by Sam Moe
What happens last is I leave. I know, I know I always leave. What no one ever asks is whether or not I was given a choice. Could I have stayed, dealt with everyone, moved through my heart, whatever they’re saying these days? Eat the circumstances and whatnot. Turned my feelings into fuel for nightmare poems and dreamy short stories.
For what it’s worth, I was planning on staying. I would have gotten another cake, or even a bottle of wine from the cellar, if you’d let me. Jules is the one who didn’t want to try anymore. And I know, I know I’m dramatic; she told all her friends I yelled at her in the parking lot (false; I yelled at myself, about myself, but I guess you were right about the parking lot). And then there’s you, ocean gem, trusty pearl, lightning strike, always telling me you didn’t want things to end this way, with food on the floor, unraveled yarn, no one eating your apple pie. I’m getting ahead of myself again. And what did I tell you about green-apple pie?
I got your text about the writing, and you’re right. Always, always, I’m going to write about you. I have been writing about you, and I’m probably not going to stop. I’m not in love with you anymore. You got that part wrong.
What happens first is we go to the grocery store.
You’re up ahead with my mother, arm in arm, checking out the pears for a potential galette. I’m back by the candy dispensers with Jules.
“Your mother sure is taking the grief process well,” she says. She reaches into a dispenser filled with chocolate-covered banana chips, puts four in her mouth.
“She loves desperation. Don’t buy into it, or she’ll never leave you alone. She’s even constructing a series of three-act plays about him.” I lower my voice, so it’s just my lips brushing up against her ear. Someone scowls at us, and I wonder if it’s because we’re married or because of the banana chips. “Don’t take your medicine at the table, she’s going to give you a lecture.”
Jules laughs so loud and openmouthed, I can see stray chocolate clinging to the side of her tongue.
There are Christmas trees coated in rainbow lights, strings of greasy garland, shining ornaments in different shapes. A metallic reindeer, sunflower lit from within, bright red petunia. There is an orb with someone’s name on it I don’t recognize; then I remember we’re at the supermarket, and it’s probably the name of an expensive potato chip company or maybe even the manager.
Without giving it a second thought, I put the disk in my pocket. Robin, it says. If I could change my life, that would be the name I’d pick.
You walk over to us, your arms full of fruits. Golden Delicious apples, yellow as your favorite poison-frog patch at your old lake house. Northern Spies, Cortlands, something with the word wolf in its name. Peaches and bright pink rhubarb, a piecrust tube (to satiate my mother, I’m sure. I know you better than that), grapes the color of moth wings. Your fingers gripping mason jars so tightly that your skin becomes white as bone. Once, when we were at the lake house (even my mother, when my father was still alive), we got stuck in the mud. Not everyone, just you and me. Do you remember your duck boots? The same color as apples in October, orange like candy. You spilled your iced tea on my legs, and we laughed so hard and loud, a flock of birds revealed themselves from the trees, catapulted to the sky. You pulled me out of the mud, and I don’t know why, but I told you your house was my home. Your lake house, not your real house. And do you remember what you said?
“Pretend you’re having a nice time,” Jules says, squeezing my arm.
“I love you, too,” I reply, stuck in the murk of my own mind.
Jules frowns, kisses my neck.
You raise an eyebrow at us, asking if we can get in line already because your arms are fucking killing you.
The dream always starts the same. I wake in a field of golden light, all wheat and discarded hay bales, the tail of what I think is a cow waving in the wind, but I don’t know, can’t tell in all the sunshine. In the background is low chatter. In earlier dreams I thought it was my mother speaking to me. Now I’m older, and I’ve had the dream several times. Now I know it’s you. You’re on the phone, talking to me, but I can’t hear what you’re saying. I try to look for you, but the field is empty, aside from me (aside from the creature). I don’t think twice about Jules. I try running in every direction; I always wake up before I reach the edge of the pasture.
All this is to say the gold of the field is the same gold as your grandmother’s knit blanket, which is always folded in a neat square on your L couch. When we get home—to your home, not ours—Jules abandons me to sleep on the couch. She doesn’t ask whether she is allowed to use your grandmother’s blanket. She doesn’t take her shoes off or offer to help with dinner. She’s been working all week, teaching graduate seminars about Harold Pinter and absurdism; her legs are tired from standing, and her arms are tired from writing on the board. We both have muscle issues, but my mother only knows about mine.
In the kitchen are photographs of mothers. Not your mother, not your partner’s mother, but all the other mothers. Some I’ve met before, when we used to take sculpting classes together in the old mill, down the hall from the adopted cats, taught by a woman who only wore bad Christmas sweaters made by her daughter. Does a mother want a daughter? Or does she hope for something less menacing? A cherub or a goldfish. A ghost. If I asked my mother if she wanted me (and believe me, I’ve tried—on the lip of the tub, Sasha painting her toenails bright red; I’m ten and bleaching my eyebrows, fingers covered in bandages. I ask her if she still loves me, and she calls me ridiculous. She laughs. We both smile at each other in the mirror), she wouldn’t have answered me. She hates all topics of discussion, including interpersonal relationships.
Other things my mother hates talking about are blackouts, alley cats, rats, and centipedes. She hates the fungus on the porch but enjoys when the neighbors have an aquatic breed of bees growing in the corner of their pool, loves our cat named Lulu but never wants to see another dog for the rest of her life. She likes riding the bus downtown but hates when a stranger sits next to her, prefers the window seat and always wants to die alone. Once when we were fighting—do you remember that day? The sky orange-purple, neither of us sure if looming was hurricane or tornado, you were in the living room labeling old photographs; we weren’t dating, but we spent so much time together, my mother didn’t know what to make of us—they found a body by the river. Deer at first, then rumored to be boy, hooves for hands, a scoop-necked T-shirt, a compass in his pocket, boy face, animal antlers. We went out with lanterns to help the locals drag the body from the edge of the lake. No one questioned who it was, or what. Soon the lights went out. We hurried him by the old well. You squeezed my hand and my mother smirked at me. She hates love, too.
“Who are all these mothers?” my mother asks.
“Women I know, people I’ve seen in the street. Back when I thought I would have an exhibition that mattered,” you say.
“People came to your exhibition.” I came to your exhibition.
You smile at me, and Jules smiles at the both of us, and I wonder if this was the moment of her witnessing. Did she know, even then, about the incapability of letting go? She squeezes my hand. The oven chimes happily, ready for pie.
I remember our fingers making crow feet on the edges of the pie crust. Mixed in with the apple slices: pears, cinnamon sticks, a four-leaf clover plucked from a plant by the sink. Four knife holes to allow for air to enter, so the sweet goo bubbles only partially to the surface. Next come guests.
Your doorbell won’t stop ringing, the counters filled with dishes and cling-wrapped cookie plates, everything frosted and blue for the season, all the meat carved into thin disks, the wine uncorked, bundles of silverware tied together with thick, red ribbons; no one color coordinates better than lonely academics around the holidays. There are tinsel bundles connected to gold wires and taped above every doorway; pastel paper stars, music, and warm boots. Puddles of melted snow by the doorway, the house lit golden from within, you can barely hear it, the wind, but it’s there, pressing snowflakes against the glass screens and porch door. No one needs to worry about your cat escaping, because she’s hiding under the table, eating turkey coated in jam.
For a long time, it’s all love. Someone brings up the deer boy; everyone laughs about magic and mayhem.
“We can’t keep meeting like this,” says Frank, a professor of sociology. He’s tall and curly haired with tortoiseshell glasses and one dimple in his left cheek.
“You mean drunk on Christmas Eve?” you ask, already pouring him more scotch.
“Exactly. Why don’t we hang out more during the school year?”
You pretend not to notice he’s flirting with you; we exchange a look and you shrug. Your sweater is the exact hue and softness of an overripe tomato. I consider eating you in one bite, maybe two, if there’s time.
“We should probably drink a little less if we don’t want to be talked about at the next faculty meeting,” says my mother, but what does she know? She’s only ever taught theater to high schoolers; she’s never had to endure what we have endured.
Someone brings a basket of overripe berries, and I think I recognize baneberries, doll’s-eyes, and bittersweet belladonnas, but the bearer places the basket in the center of the table, instructs us not to touch its contents. I want to, so badly, can feel my tongue bending over backwards to escape my teeth. You are nowhere to be found, left my mother alone to entertain academics. Jules is uncorking wine, asks me to help you bring the rest of the glasses from the attic. I can’t help thinking it’s a trick. She’s going to poison us when we’re back, the scent masked behind a particularly fruity Malbec. I can hear her now, hyperfocused on the nose: vanilla scones and Saturday afternoons, cinnamon-hued holiday cookies, maybe snickerdoodle bitten through with hothouse tomatoes, birch, all those earthly scents eaten by the grapes, plucked by the farmers.
I wish I had a cigarette. I wish I understood gentleness. Could I love you the way you need me to, could I explain myself for once? Recognize my face in the faux-gold mirror out front, the one you require all guests to look into so as to allow the spirits to keep track of who (or what) enters your space—who is coming and going?
When I reach the second-floor landing, I find not you but a series of clocks all pointing to twelve, a black-and-white photograph of the most selfish person we know in all of New York City (nicknamed Santi, real name: Saint.) I remember this day vividly. Your suppressed emotions, Santi shaving his head in the old kitchen sink with hot and cold water always coming out opposite. He’d blown out all the candles you lit, claimed they quickened his pulse (“but not in the good way”). Where are you, I wonder, not just in the house but in your art? Does there not come a time of reflection, even in all that observation?
You are on the third floor, back to the staircase, collarbone protruding like wings, all the little pebbles in your spine making the pattern of an oceanic anchor, your skin light brown and freckled but only on your arms. When I reach you, after what feels like ages, I find you’re snacking on a mushy peach and flipping through a half-abandoned sketch pad. Wineglasses lie abandoned in their crepe paper coffins. A hazy look swirls in your eyes.
“Jess?” I say (though it’s more accurate to relay the word whisper, because sometimes saying your name feels like a spell to wake the dead).
“Mm,” you respond, not diverting your gaze from the book. “Do you remember any of these?”
I have this terrible habit of holding my breath whenever you’re around, realizing it later, only after I’ve become lightheaded, heart trilling like mourning doves.
There are drawings of lake ice and sea ice, also known as black ice, and frail, greasy, blue needles; blue herons with outstretched wings, an egret eating, pelicans we once saw snickering into their cove.
“Jules was asking about the wineglasses,” I say, as if that’s a sufficient apology for my half-melted gestures, shaking hands. Each page I lift trembles.
I wonder if your ex ever taught you spells to coax art to life. I should have warned you Jules sent me, though I’m sure you know, always so focused on your friends’ habits. Jules prefers to obsess over strangers; I comb through new hiding spaces, obsessing over where to hide my awful body. At every social event in your house: the linen closet, pantry, under your bed, not the shed with cat-fur-soft spiders, yes in the cabinet with the garbage disposal switch, sometimes behind your newly stretched canvases.
“What happened to us?”
I’m so startled by your question, I don’t pause to think you could be referring to our mutual abandonment of art, you after an accident with your hands, me after I found writing was a better outlet to speak to you.
“Art is nauseating,” I say, and you nod, as if this is what we have been trying to get to all along, the revelation that abandonment is good, especially when we’re doing the abandoning, when we are in control.
But I’m not in control, and the only reason I don’t reach for your face is the footsteps in the hall, small creaking noises, the shuffle of a body thumping against the wall. I think of my own dizzy and distracted walk and wonder who might be lurking outside the door. You get up first, perhaps ticked off at the disruption; instead there is nothing. Yes, the barest howl of wind; yes, the amber hallway of newly stained wood; yes, holes for mice. Yes to the ghost, just say yes, admit you know this house is haunted, by what? The answer remains unclear. The love that died between us, the ghost of my mother’s history, escaped through her mouth during a fit of laughter; maybe there are ghosts in the pie, and poisons in the berry patches. By the time dinner ends, we’ll all be poltergeists, excitedly fleeing to haunt our respective families, sisters of sisters, brothers who don’t care, and fathers who taught the mothers they don’t matter.
I have an intrusive thought you will turn around and half your face will be missing, or your teeth will be replaced with fangs. You will eat me where I kneel. I pick up a discarded paintbrush with a sharpened edge, make a mental note to ask you about this later, hold it tightly in my hand, remind myself I can kill you if I need to, if you’re possessed, if you’re demon, if you’re out of mercy.
You turn and your face is love. I ask if you’re possessed, and you laugh, tell me you need to start keeping track of the hauntings; perhaps you’ll return to art. You ask me why the pencil is in my hand.
I show you it’s a paintbrush, and your face grows hard and wooden in that way I know you love, when you’re trying to protect your mind and me at the same time.
“Oh,” you say, taking the brush out of my hand.
To my surprise, you toss it in the trash.
“Let’s return to dinner,” you tell me.
This is the part where dinner fades blue-green red. The part where I try to figure out if you were possessed, this time by some type of love spirit. I try to figure out if my wife was the one on the staircase, somehow swift enough to hide before you turned the knob. When did the door close? Has the attic always had a door? There are pictures of your mother and father in the dining room, but someone has scratched off your father’s face like a lottery ticket. I, too, cannot remember my own father’s face; if forced or pressed, I would draw a scribble, a chaos, or perhaps an oblong, an absence, void, trick, wish, puff of smoke. Used to taste his coffee when mother wasn’t looking, taking gentle sips of vanilla cream, dipped my crackers in the hot liquid and sucked on them until I developed cavities. Still, what did his face look like? Has he been following me around all this time, or am I in that space again, mixing up monsters with family, mistaking a boogeyman beneath my bed for a friend?
You told me not to get twisted up in my past, and I recall I got pissed off. It’s something I can’t help, nor can I justify it, like all the leftover love I feel for you—we’ve got to come up with a better word; four letters isn’t enough to encompass the feeling of my face being shoved underwater each time you look my way. Wear sunglasses, would you? The blue is practically stolen from the sea.
My wife pours wine. I’m having those thoughts again, of poison and magic. After dinner my body will transform into a green parrot and fly away to Broadway, where I’ll hang out on gum-stained streets, sleep on sun-soaked stoops, eat leftover soft pretzels in Central Park. I drink the wine as quickly as possible, but my arms remain where they are, no feathers, no green like emeralds, my eyes still dark brown but not black, not small and round like little coals. Oh well, I think.
There are tea cakes the color of ash. Rivulets of apples, pineapple muffins, a dish coated in almonds and half-submerged apple slices, a cloth basket carrying a vanilla loaf filled with walnuts. Someone is scooping pistachio ice cream, there is custard, there is this strange desire to eat extra-rare meat, I am craving bacon, I want to tear apart the dinner table with my fingers and teeth. I get crumbs on my chin, everything is softened butter and frozen raspberries in small ceramic bowls, I want to be ground to a fine paste or a pile of dust, you are looking at me like you’re the pestle, eager to make me into syrup.
My wife, lovely and distracted, isn’t eating. She lets her fingers brush the top of the cakes, scrunches her nose at strawberry frosting in place of cinnamon. She looks lonely, and I want to excuse myself to sit next to her. I feel a strange grape seed of love forming in my chest, blossoming into a branch, but I’m selfish. I impale too many people with my affections, my arms are hard and bony, this is my fault, my body feels yellow in a way I can’t explain.
What you don’t know about the leaving is I’m a goldfinch sailing through the window. Behind me I can hear laughter and screaming, this is a party trick, I’ll be back in time to roast the potatoes in garlic and chives, I’ll draw up my silk pajamas at dinnertime and fashion a beautiful blue bow out of the cords, we’ll see each other again, we’ll buy butter knives in winter in Boston, ornaments from that place you love so much below Grand Central Station, where the ornaments hang in the window like frosted pastries coated in thick layers of glitter and confetti, each more delicate than the last, everything is so expensive but it won’t matter, because I’ll be human and alive. Which isn’t to say I’m not animal and alive on this classic fall day. The air smells like my past, and I can almost see my ex-girlfriends filtering through the door in their burnt-orange sweaters, everyone has a different flavor of pumpkin pie, don’t they know I hate that dessert, everyone has glossy apple earrings, they make jokes with my wife, they make jokes with you, everyone is saying it’s not a sin to love more than one person, I should be free.
Freed. With beak and black stripe, I go searching for berries. Did you know there are dreams of birds? In the dreams of birds there are worms. There are different words for sunshine and sunlight, incapable of being translated into human speech. Everything is the color of honey pears, we can smell apple trees from miles away, we steal shortbread from windowsills and miss vanilla bean lattes but love raw vanilla beans, cracking between our beaks like Pop Rocks. In the dreams of birds are our exes, for every bird was once a human, but not every human has been poisoned to be a bird, it seems that’s only my fate, I can’t figure out where the spell was hidden. Tucked away into cream? Taking the form of the walnut I overchewed between my back molars, perhaps it was in the demi-sec, the moelleux, my obsession Chenin Blanc, all ribs and so sweet it turned my rib cage light pink. That morning she cooked me hash browns with over-easy eggs, I had avocado toast with spices, I ate omelets, perhaps it was my last meal, the food before the seeds, no more huevos rancheros, for I am a bird and I eat from the earth, but I still remember the way you liked to eat your porridge, burnt slightly on the top until a golden skin had formed, you’d joke and pretend to crack the edge like crème brûlée, I knew I loved you then, at the breakfast table, but when I was about to tell you, my wife walked into the room and asked how we were enjoying our morning meals, could she get us more coffee, sweet smile, her eyes rimmed with recent weeping, a sour phone call with her mother, or perhaps she’d known, before either of us had, that things would always end this way, a rush and ride of the wind, too-green forest, farewell over my shoulder, brief glance of my wife, pissed off she poisoned the wrong woman, tipping over dessert trays, sending forks and knives flying into the pressed shirts and knit sweaters of unsuspecting academics.
Sam Moe has received residencies from VCCA and Château d’Orquevaux. She is the recipient of a 2023 St. Joe Community Foundation Poetry Fellowship from Longleaf Writers Conference. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Peatsmoke Journal, The Indianapolis Review, Sundog Lit, and others. Her first full-length collection, Heart Weeds, was published with Alien Buddha Press (Sept. ’22) and her second full-length collection, Grief Birds, was published with Bullshit Lit (Apr. ’23). Her third full-length collection, Cicatrizing the Daughters, is forthcoming from FlowerSong Press.