TW: This essay discusses suicide and suicidal ideation.
By Brenda Taulbee
It is February and 2am and I am standing in the Holiday gas station, you know, the one on the corner of Higgins? I slipped I say into the telephone that Kelly, the late night attendant, hesitantly handed me. My cell phone is a lump of useless in my soggy pocket. Kelly has long, beautiful hair that he keeps pulled back. He likes microbrews and taking his mother to craft shows. We’ve chatted the handful of times I’ve stumbled in just before bar hour to pick up a 30-rack of cheap beer. Something to fuel the after party and take the edge off morning.
Can you come get me? I ask the phone and my girlfriend on the other end of it. The homeless man who saved my life nervously peruses the candy bar rack. Kelly eyeballs him from behind blocky glasses. If it weren’t for me he’d have run him out already. His long fingered hands splay across the glass case of Scratch ‘Em and lottery tickets like two fat spiders. On the other side of the receiver her voice is forever ago. I didn’t think I was trying to kill myself that night, but I guess that’s the story. The thing and the thing beneath it. The thing being a river, and me quickly becoming the thing beneath it. The stepping itself was easy. One second ground beneath me, the next nothing. All that dark water sucking eager at my heavy winter clothes.
Took three years of drinking like dying to finally want to do it. Die, I mean. Earlier that night standing wobbly in the streets, yelling like fuckall at my girlfriend. I don’t remember what the fight was about. They were never really about anything anyways. Bar noise and booze, the cold snaking heat off our bodies in ropy strands. We stood in the street, breath suspended all prickly and full of hurt. Her hand grabbing, my hands pushing, then she’s on the ground and I’m turning like slow motion. I’m turning like time suspended, all prickly like our breath and my body is running then, all loose-limbed and chin tucked, breathless barreling. I can hear her. She’s coming, she’s right behind me.
Two blocks away I turn my head just enough to see she is not behind me. She has picked herself up off the ground. Under the streetlight she looks small and lost; looks like a somehow picture of herself that she’ll never show another person. I keep running anyways. Cut left to the waterfront, let gravity and ice and momentum tear me off the trail to the water’s edge.
I hand the phone back to Kelly and the man is behind me holding an apple pie like a question. Not even the good kind, it’s one of those wax paper, Western Family numbers, the kind that are dipped in a glaze so sweet and sticky you feel it clinging to the insides of your ribs. My dad used to bring them home by the boxful in the summertime. My little sister and me, we’d sit on the front steps, licking sugar from our fingers.
“Get two”, I tell him. I feel profoundly tired. “Hell, get a whole box.”
My girlfriend pulls up as Kelly is putting the pies into a plastic bag. She does not leave the car.
The first time we fucked was the end of summer. Her, hard-bodied and brown from a season of carving wilderness into trails. Me, having recently moved in with my girlfriend of six months, trying hard to ignore the way her body filled her tank tops. Failing. We hiked into the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area and sat our bodies across from each other. Perched on slippery river rocks. The air hot and dry, not a lick of breeze. Water so cold it made your teeth chatter, turned your skin to downy goose bumps. She wrapped my ankles around her hips, slipped her hand up my shorts.
Those hands were hard and strong, made for gripping. Made for doing work. My swollen cunt, how she twisted inside me. Drip of sweat and river water. The sharpened sliver of polished ivory bouncing against her bare breastbone. Water like fingers tracing my spine. Me straining to listen, listen. Any second someone could be coming down the trail. Until I couldn’t listen anymore, blood pounding in my ears. The shudders took me hard, split me open, my body a story under her fingers. How coming can feel like dying. Everything so quiet afterwards.
One week later I will lead her to my girlfriend’s bed and guide her mouth between my thighs. I will tell her this is what I want, and I will believe it. Afterwards she will leave and I will strip the sheets, curling my body into the bare mattress and tracing the cushioned ridges. That night I will start my period while I sleep. My ex will never forgive the stains I leave.
At the Holiday gas station, she is waiting and I am turning to leave. The bag of pies rattles and the man places his hand on my shoulder. Everyone suddenly tense. Miss. he says. He says, Miss. Maybe you could give me someplace to sleep. I ain’t got no place and… he is wet with my thrashing, with my dripping, with the trying to smother warmth back into my body. Her hands on the steering wheel. Mine clenched in my pocket. His on my shoulder. I turn. His hand falls away. My wet shoes squelch with each step. He has nowhere to sleep. The fluorescents are too bright. Over the sound system, Weezer. Hold this thread as I walk away.
She does not acknowledge the man, or the pies, or his hand on my shoulder until we are at home in our bedroom. I strip off my wet clothes, standing naked and blue in the middle of the room. She slaps me then, hard, yelling. Did he touch you? Oh my god, did he hurt you? Collapsing to her knees, she cradles my ass and presses her sobs into my pelvis. So dramatic. I feel nothing. There are bruises darkening across the tops and insides of my naked thighs. A ring of purple and blue mottle around my neck.
I wasn’t thinking about dying when I stepped into that river. Wasn’t thinking about fucking either, or the ways they’re so similar. I was thinking about my breath tearing ragged in and out of me, the tired in my legs and feet and head. Then I stepped into the water and I wasn’t thinking anything at all. Limbs locked senseless by cold. No more breathing, ragged or otherwise. Something and then nothing, the story under the story is quiet.
I don’t tell her how salvation felt like hanging in reverse, the cinch of jacket tight against my throat as he yanked me up, and up, and out. How we leaned hard into each other on the frozen ground, him breathing heavy, me barely breathing. Jesus, girl. Jesus. My heartbeat slow and swollen and dangerous. I know I won’t die because the shivers take me hard. The chatter of my teeth draws blood from my tongue, the hot and red of it filling my mouth. I am split wide open. I am violently alive.
Brenda Taulbee is a poet living and writing in Portland, Oregon. The author of “Dances with Bears… and Other Ways to Lose a Limb” and “The Art of Waking Up” (GobQ/Reprobate), her work has been featured in a variety of print and online publications. Her words examine interpersonal relationships and the intricate ways we human together.