10. Countdowns are dismal things. Let’s start there. Inhale, exhale, hatch an egg of air. Hold it snug between your legs. Trundle down the spine of an alligator then back again, careful not to fall in the spilled placenta on either side. Confess to no one that counting backward is to invoke an emptiness. That no sane person goes past three. Let the ovum fall like firn onto the cement. Watch the albumen suppurate along its crack. Reach seven then six then five then four. Race toward your undoing the same as if you’d birthed a full-blown chick, the softest feathers woven tight as a walnut. So that you tear your arm out trying to pluck just one.
At three, silence. Then a scarlet warmth. Your lover’s groin smothers the oviform ether with corkscrew hairs damp as moss. At two, he flees out the open window when you turn to hook your bra. One comes and the window congeals into a brick wall; he is sealed forever inside the mouse hole. The slenderest vial of oxygen filters through closing clay pores, until a countdown begins inside the countdown, until the man inside the wall is a man no more. Until he is less than an egg of air himself.
At zero, the wall that was once your window becomes an ossuary and your room starts to stink. The rot keeps all other lovers away, so you do nothing but finger yourself inside your bathtub at night anymore. But you don’t buy soap and you don’t bother with towels, because if anyone has time to air-dry these days, it’s you. You haven’t seen the moon’s scythe in years now and still you’re counting down. You shave your legs while standing naked on the window ledge, raising your knee even with his heart, flat as a beached jellyfish now.
You have, in other words, wasted your last ten good seconds hearing your heart beat inside a chalice drum shrill as a pterodactyl. Only this bird won’t fly—it died long before you learned to count to ten, back in Paleolithic times, when it plundered the skies with azure veins reticulating down its wings while squawking loud as a new year’s drum. Inevitably, a froideur ferments between the pterodactyl drum at stage right and your little mouse heart within, which can but would prefer not to keep keeping pace, which beats in time but prefers not to be beaten into it. Not by a drum that will soon sit silent as a sepulcher while your heart keeps throbbing all the same. While you sit sideways on your windowless window ledge, playing your wooden flute to your lover’s bone chalk, falling like sand inside an hourglass.
And then you have just spilled red wine in the shape of a paddleless canoe on your dress, wrapped tight as gauze around your vital organs. This as the chalice drum bangs on, a waking pterodactyl now.
All this racket while the window continues to blindfold itself with brick. So there is less and less air all the time.
But it’s only an unraveling, this evening and every evening after this. An unraveling of soft amethyst yarn you cannot restitch without the seams showing. Better to let your skin char to a cinder than keep your cocoon too long intact. Until your paddleless canoe widens into a womb, threatening to expel you know not what the closer you come to the lover you have long lost sight of.
9. New Year’s Eve and my husband has gone to the toilet inside a tin can trailer parked inside a warehouse swollen with tall blonde women, all wearing onyx. But my dress is emerald, an opaque jewel I have to dry-clean, and the wine-stained canoe looks like menstrual blood. He says he’ll find me, though I’m shorter than all the blonde women and my brown hair fades fast against these mud-colored walls. I have dark brown eyes that stare out of a light brown face, an oval of shifting desert sands, and I know he won’t see any sand amid all this black and gold. He thinks I disappear on purpose, but I have no choice—because I’m sinking back into the soil and becoming browner by the day. I’m merging with my roots, lunging for moisture below ground. I’m taller than he knows when you consider where I’m standing.
We have both climbed the ladder, have flown down the cobalt slide beside the coat rack only an hour ago. But only one of us laughed when we skidded onto the cement floor. When my panties slid past my hemline, thinning into silken twine in the space binding my thighs. When the egg shrank with cold from the draft and turned back into a seed of ether. When I realized there is no great beauty in flying when your feet hit the ground so fast.
Will there be any more love after he goes to the bathroom? Should I start the countdown early just to see?
8. The drums have thundered louder over the past hour, closer to the new year, when the sun will grow hotter, will burn my skin until it blisters while my vital organs grow less vital with each freezing rain. The drums keep creeping nearer, so I have to shout into his ear for him to hear me. We rotate our hips in an orbit so tight it admits no sunlight, and I tell him that the drums are mimicking our heartbeat—I tell him this twice just in case he didn’t hear me the first time. As he dances, he casts his aquamarine gaze opulently over the bodies in black. I continue talking over the bodies, each beating like they’ve all got ten hearts, three in each buttock alone. I say that, at bottom, down where our six hearts are, we want nothing more than to listen to our own heartbeat. But he winces. He tells me to be quiet so he can better hear this thumping outside himself, so I decide not to say this twice. He is not listening to his heart anymore anyway. My throat seals tight with glue, but my heart beats on, counting down the hours until it can flee its wine-stained chrysalis, emerald like the stone.
I step outside the dancers’ orbit and stand still a moment, watching the woman in the body stocking spin weightlessly as a soap bubble inside an aerial hoop. Looking so frothy she might pop. She will have to come down eventually, before the final countdown, which isn’t far away now. But there is always a countdown to a countdown. There is still time to kill before she’ll have to put something decent on, to camouflage her strength with a sweater and some corduroys. And then her descent will be a disclosure; the bubble will become a ribbon, will seem to endlessly unfurl so long as you look away soon enough. She is one odalisque among many here, all with torsos taut as rope, all equally naked inside their pantyhose without any panties underneath. Looking up at their spinning ribbon legs, I cannot see any difference among them. If you told me their names, I would call each the wrong one from the get-go. But each inside her body stocking, I assume, knows who she is. Each suspends herself with only the muscles of her toes. Each nests her own egg of air tight within her camel toe like it’s the only one there is.
7. Eleven months ago, a man with salted grapefruit lips kissed me on a train platform while snow fell in soft, small blankets, each just large enough to enfold a baby air egg. For 30 seconds I was another man’s fruit, how sweet I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that his hands squeezed me like a pack of jelly. Just enough oozed out for a single slice of toast. My hat fell onto the train tracks, and my mascara ran while our tongues swam against each other like eels. When I came home, my mascara was slanted in a black line across my cheek looking like a scar. All this wet snow, I said, then bought the same hat the next day after lunch.
My husband doesn’t want to hear about heartbeats while his eyes stroke the thighs of the women in onyx, and he won’t want to hear about salted grapefruit either. So I’ll keep those 30 seconds packed inside the darkness where I make my eggs, eggs to hold when I too disappear inside a wall with only a slim vial of oxygen left, when I begin to unfurl like an aerial dancer even if I’m not wearing a body stocking. I’ll unravel sooner rather than later too because I knew on the train platform and beneath the falling snow that I never wanted him to get a haircut, that of course he would anyway. Because he wouldn’t want to trip over any split ends or wear it in a ponytail when the weather got hot. But grazing his shoulders, his hair was the length of a flaccid broom head, cut so it could sweep all the dust on my bookshelves away.
For a time, I wished some strands had stuck to my coat, but none did. In a month, I knew, his hair would grow two inches longer; he would have it cut three more inches in four months’ time. And then he’ll keep clipping it back, counting time in reverse until he squeezes more jelly out of someone else. Until he can no longer taste the toast we made together.
6. A woman in a white corset sachets past on striped stilts while holding a lace parasol. The corset pushes her breasts so far forward they look pained with holding their small store of milk, not more than enough to feed the runt of the litter, the one with the wettest nose. Someone has covered all the steel beams with faux birch bark, and my husband points to them in drunken wonder. But I have already noticed that the knots are spaced with too mathematical a precision—no branches worth holding any birds’ nests would ever grow like that. He is angry with me that I don’t look long enough, at bark that is no bark at all, only symmetrically mottled cardboard, painted to look weather-beaten but that would soon crumble in the rain. He thinks I am missing the point, though I am the one who laughed when she landed on a bed of cement at the bottom of the slide, who spilled her egg of air without crying and making a scene.
Then all those steel branches are groping toward a sky they will never see while real plants grow toward the sun. These just keep the warehouse from falling down. And then bark protects a tree from only so much pain. It is no protection at all once someone cuts the tree at its ankles.
When my uncle was 16 years old, he planted a hundred walnut trees on the farm that became my father’s and then my sister’s and my own after he died. When I asked my father why, why so many walnut trees, each slender as a cattail and all straddling a bleak arroyo, he said it was an investment. That someday we would cut all the trees down and sell their trunks to a man who made coffee tables. That we would make enough money then for a vacation out West, maybe to see that sign of a waving cowboy in Las Vegas, maybe even to the Grand Canyon. But my uncle wouldn’t come with us. Because he shot himself when all the trees were no more than 4 feet tall. His sideburns had clutched the sides of his face like orange caterpillars, but other than that I hardly remember him at all.
5. In the center of my forehead rests a chicken pox scar in the shape of a bruised strawberry. I can tell the strawberry is bruised from the way it hangs there, wondering whether anyone will pluck it from my forehead or it will just rot on the vine. My husband’s mother had the selfsame scar from the selfsame disease, her strawberry perched left off-center half an inch above her eyebrow too. Like me, she scratched herself while she was eating spaghetti with her hands after being told to resist the urge. But if you don’t scratch yourself with fingernails coated in tomato sauce, you have a smooth forehead, yes, but you’re always short a strawberry.
When I was 7 years old, my mother sewed me two cotton wings she stitched to a piece of yarn while she watched the season finale of Dallas. The wings were cream-colored with red polka dots, and I ran furiously in figure eights trying to make them catch wind that refused to blow through our school gymnasium. I bounded and leapt while the rest of the class sang the saddest song in the world, about the extinction of pterodactyls. But the featherless birds deprived of oxygen longer than any lover behind any wall were only incidental. The main thing was that I had my wings.
After my chicken pox had gone, my mother made me wear bangs to cover my scar. But then my forehead was cut too large in any case, she said, and the bangs killed two birds with one stone. They were far enough a distance from the space between my legs not to tickle any egg of air. Then when I ran across the gymnasium floor, a joyous dying bird, they parted and flew open like a second set of wings. Only absent their polka dots.
4. I have no interest in the Grand Canyon. Big holes are too common as it is. My mom sprouted hundreds inside her bones by the time I turned 25, when I decided to marry a man with a mother who had just as many by the time she was 40. Enough holes in your bones and you can’t stand up any more. You turn back into an egg of air and just have to hope no one drops you down a slide.
Two mothers, two more holes in the ground. Both had light brown hair. Both made the mistake of sticking their roots too far underground searching for more water before they grew enough gray hairs to count. Four months after the moths ate my mother, my father got thirsty, stuck out his roots in turn, and sank into the neighboring plot. Never needed another haircut.
The walnut trees are still growing, and I see no reason to cut them any time soon. I don’t drink enough coffee to need a whole table for it, and I don’t want to go out West. Real eggs I keep in the refrigerator, and I make my coffee at home. But I always go out for tea, sipping it slowly as swamp water while standing beside a statue of a lion with tawny arteries frozen in its mane at counter’s edge. Sipping it slowly so I can talk longer to the man behind the cash register, the man who tames the plastic lion and who will never smear my mascara into another scar.
3. As the walnut trees grew taller, they made shade for our sheep, who birthed their lambs in March and had their hair cut on Good Friday, who went limp when we grabbed them by the nape of their necks and shaved all the wool off their bellies, whose eyes shone fulgent as polished emeralds in our headlights’ glare. The lambs would laze like unmelted patches of snow beneath the newborn walnut leaves. While we slept, wild dogs would come to chew their legs, leaving muscle sinews hanging thin as spaghetti, dripping blood red as marinara sauce in the new green grass. Unable to raise them to suckle, their mothers would bellow so loud I’d have to stuff my ears with toilet paper just to have some peace.
2. If we dance, we dance like sea anemones, waving only our arms and keeping our feet planted in the concrete where the birch trees grow. This while the chalice drum grows larger. Expanding with time and ready to devour us all. But the space between us widens while the drum maunders on. Another woman in a corset, this one black, begins wrestling with a man in a bear costume. His claws resemble desiccated palm fronds, but even trees here will tear at your dress, and one of her breasts soon bursts from its cage. The bear at bites her nipple, purple as a plum, and both fall to their knees, making a bed of a swath of cold floor, a bed I would have lain down in before if I had only known it was there. People gather and laugh while I try to swim through the air, but my tentacles soon wilt and I am a sea anemone no more. I look down at my wine stain, but there are still no paddles in my canoe.
My husband moves closer to the drum, the bear, and the woman still with one breast hanging out her corset, limp as a white worm entering an apple, while the woman on stilts walks toward me and holds her parasol over my head, where she senses there is rain. My husband cannot see me anymore for the throng of sea creatures roiling between us, and at last the countdown begins. At midnight, the room darkens into a dry bottle of ink. I raise myself on my tiptoes and scan the crowd for his eyes seeking mine but see only a man with a small top hat attached to a headband instead where the parasol was a moment ago. The man is bald. He has shaved off all his strength just so he could wear a velvet headband, his top hat no bigger than a tea cup, while offering no one a drink. He has no one to kiss either, but our eyes meet and his say he doesn’t want to kiss me. The first revelation of the new year.
1. Twelve hours later, I plod through heavy snowfall to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with Catherine Deneuve, to watch her womb grow gravid with enough dramatic tension to burst into song—because this is a musical, even if it is in subtitles—and she is carrying an egg of more than air, maybe foam or eiderdown, while her lover ventures off camera to war. In the theater, I cross and recross my legs then spin my beret around my finger so fast its cotton spoke disappears while I watch a man with a red beard and camel coat stare into the blank screen and begin to wonder when the movie will start. Half an hour later, the lights darken into an absence and I realize I have sat in the wrong theater all along. That I am about to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That there will be bullets bursting through rib cages instead of the quiet suffocation of misplaced love. That I have already chewed through all my ice and am thirsty still.
Clint Eastwood’s eyelids contract into cold diamonds while he aims his pistol, and I unpeel a banana I have tucked inside my purse. Three bites in, I taste the marrow of black honey. I look down and see that I am eating a bruise overspreading banana’s abdomen. Illumined by a Technicolor revolver, it looks like a defecation and becomes unbearably sweet. And I am grateful I have eaten it in the dark, because otherwise I would have thrown it away. Missing this sudden sweetness, my lips would have become dryer each time I licked them.
Walking home, the snow clots on my eyelashes. Dusk descends in purpure streaks across the skyline, and a mouse twitches its tail on the ivory sidewalk in front of me. I stop and wait for it to run away, toward a cairn of discarded Christmas trees. But it only turns its head to face me, widening its pupils to absorb more light. I walk forward a few paces to scare it away, but it only runs in tight, garrulous eddies, until it freezes then scurries toward a copse of saplings. How tall they’ll grow I couldn’t say.
A brown mouse in the snow is a cold, sad thing. The year ahead a vast, white emptiness. But behind the saplings lurks a little mouse lover, waiting to curl her tail around a broken tree root. Together, let’s hope, they’ll forget to count. That they’ll disappear deep within the dirt, where all things turn to brown in the end, and be as warm as two bodies can be.
Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago who flies her sailboat-shaped kite at close haul. She plays a nice mouth harp while aspiring to play a mean and nasty one and occasionally go-go dances at craft fairs with cookie crumbs stuck between her teeth. Invoking the memory of her parents, her mid-century craftsman on the Island of Misfit Toys, and the beauty of caterpillars, her creative nonfiction has been published in a number of literary magazines.