Christiana Louisa Langenberg is the author of the bilingual collection of stories Half of What I Know. Her second collection of stories, Here is What You'll Do, was a finalist in the 2010 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is the recipient of the Drunken Boat Panliterary Award for Fiction and the Chelsea Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. Her stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Dogwood, New South, Lumina, Storyglossia, Drunken Boat, So To Speak, Literary Salt, Carve, Chelsea, Green Mountains Review, American Literary Review, and a variety of literary formats. She teaches in the English Department and Women's and Gender Studies Program at Iowa State University.
Like many times before, your memory falls easily as I open my closet door. Out of the dark behind cashmeres I haven't worn in years, the box where I keep you tumbles down into me, taps me lightly on the forehead, falters on one shoulder. Already clumsy, I reach for that side, for something, maybe the thing that hurts, or just the slipping sense of you.
And here you are. Your flat rocks collection, your cards of speckled paper in misshapen envelopes, the return address written in one tidy, vertical row. Your letters, fragile now, fold in creases like lifelines. I have read them a hundred times, and still you do not come apart in my hands. All of this startles me even if I brace myself or shield my eyes from impact.
There are few days at this point when I can sense you this clearly, bring my face into the box, inhale you like a thick fog, hold you in my lungs. Your hair, the mute weight of it, brushes my skin as I sweep my body with it, lie under the window, wait for daylight to unwrap us and see what I've become.
Had I known the last time I touched you would be the last time, I would have left my hand on your hip, because it knew how, and I would not have fallen asleep thinking there's always tomorrow.
I know this now. Even before you were gone, I began to keep you with me. I worried that things might not work out and gulped down pictures of us I loved, flung the rest in an awkward bundle somewhere outside myself. Us in the speedboat, our legs hooked at the ankles - I could feel just under my sternum every time I breathed. Your fury over me borrowing your shirt - I sent arcing over the roof where Otto the Doberman saw it as a piece of rawhide.
Yet there were days I lived less deliberately. I was scattered, easily ambushed by a shard of sun or tunnel of shade. I went from seeing to blind, content to cold, my thoughts spooled, tight in a pocket of time. I wondered how I might bear your absence, the unsounded deep of my life without you in it. As if it was possible to know, without falling, what falling felt like ahead of time.
And then this. What I did not consider. The sudden evacuation of your whole body from my world. Where, really, did you go?
I imagine where you are now, as if you must be some place because you are not here. I am not good at this swimming slowly in a current that is faster than my body can move. My words, too, are porous, a membrane that lets yesterday and tomorrow move both ways in a sloppy, synchronous movement. I am neither up nor down or both at the same time.
Like a rip tide, you once said. Like being caught and moving. It's o.k. Just don't panic.
I don't, I answered, I languish. I smiled because we knew it was true.
Better learn to swim, you said. For real. And you patted this shoulder right here.
Everything - and I mean everything - seems different on this side of knowing. The ashes of burnt toast cling to the surface of the jam. The endive bolts, gets leggy and embittered. Your teacup on the second shelf follows me around the kitchen like Mona Lisa's eyes.
I reach for you where I think you are but the recklessness of reaching pushes you aside. I grasp at nothing, everything, churn in place, lose my way, try to convince myself that the shape of missing you could somehow dredge the sky.
Like this makes sense. It doesn't, of course. I can never mark exactly the moment when it might. It just ebbs. It is like trying to catch myself at the slick edge of sleep.
Later, I don't know when, I watch my hand put your things away; my arm twitches on the lid. It moves like a prosthetic limb I am not yet used to using, though I recognize the vein, the one that rises to the surface every time I donate plasma. It begins inside my elbow and journeys the same distance in my body that it took you to get to work that Tuesday morning. It hardly seems possible to have miles inside my body. It is almost as unconscious as a morning fight anyone has had before and will have again.
We'll have to finish this later, you said. I can't deal with this now.
That's right, I snarled and banged my spoon around in my coffee. Just walk out. It'll all miraculously resolve itself while you're gone.
A pause and a sigh. Measured footsteps.
I waved at your back. I tossed the spoon at the sink.
The door clicked into place behind you.
Fresh coffee, a second piece of toast, a long delicious shower.
A bridge of time.
Then the Special Report on the news.
The continuous coverage.
The No Service message on the cell phone.
I watch the thin blue line as my blood hurries out. Somewhere, somehow, somebody spins the color from it, keeps what is transparent and returns the red to me. She presses a white sticker on my jacket that says I help save lives.
How real it all seems, how possible.
I have opened you, turned you over and over, transformed your whole self into the imprint of your face in the hollow of my neck, focused on you like a single grain of sand stuck against my days. You move within me in circular motion. A cloudy, small world. As if it is possible to be suspended and secure at the very same time.
There are other times when you seem a lightless memory, something made up, a story I once read. But that is not today. That it is far worse than this, so difficult to stash. When seconds turn to days and I am just waiting out my life.
I prefer the moments that make sense when they hit, like hail on a windshield, salt on melon, your key in the lock, things that can still happen. I don't see how they cannot.
We would have finished our conversation. One of us would have said I don't want to fight anymore.
The anemone wind chimes clatter on the balcony. My ear listens for the fragile trick of music, things that might break when they collide.
I used to think I was refracting fate somehow by feeling lonely when we were together. You sighed and rolled your eyes, clicked the theme from The Lone Ranger on the counter with heirloom teaspoons. Hurry back, get out of your head, live a little, you said. So I would talk to myself, as anyone could argue I am doing now, and retrieve myself from that slippery place, the minute feeling growing in solid weight.
Wrong time, wrong planet, says the person next to me on the metro, and I realize I am talking out loud.
Later, much later, my secret wish is one I say in my head and to you behind the cashmeres, where your scent hangs on. I want a revision of where the end found us. I have to change how fixed that is within me. I need a string of days like this, instead, where flashes of you stumble into me, settle, and I stop resisting. I promise it will be enough. A handful. Two handfuls. Spread them out over time. I will sand down what aches into a delicate thing of use. I will take what I have - a smooth chain of coarse moments - and know it is more than two lives pooled together by chance.
That, I promise, I think, I could wear.