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The Unbearable Here

Mother, here’s what I need you to know: this is going to hurt. This is going to slip under your nail, black and blue its pink. You’ll breathe this in while you sleep, a knot, edgy and fibrous, that leaves hair-thin strips of me in your soup or your peanut butter. The part of the throat only reachable by a gag. You think I never was. You claim the vast band of muscles of your lower back seize because of your weakened core. Chalk up that stitch in your side when you run to cold weather to improper preparation. When you step just so, and the tenuous collagen in your ankle tears, you blame the intricate root systems too stubborn to stay underground. But it’s me. Hi. I am the car door’s too-soon slam. The urine of lice that tingles the scalp of your youngest. The buttery fluid that settles in your lungs of your oldest. Don’t look at them–this is between you and me. You were me before I was, I’ll give you that, but we don’t choose life, we choose choices. If you live, it is because I choose it so.

*

Lost one, there are more things to fear than either of us know. See: coliseum. See: internment camps. See: iron lung. We could name danger forever and never live to see the end of it. Maybe I guessed you would’ve crossed the street without looking. Brought a gun to school. Let’s not think of could, but did. Because of me, you’ll never contract a worse illness from the ER. You’ll never throw the first punch or fail to dodge the ball or cause anything to explode. Can we be thankful, then, for how I kept you from the upside-down world? Bodies are not shelf stable. Crosswalks are as misleading as hospitals, as all spaces can be marked unsafe under the right conditions. So much of the past we make harmless in hindsight. The danger is in what didn’t happen, and what didn’t happen is you.

*

I’m glad you brought that up. Here’s what didn’t happen: hands bending at the wrist. Feet dividing water by five instead of one. Oxygen deprivation. The bomb. Fear of spiders, the squick of two balloons rubbing together, early onset dementia, outliving my child. You’re right: I crossed without looking. Stuck the knife in the toaster. Rough-housed near the edge when you clearly said not to. You got what you wanted, but the want of it haunts you like a missing. There’s only one gun in our story, and my fingers are still webbed. How about this: if you look at the spatter of points of light in the sky, don’t constellate me. If a flurry of wind whips back the hair of a similar, keep walking. Dig a ditch. Chop a tree. Write a letter. It will help with the pain while I arrow back in, tuck deep where you never thought to look, heal where you never thought to harm.

*

I never thought to harm you in the breakers or the sand. In the Walmart parking lot, broken buggy trailing a rear wheel, or later, when I called for a carriage and got a catastrophe. I do it exactly wrong, escape via dogsled or surrey or food truck. My recurring nightmare: dialing 911 on a rotary phone. Put another way, I have trouble getting from Point A to Point B. If A is me, and B is you. If A is the parking lot and B the car. If A is the speedboat you gunned my first time on water-skis, when I was thirteen and near-sighted and about to be deflowered by the Banana River. And B is the river, pulled solid and braced for impact.

*

Because it is my way, I want to look at the underneath. The impossible ecosystem of fin, gill, of creatures ghosted by the deep. The lack of extras and just in cases stuffed under where the baby fussed. The list of numbers sharpied below 911 (there are many ways to approach a disaster). Do Nots posted everywhere, even the pelicans lifted their webbed feet from the warm skin of their eggs to flash you a Stop. Can you blame an alligator for splitting the river’s skin and pulling you under? Or the river, for favoring its source over its surface? Because it is your way, you want to look at what you lost. Inhale to exhale. Blue blood forced red. The shift from only to oldest. Yes. It happened exactly that way.

*

The way cypress spread their knees. The way we study what’s between. Why knees? Why now? The most pregnant you’ll ever be is when the OB says, Don’t push. Hold it in, this reptile with its grating scales, this pickled ball of pain. The way we grow around what we’re not allowed to out. I’m sure my mother didn’t know about you, but I can’t fathom it: the not knowing, the not seeing. The disaster spilling like gas, faint but detectable. Surely detectable. Somewhere a woman is hesitating. Inhale: can you smell it? Train yourself to isolate the sin from the mush. No one will do it for you. The knees are considered too esoteric for study; fieldwork in swamps is difficult and expensive.

*

I’m hesitating. I’m stuck in the wherever between walk and run. Canaled. I’m still pre-inhale, but I can tell by the smell I’m the disaster. You had time—why aren’t you ready for me? Haven’t you removed all light sockets? Replaced bleach with vinegar? Shattered each window and plastered it into wall? If it makes things easier, I can just stay here in the warm slick where I taste the buttery blip of your last meal. Will we be worthy of study? Half us long ways and have a look. We are knee and nose and lung and lip. We are blood and bone and spit and shit. Surely there’s something someone could learn from the mess of a never-born, a never-mother.

*

The canal floods, awash with souls like your choice of secondhand souvenirs. Here’s an unwrapped piece of pina colada taffy. Here’s a shark’s tooth in a corked bottle. Each comes standard with remorse: nothing ever tastes like it sounds. Everything is made of plastic. This is a wasteland littered with last wishes. The refuse of the unborn, aberrant cells and flattened helixes, all the defused danger signs, red flag after red flag. I can’t know what I had to offer you, but I hope you chose wisely. In a dream, I search your face when I meet you. Knock, knock. Who has filled you? Who has ridden you out of me and into the world?

*

Sometimes I pretend I’m you. I step you into the coil of mist in the shower, face-first water into waste. I skip the washcloth, spin soap in my palms. My skin, which was once yours, knows no lost mother, demands nothing from my hands but the clean. I wear your body like a major character—fit so snug no one notices my tips in your fingers, my lungs forcing the lift and lower of your chest. Warm in the belly of your eyes, I watch them watch us. It’s safe here: disaster burrows into the brain, not the eyes. Soon, I’ll accept your offer, ride the roar until your moon shores me. But for now, I’m nothing but full of you, filled by you, the barely-there scrap of a whisper, Who’s there? Your body unmakes mine, steam still rising, advancing, infused with soap that drips, unrinsed, down my back when you demand that I scrub dry. The maintenance of my body is work that belongs to you, as I attend to the maintenance of your loss. We divide labor between you and who-made-you, scales tipped away from chubby, from outie, from downy. You can best me in a battle of wits, but those teeth in your mouth would’ve still been called baby. You would’ve been the roundest opponent the world had ever known. This flap of existence I slipped behind, this portal I called mine, you invaded and made strange.

*

That’s where we see it differently: invaded/invader. For all you know, I was happy in my unnamable country, more so than you in yours where things only count if named. Where you’re afraid of all the wrong things—the suffocating darkness, but not the hand in front of your face; the Ernie-orange light of empty, but not the drive. Once, I was born all gills and scales, but all you could think of was the hook. Once, I was monster-made, but you dressed me quick and called me cute. These are the things I want: a back for your nails to scratch; teeth for you to pinch in a Kleenex and wiggle free; hands sticky with who knows what, for you to grab onto and hold anyway; first grade, where everyone learns that sorry goes a long way. You’re wrong, by the way—nothing made is ever really unmade, only altered into an unrecognizable.

*

Unrecognizable as the empty sockets of a child’s mouth, each tooth named twice. Arabella before the yank, Beatrice after. Naming can give you a thing, as in love. But when you became a you to me, I saw all a name can take away. You are the spoonful of sugar and the chaser. Alpha and omega. The middle snaked as a question. Because I don’t understand physics, there are nights when I try to call you, push numbers into the sky and wait for word. The stars send their delayed replies: some things are meant to be lost.

*

Maybe the stars are spot on. Maybe you lost me because you’re always looking in the wrong direction: east instead of west, out instead of in. Before & after, but never during. I’m not in the starve, or the stuffed. I’m not the bullet, nor the body. Maybe you would’ve been the kind of mother to love with the head, not the heart. Maybe you’d still be waiting to fall in love with me. We should count ourselves lucky. You pressed all the right numbers: now I’m pinpricks of skied light, constellated into something to blame. Promise to look up once in a while. You’re always so distracted with below.

*

Up, as in heaven and helicopters and satellite surveillance. You’re unencumbered by rods and cones, see straight through skin to where dirty thoughts clot. A burden to know too much, as it is for me to know too little. I invent the cadence of your questions, the insistence of your bulk, because the only other option is nuclear. Down here, bodies are our favorite things to bitch about. I can’t know you in any other way.

*

If you could go back, you would do things differently. Recoat the hanger. Sit ass-rooted when they said scoot, scoot. You would slow when the sign read In Memory of. Slit the
rope instead of the of the wrist. You would record for me the remarkable and the thrown back. The nuclear glow of immortal jellyfish and the gelatinous mess of the earthed blobfish. Conjoined twins and the stillborn. The saved at the last minute and the sorry there was nothing we could do. You would constellate the sky with something other than stars, something more unique, like tiptoes or tornadoes. You would surface the ocean’s deeped and the sink the familiar unknowable. I know these are the things you would do differently. If you could go back.

*

An invitation delivered like a threat: go back. To the known world, where wrong dosages and bullets and moments of distraction have been fast-tracked into verdicts and effects. What I’ve gotten away with and what I haven’t. You forecast the mistakes I’ll make, but you are not those mistakes. No need to look up; the stars have shot. I’m newly emancipated, slick and hungry and leaden. You roil in your country. There is no bridge from you to the unbearable here.

*

Can’t you just say that you mourn me like a first-lost? That when you cross the street your fingers throb to be palmed? And when you breathe, your lungs ache for my atmosphere? If it makes the suffering sweeter, stuff your throat with Better offs, but let the sky bleed its own dead. You’ve never been good at saying what you mean. If I had a gut, I’d keep you there to remind me of what happens when you get what you ask for. I’d settle you deep, storm you when I needed something to say I got away with. I’d say things like Now you know how it feels, then maybe a find a best friend or write a poem. We don’t need to build bridges in my country. We are already here and there.

*

Hear this, then: we always get what we ask for. The shadow self, the phantom pain. The quake that bucks you into gone. Maybe we ask for the wrong things or in the wrong language. Maybe I got what you asked for. You mainlined my Life Before, drained me and set a new default. Habituated me to lack. Played the past as if it was my future, and here I go, buying in. See: hook, line, sinker. I never asked to be changed, which is not to say I didn’t get what I wanted. I didn’t sidestep the labor then, and I don’t want to now. Let me forever be the push that yields your first last breath. I promise not to let up. Turns out, you’re exactly what I’m after.

 

Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, and The Neighborhood, from Gold Wake Press, as well as several collaborative works of poetry and prose. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University and can be found at kellyelizabethmagee.com.

Kami Westhoff‘s chapbook Sleepwalker won the 2016 Dare to Be Contest from Minerva Rising. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University.