wrapped in my down comforter, I couldn’t move, barely had the strength to get up to use the bathroom, I couldn’t leave the house. Meeting Trevor eventually pulled me out of it. But I lay in bed forever, feeling like my insides could suffocate. I replayed Poltergeist on a loop, the white light from the laptop on the edge of the bed my only light, Paul’s lips, that kiss, Paul’s neck, Paul’s hips, Paul’s everything. I drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes going stretches of days not sleeping, laying there with no one, calls from the landlord, where’s rent, the blinds drawn, waking and not knowing if it was morning or afternoon or evening and not caring. I was suddenly very aware of every sharp object in my place, the different knives, butcher, steak, paring, bread, the blender blade, those scissors, nails and tacks, staples, an old letter opener, suddenly very aware of my own wrists, and all of this awareness set me on edge and shivered me. I could feel Paul in me, his body, my body, his wrists, my wrists. I kept having this experience: waking at night, sweaty, my body can’t move, paralyzed, my heart beating like it would burst, a presence next to me, ominous, a hand on my shoulder, wanting to scream but not able, wanting to break free.
I can tell you how much scrubbing it takes to remove blood staining porcelain and tile. I can tell you about how Paul’s naked body seemed so shriveled sitting in that tub. And what I don’t say: he was still beautiful. Paul.
Here we are again, back to the present, or the past in the present, or the present in the past:
Trevor drove me across the state, the whole five and a half hours from Paducah to Bell County, and I tied our ties around my neck, one for me, one for Trevor. I almost didn’t go. I almost lay in bed all day, but Trevor said, Are you sure? I said, I don’t know. He said, I think you should go. I said, You do? He said, It’s up to you, but I would hate to think of you regretting it later. I said, Should you come with me? He said, That’s up to you. I said, Okay. And there we were in the parking lot. I thought about My Father’s Body. The Visitation was only a parking lot and door away. I sat in the car for the longest time. I can’t, I said to Trevor. He said, What? I said, I can’t see his body. I just can’t. Trevor said, We can sit here. We passed a blunt back and forth and listened to this song on repeat, that song from the 90’s called “Lucky” by Bif Naked, and the lyrics resonated in a strange way, and you should listen. If you want to understand, you should listen. I didn’t feel like I lived in my body. The service had already started, and then it ended, and I was still in the car dressed up, not having gone in. We were parked far enough away I couldn’t make out anyone coming and going. I thought I saw Mom but didn’t. Everyone was heading to the wake by the time I brought myself.
It was at the old house, because Mom couldn’t afford a reception hall. That road full of gravel, that beat up skeleton of a car sitting dead out back. When I walked in, everyone was elbow to elbow. Mom’s face was aged now, the way you would expect but not expect. I somehow thought everything would be preserved, but it’s true how they, whoever they are, say things look smaller. Everything miniature, like I was hovering over the past: those plastic-covered couches, that laminate kitchen floor sheen, all the entranceways narrow, the living room so small now. I had to bend down to hug Mom. I made up an excuse, a dead car battery. She said, I’m just glad you made it. I greeted one ruddy faced aunt after another, hearty pats on backs from cousins, all of them still here in town, years later, I hadn’t seen since I was seventeen. Their faces held tight as they marveled, look at how grown up. Trevor was there, smiled at the right times, shook Mom’s hand, played the next-to-my-side role. When I would introduce him all everyone did was look at us standing side by side, regarding us in silence, didn’t ask after him, what he did for a living, how long have we known each other, how long have we been together, the most anyone said was, Oh, and then moved on, an anecdote about Dad, a remark about the food, Nancy made her deviled eggs, they asked nothing about our lives. Whenever someone told a story, a memory, about Dad, everyone nodded like they were all part of the same story, the same memory, but here I was, disconnected, I tried feeling a part of their history but couldn’t. Before we left, Mom said, You call me now. I thought of her, what her life would be, the nights, eating one frozen meal after another, an occasional glass of white Zin, watching some TV show, all by herself. Maybe I would call. While we left, I thought about how it felt like I had been there but hadn’t been.
I dreamed of blood water.
It was happening again. I didn’t go to work for a week, and my cardigan-ed boss, Linda, kept calling. I didn’t answer. Then a week turned into another and another. I couldn’t get out of bed. Trevor would poke me and say, You have to get up. You can’t do this to yourself. I didn’t know it was something done to myself. He tried what he could, I’ll take you out to dinner, Flamingo Row, your favorite, what about a trip to Land Between The Lakes, our date spot, the weather is shockingly nice for mid-February, like Spring. I sighed. I couldn’t. He brought me toast, begged me to eat. I would nibble. Paul. It felt like all of my internal organs shut down, like I was dead, may as well be dead. While cocooned in the down comforter again, I thought of blame. Who to blame for Paul: I could blame his dad, that was the easiest, his dad, a history of abuse, or I could blame the drugs, or all of this together. But I envisioned alternatives: coming home earlier, finding him in time, stopping him, or before that, recognizing the signs they, whoever they are, say you’re supposed to recognize, and taking him somewhere for help. That night he was on my doorstep, beaten, his words: You did this. It was you. And for me and my dad: I can blame my dad for kicking me out. But the alternative: I could’ve tried harder, maybe called once in awhile, instead of cutting him out completely. I left.
Weeks turned into a month, and then longer, and if it wasn’t for Trevor, the whole room would’ve smelled horrendous. He said, Will you please get up? You’re scaring me. I sighed. I said, I’ll get up when I’m ready to get up, all right. He didn’t press me. He would come in, draw the blinds back, the sun brutal. He brought in plates of perfect meals I let sit on the night stand. He said, Your body needs nutrients, vitamins. I couldn’t bring myself to take anything into my body. Seared salmon with lemon wedges, a bed of brown rice, and steamed kale with miso was going bad as I thought of Waverly. Over the years, I had tried searching for The Ghosts. Who was Mary? Who was Bobby? And what about that nurse, the pregnant one from 502 who hung herself from the pipes? City Hall’s building records show there were no pipes in 1928. Piping wasn’t installed until the 70’s. The more I looked, it seemed these ghosts were myths, made up. One time, I had taken a trip to Louisville’s downtown library basement where they keep the newspaper archives, and while bundled in one of Paul’s oversized hoodies, I shifted through all the news stories, obituaries, none mentioning the deaths of Mary or Bobby or that nurse. They were nowhere. And I read about the condition called sleep paralysis, which is what I apparently experienced. The scientific explanation: you wake, REM interrupted, and the part of your brain paralyzing you while dreaming stays on, a state in between dreaming and waking. Most report feeling panicked and a threatening presence, an intruder in the room, either next to you, or in some instances, sitting on top of you, but it’s the brain. If I’m getting scientific, I would say amygdala and fear stimulus, sleep brain waves still active while waking. This is the rational.
I read a psychic’s account of Waverly talking about how ghosts are spirits stuck in a loop in time, a moment they re-live and can’t break free, and I’m not saying I believe, but I’m saying that makes sense. Every time I fumbled with my keys, as groceries or laundry dropped from my arms, as I was about to open my door, I kept thinking I would find Paul all over again. The Day became my every day. There is a way Dad is always clomping in, yelling, a way I’m always packing a duffel, always getting on a Greyhound, always rejected, always leaving.
When I say I wasn’t getting out of bed, I was getting out of bed, but only once a day, at night. Here’s what I do, my ritual: I creep into the bathroom, light some candles, run a bath so hot it scalds, and I sink down one vertebrae at a time until I’m deep, and I let my palms buoy upturned, the fragility of the skin at the wrist, at the base of the vein, here is where I feel him the most. There’s a way I’m still waiting for him, still hearing his knocks on my door. In the end, all I’m left with is what to believe or not believe. I can say it’s only wind blowing that ball in Waverly, or those shadows are refractions of light, or the voices are the sounds of an old building creaking; I can say that figure in the photo is a glitch in the camera or sun from a window; I can tell the story of that nurse who hung herself, but if she existed, while she was pregnant and terrified, I don’t know if all she felt was hopelessness or if there was some kind of hope; I can tell you about the amount of radon and lead and carbon it took to break down my father’s lungs and insides, but I can’t say if he ever thought about that time on the monkey bars, if he remembered holding me up, I can’t say if he ever had moments he missed me after I left; I can describe Paul’s face in that bathtub, so still, and how many pills he swallowed, 16 to be exact, but I don’t know if, while he was making his cuts, he knew I loved him and would continue to love him. I can’t say anything about the trauma we take on and carry in our bodies. Every beginning can be a middle or an end.
It was going on months, I lost count, and one night, Trevor came home from work. I heard him toss down that work jacket I love so much, and he came into the bedroom. He brought in greasy fried chicken. He lay next to me, rubbed my side. Poltergeist was flickering. He said, You can probably recite this damn movie by now. He smelled so nice, the clean scent of his deodorant fading. Here was Trevor, so patient, waiting for me to come back to him. On the screen, Tangina was telling us, “There is no death. There is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness,” she was saying, “the light… is the window to the next plane.” Trevor rubbed Icy Hot onto my shoulder tops. He was about to change my shirt for me when I said, I’m scared. He said, Why are you scared? I said, I’m becoming like Paul. What happened to Paul is happening to me. He said, How? I said, Well, take a look at me. He kissed me on my forehead. I said, If Paul was capable of it, that means I am, too. Trevor said, You’re not Paul. You’re you. Tangina was telling Carol Anne to “Go into the light.” And the next morning, it was over but not over. This is what you do: get out of bed, slide on jeans, a hoodie, percolate coffee, fry an egg, and walk out the door to the world on the other side. I carry my dad in my shoulders, my neck; I carry Paul deep inside my hips, and that is enough.
Michael Holladay is a queer writer and teacher. He was born and raised in Kentucky and currently lives in Arizona. He received an MFA from Arizona State University. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, North American Review, New World Writing, The Saint Ann’s Review, Paper Darts, and Fiction Southeast. He teaches writing at ASU. You can visit his website or find him on Facebook.