Close to You
I wore clothes two sizes too big, which he noticed as strange as he pulled them from me.
Skin the rabbit, I thought, but didn’t say aloud. It reminded me of my mother as she prepared me for a nightly bubble bath, her favorite phrase that would subdue any restless child, especially one who enjoyed that nightly ritual. I loved taking baths. The water slightly too hot, a smidge unbearable. So hot that I would have to sit on the edge of the yellowed tub, force my feet into the simmering water. The flesh instantly reddened from contact with the heat. When the nerves became over-stimulated, I allowed the rest of my body to follow—limbs too long, gangly—and I sunk to a fetal position. I pushed my head so close to the surface, the dissolving bubbles became deafening. I felt safe.
“I want to crawl inside your skin,” I said.
His hands stopped, his belt fell to his sides.
“What the hell, Libby?” he said. His expression wasn’t what I expect. I wanted to explain myself better. I wanted to tell him that I just want to be close to him. That I loved him. But that wasn’t allowed.
“I’m sorry,” I said and opened myself up to him. When my fingers gripped the skin on his back this time, I imagined peeling back his flesh and crawling inside. He sucked breath in between closed lips and I realized that I’ve grasped too hard. My nails drew blood. Later, I will apologize. Again. And he will forgive me and go home to an angry wife; I won’t seem so bad.
One day, my mother didn’t come home anymore. I was twelve and confused. When I was walking home from school that day, I had ignored my untied shoelaces and fallen. The gazebo bridge I was crossing had a large, rusted nail sticking out. As it pierced the skin near my knee, I thought about how my mother would be so upset that I was late. She didn’t like to worry.
“I never have to worry about you, Libby. You are such a good girl,” she always said. Very rarely did she directly mention my sister—the one who left with my father when I was a baby. But the implication was clear. She would bite down on “you are” and “good girl” as to make it obvious that someone else wasn’t.
My mother wasn’t home by the time I hobbled there. I think I probably disappointed her. She probably felt abandoned. I was all she had left. I did try to clean my knee. I took my nightly bath and breathed through my nose when the hot water bit into the open wound. The water turned red, I couldn’t see the bottom, and I was fascinated by how cloudy the blood looked.
The next morning, I made my way to a neighbor’s house, out of concern for my mother, but was met with a horrified expression. One look and she drove me to the emergency room, despite my plans to wait for my mother, for when she would come home. If she would come home.
“We’re going to have to go in and clean this up.” A pretty doctor, with a friendly face tried to sound reassuring. Calm. She didn’t want to scare the weird, traumatized kid looking for her mother. They had to remove parts of my flesh to avoid a staph infection. It left me with a weird, off-kilter wobble.
I met Dominic when we were in graduate school. I was a couple semesters ahead of him, but programs like ours had a way of feeling intimate.
“Celebratory drinks, are you interested?” he asked after class which signaled the first week of classes coming to an end. The color-coded blocks of my planner screamed that I didn’t have the time, despite it being the first week back.
“I thought the first years were supposed to stick to themselves,” I joked. I felt weirdly tense but couldn’t place the exact reason why. He shrugged. A boyish charm that matched his disheveled hair and crinkled shirt—an innocence. Despite the uncertainty that swirled in my stomach, I chose to follow him to the dive bar that is tucked into the east side of downtown Portland.
When I arrived at the bar, four of the first years were tucked into a booth in the back of the corner. Cigarette smoke saturated the dimly lit room, dark for all but the yellowed fluorescent ambience above the bar.
“You decided to brave the new kids?” Dominic asked.
“I’m here,” I said, shrugged. Tried to emulate the same nonchalant manner which seems to come so natural to them, Dominic especially.
“What are you drinking?” he asked but slid his whiskey neat across the table to me. I shrugged as I took a long, steady gulp.
“Jameson, apparently,” he said, flagged down the server for another.
Many rounds later, we walked with arms intertwined back to the strip of graduate housing. My steps faltered, but his were solid.
“Watch out,” he called, pulled my pants by their belt loop. “Dog shit.” He directed with his head, but I didn’t bother checking; I let myself be guided.
“You mind?” he asked, as he plugged in the code to his front door. My unit was a couple down from his, farther down the hill and a little more outdated—busted window AC units hanging out of a couple of the apartments.
“I could use a drink,” I said, tried to sound relaxed, but the words got stuck in my throat and ended up coming out in a gravelly croak.
When my guilt built—burnt all the way through my esophagus like hot bile that churned from acid reflux—I couldn’t help but to slip into the dreamscape of childhood.
“Pancakes!” my mother chanted excitedly in the yellow glow of the small kitchenette. The clock on the stovetop read 11:27 p.m., but I knew better than to bring up the hour. That would just upset her.
“That sounds great, Mom,” I said as I desperately negotiated with the sleep that was cemented to the corners of my eyes. A tight fist rubbed the skin of my cornea raw, but I fought the urge to yawn and ignored the fact that I’d have to be up in a few hours to make it to the bus stop on time. Mother was moving around the kitchen excitedly, seemingly floating, the frills of her apron billowed around her.
“I put extra chocolate chips in yours!” She placed a plate of blob-like cakes with chocolate oozing out. I hated chocolate; she was thinking of my sister, again. I squeezed out a smile as I cut a small corner piece off and slide it between lips and teeth. If it wouldn’t have been so offensive, I’d have pinched the bridge of my nose, stifling the taste from hitting the back of my throat.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. She had been watching me, hawk-like, and I wasn’t concealing my facial expressions well enough. Apparently.
“I’m just not that hungry yet.” I forced a smile, even though I could feel the melted chocolate chips smeared against the front of my teeth—stuck to the surface like molasses. “Shit,” she cursed, dumping the rest of the pancakes into the sink, clattering echoes alerting me that she’s broken the plate. “You don’t even like chocolate.” She gripped her hair between her fingers, pulling in exaggerated yanks, frantic. She was muttering under her breath, but all I could catch were the strings of expletives.
“You need to go to bed, Libby. It’s late,” she said, and I slid off the barstool, retreating back to my bedroom.
When I turned seventeen, I was emancipated, which made my life a little easier. Foster care isn’t a place for anyone older than the toddler years—no one wants to raise a pre-teen kid who has unresolved mommy and daddy issues. It wasn’t until college that I found myself functioning more like the rest of the people my age. I found myself mimicking and curving my behaviors to echo my peers.
I would go out to bars with my classmates and signed up for yoga classes in the mornings. Mostly, I threw myself into my class work, knowing I needed to do well. I let myself live alone and that would be my sanctuary, but it all felt superficial. As if I was just going through the motions and not doing anything with a purpose in mind. Until I met Dominic.
I dreamt of opening up the taut muscles of my abdomen and sliding his cigarette inside—for safe keeping. In case he tried to take it with him when he leaves me. Yet the next time we fucked, I asked him to kiss me there.
“Here?” he asked and presses his cool lips just below my navel.
“No,” I said. He dipped his head, closer to the waistband of my panties.
With eyebrows raised in playful suggestion, he asked, “Here?” I pressed a hand on each side of his face, surely smashing his cheeks against his teeth.
“Here,” I said and push his mouth towards the right side of my abdomen, just above where my appendix had been. He didn’t even notice the faint, pink scar from the appendectomy.
I had two more like them—one perpendicularly bisecting my navel and one more lateral, right above my mons pubis. Together, they formed a triangle, reminiscent of the three-pronged tool they use to cut out the damaged, vestigial organ. At the time, doctors believed that the appendix was obsolete. Useless. That future generations wouldn’t even grow them anymore, like tails. However, newer studies claimed that as false. That it was actually beneficial—protected the healthy bacteria.
So, I was a girl who is missing flesh in her knee, but I did not have staph. I was the girl without an appendix, but I did not have sepsis. And I was a woman without a husband, but I did share someone else’s. I didn’t have anything protecting my healthy bacteria. So it festered. And swelled. Soon, I will be bursting at the seams and they won’t have no choice but to cut me open and drain it all out.
At night, when I was lonely, I though about when we were still in school—things were different between Dom and me. For one, he wasn’t married, except I would find out later that he was seeing someone. Fran. He would refer to her as someone “casual” and that would be the excuse he would use to not feel guilty about sleeping with me. Maybe he was worried I would feel guilty as well, or at least dirty. But I didn’t. I wouldn’t. It wasn’t just the sex that I craved then, but the time he devoted to me.
Tuesdays had become my day with him. We would spend it together. I knew that my time with him was fleeting, my graduation date loomed.
“What should we watch this time?” he asked, nudged me towards the movie board. The
Manor was small, enveloped in this faux red velvet that both aged it and provided it with this timelessness.
“Terminal?” I suggested, smiled at the fact that we have seen it twice already.
“Again? Are you sure?” he asked, but I heard the inflection in his tone. He loved this movie. He told me as much, and I remembered.
“I’m sure,” I said, pulled him towards the ticket booth. “I love this movie.” In all honesty, I thought it was just okay. I found Margot Robbie to be the most redeeming quality and I enjoyed the end, but it tended to drag on. The seats were crammed a little too tightly together in the small theatre. It reminded me of a venue that would be better hosting an open mic night, and the popcorn was always stale; the beer was overpriced. But we didn’t mind.
We often smuggled our own Captain Morgan and Coke into the theatre, anyway. When the previews came on and the lights dim, we feigned a fake coughing fit in order to silence the hissss of the carbonation escaping from the bottled concoction. It didn’t work—never did—and a fit of laughter ensued. When he passed me the beverage, I opened my throat, and swallowed in deliberate gulps.
He was impressed and the way he stared into my face more than the screen. I knew he was turned on. After the movie, we walked hand in hand.
“I just love how crazy Margot’s character is,” Dom said after the film is over. “They really do a great job at making her seem sympathetic.” I tried not to cringe outwardly—crazy tended to be triggering for me. I didn’t think she seemed like anything. She was clearly the sympathetic character, but I nodded and squeezed his warm hand with my own. My nails slightly pressed into his skin and I smiled outwardly at the faint crescents that leave an impression on him.
“Should we go back to yours?” he asked.
“Or I could stay the night at yours.”
“I wish, babe, but no can do. Fran is coming over later tonight.”
I found myself nodding and smiling through clenched teeth. I squeezed a little harder and smiled a little more when I heard him hiss through teeth.
“Careful, you got me,” he joked, rubbed the crescent impressions on his hand. I sighed at the loss of contact when he let go of my hand, but reveled when he slid the same hand into my back pocket. Secretly, I was hoping that I marked him deep enough that it will last through the night and mock Fran when they’re together later.
Dominic patted my thigh and I’m reminded of where my mind should be.
“You seem distracted,” he said, but I just pulled him closer into me.
When Dom was finished, he laid there naked, and reached for a cigarette. His wife didn’t let him smoke at home.
It’s not good for anyone. You can give Sparky cancer. Secondhand smoke is prevalent with pets, she said to him constantly. So, I allowed him to smoke—in my car, in my bed. Hell, I would let him put his cigarettes out on me. If he asked.
“I want you to rip me open,” I said. His reaction was much more guarded, this time. Skeptical.
“You’re just trying to get a reaction out of me. I don’t feel like these childish antics today.” He took another drag from his cigarette and I offered a shy smile. I allowed him to think he’s right. That it was superficial. Childish, even. He left soon after, but the discarded cigarette butt remained in the ashtray next to his side of the bed. I gave him his own side of the bed, a boundary that I don’t cross, unless he’s there to fill the void.
Earlier, when we first met, I used to curl myself into him after we had fucked. When he was still angry at her. He would spend time here, with me, and sometimes we would talk about grad school. It would make me happy, knowing he still thought of it too. Something changed a few weeks ago though—he wasn’t angry at her anymore. I didn’t know what happened or why he felt disappointed with me. But I was trying to cling to him. I didn’t want to lose him too. My knee aches at the thought.
That night, I lay in my tub. Bubbles long past dissolved and my skin is wrinkled and reddened. The zigs and zags of my scar across my knee looked particularly angry. The stark whiteness glared against the backdrop of the warm flesh. I wanted to slice it open and put my hand inside. When I was younger, after I had my incident, I was placed in temporary custody of the state while they tried to locate my mother. It had been odd, I remembered everyone describing it as such, but she had just vanished. It wasn’t as if she had worked much. I only remembered her having temp jobs that kept her busy for part of the day while I was at school. Later, I found out that she had received spousal support from my father, a fact I found especially strange. He never came for me, but he provided my mother with money. Now I understand that I didn’t belong to him.
I often find myself distracted—at work in the call center, when I was writing my freelance projects, and even when Dom slept next to me. I went to work for The Bureau of Communication in Multnomah County. I had to leave my walk-up by 4:15 p.m. Sunday through Thursday to make my shift at 5:30 p.m. in Portland. Traffic was always terrible, so the 45-minute drive often became an hour. I hated to be late; it made me frantic and I hated the thought that calls were going unanswered. I really missed living in Portland—near the campus, downtown, Dom. One particular call almost left me unwound. A man’s voice on the phone—gravelly, at first—and when I answered, my heart felt into the most unusual rhythm, until I realized it wasn’t Dom I was speaking to, but a man named Reed.
“It’s my wife. It’s Tilly. There’s been an accident. She—she was just taking a bath. And the blood. There’s so much.” His voice—manic, concerned—broke, and I knew. I knew his wife had done this on purpose. I could picture her. Except, when I did, it’s Fran’s face I see. Fran and Dom. Dom and Fran. And I knew, he couldn’t ever leave her. I could also picture the tub. It was yellowed and the water was tinged red. Dark red. The wound was opened and flowed, and all the bacteria sat there—mingled together.
“She’s so cold,” Reed said.
“Apply pressure, Reed. Help is on the way. They’re very close,” I said. Careful. Methodical. Watched the coordinates on the screen get closer and closer together.
“I hear the sirens.”
“That’s good, Reed. They’ll help you. They’ll help…Tilly.” I forced myself to say her name and not her name.
“Thank you. Thank you. They’re here now,” he whispered and then I was met with the dial tone.
Dominic kept coming back to me and I was not quite sure why. I could also sense something is different; he has news, but he didn’t share. I wondered if it’s about her. Almost, I could imagine the scent of his seed swimming inside her. Someone who wasn’t defective. Nevertheless, I knew he was unhappy with his wife and insecure about his marriage, but why me? I could only relate his interest to morbid fascination. He didn’t understand me; he regarded me as a specimen to study.
“I want to eat your heart out,” I said. I came to visit him in his office and that already perturbed him. He pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. I didn’t miss the gold band that shined in my face, mocked me.
“Isn’t that from a song?” he asked. Nonchalant. He stared at his desk—his writings—a new manuscript in between papers awaiting grades. I shrugged in response; the non-verbal communication made me uncomfortable. Ghost pained in my stomach radiated to my knee.
“I’ll see you tonight?” I asked. His eyes met mine this time. Hard stare, distant.
“It’s Fran’s birthday. You know this.” I had made a mistake. And in return he retreated even further. I was dismissed.
I left his office feeling particularly fucked up. Very aware of the slight hobble in my step, I quickened my pace. I wrapped my arms around my midsection—so, so tight. The insides wanted to spill out.
My apartment loomed near and I was desperate to be inside. Safety, security—I thought that was essentially what Dom offers me. But I felt him slipping away from me. Later that night, much later, I called. His voice was hushed and forced through clenched teeth.
“Libby, you cannot call me,” he said pointedly.
“I just had to ask you something.”
He sighed. “What, Libby?” His voice was softer, sympathetic.
“Would you have crawled inside my skin, if I asked?” I said. There was a long pause.
“Jesus Christ, Libby. You need some serious fucking help. Don’t call me again.”
I tried and called him three more times. He had either turned his phone off or blocked me. I couldn’t stop thinking about him as I took the kitchen shears and tried to cut him out of me.