You Can See in the Dark
You weren’t the kind of girl who left hearts on Post-it notes, you said, but one time you left a note on my bedside table underneath a half-drunk chute of pink champagne and a lighter with a baby pig on it. It said:
animals that remind me of him:
animals that remind me of you:
rainbow fish, blackbird
I slipped the note in my drawer and thought nothing of it until you lay naked in my bed the next morning. Neither of us had mentioned the note, and I didn’t want to ask you about it. I was thinking of blackbirds. I Googled blackbirds on my phone while you lay crooked and asleep on my arm: yellow beaks, tiny black bodies, wide woodsy eyes. I clicked a link. Blackbirds run and hop quickly, typically advancing a few yards and then pausing. I put my phone away and tightened my grip around your soft belly and curled myself into the S of your back.
I wasn’t the first girl you’d slept with. You’d been with a man before me. No breasts or curves or hairless pits. I'd met him when we were picking up the rest of your stuff from his flat, when I stood at the edge of each new room, filled with your stuff, watching him step around you and trying to picture him in your eyes. Fox. I couldn’t see the resemblance. He wasn’t skinny, and he didn’t seem shy, and he wasn’t a redhead or fair. But his head was small. He’d sniff me out; sometimes he’d turn around to look at me, and when I caught his eye, he’d turn around again. Who did he think I was? I put my hand on the small of your back while you rifled through some CDs. You turned around and smiled. I felt his glare dig in behind me.
He made a fuss when you said we should get going. He kept walking around and touching things and saying, Remember when we bought this? I decided we’d been there too long. My upper lip was beginning to sweat. I squeezed your hand and you glanced over at me, arching one perfect eyebrow and kind of side-smiling: sorry. I felt like I was your best friend and we were going to go home later and eat cookie dough and maybe watch something pink and silly about how we didn’t need men. I knew we’d actually go back to my place, and I’d kiss your neck and let you come between my fingers.
When we left, I said, He still likes you. You looked over at me and gripped my hand.
Maybe, you said, then leaned closer, your lips against my ear. But I like you.
Be aware of changes in the water. Tropical fish breed in the rainy season. Distilling the water or installing a new filter or leaving the top off the aquarium too long all encourages spawning. Noise, lights, temperature. It all matters. It’s like putting on new bed sheets or pulling down the blinds – fish breed when they feel the moment is right. Like if the water gets rough or drops by a degree. They know that when the rain is coming down hard and the sky is flashing and the tide turns in on itself like the pages of a book, it’s time for new life.
When people ask me about you, I say you are scatty and stubborn, because what else can I say. I can’t say you were the first girl I saw naked or had the sort of skin you dig your nails in and scratch and kiss and hope you’ll never end. I can’t say you were the first woman I came for and that I’d hoped you’d be the last. I can’t say that you knew how to position yourself against me, on top of me, beside me; that you knew to blow air on my fingers when they were cold; that I knew how to read you by the way you felt, the way you tensed your shoulders or bowed your head or rubbed your eyes. How you’d know when I was ready even if I thought I wasn’t. You’d lay me down and move the pillows beneath me so my bottom half lay high in the air, pointed perfectly towards you. You knew to smile and disappear below me, making me know I was ready. You knew it mattered when it was too cold or too hot or too noisy or the bed sheets were untucked; you knew it wouldn’t work that way. If they ask, I’ll say that you were a woman.
We were driving back from my parents’.
You’re making this difficult, I said.
I’m not, you said, glancing over at me. I’m just saying, tell them more about me, help them change their minds. You’re not doing that.
I am. It’s not easy.
Yes it is, you said. It is with us.
I didn’t say anything. The CD jammed and you banged the radio with your fist. I pushed you away and took out the CD, blew it, put it back in again. I wanted to say, what did the note mean, why did you write it, why do I remind you of a fish? But your hands were shaking on the wheel, and I knew you wanted to light a cigarette but they were down near my feet, and there was no way I was going to get them for you.
I’d brought you to meet my parents that night for the first time, introducing you as my girlfriend. At dinner you excused yourself to go to the toilet, kissed me quickly on the lips. My parents and I sat and ate in silence. It was the first time they’d seen me kiss anyone. I figured the red in my face must be staying there forever.
You’d baked my mum a carrot cake, thinking that because she was vegetarian and took the nighttime shifts at the hospital she’d like it. She’ll be able to see in the dark when she comes home from work, you said to me the night before, watching my face and laughing and slipping your small arms around my neck and making me fall against you like a thick tree to the ground.
My mum thanked us when we handed the cake over, didn’t or couldn’t look up at you or me. Dad smiled and said, Very kind. By my side I could feel you clench.
When we took the plates away after dinner into the kitchen, the cake wasn’t there. I looked in the fridge and in the pantry, back out in the hallway in case we’d forgotten to bring it in. When I came back, you were standing above the bin, shaking a little, trying not to cry.
She threw it all away, you whispered. Who throws away a plate?
In the car, you said, I just don’t get that, that way of thinking. Isn’t it obvious to them how much I like you? Does that not matter?
The CD jammed again, and this time you swore and took it out and rubbed it against your top. Stop, it doesn’t work like that, I said, and I took it back from you and cleaned it neatly with the corner of my sleeve. We did this in silence for a bit: me breathing onto the CD, you stiff against the steering wheel.
I said, It’s not always easy with my parents.
I could feel you shake your head. We were zipping between lanes; I told you that if you didn’t slow down right now I was getting out of the car, and you spun your pale face towards me, gripping my throat with your purple-green eyes. They were like tiny galaxies I wore around my heart, holding it and the world together. Please, I said. You indicated quickly and turned a sharp left towards the hard shoulder. Then we stopped. Get out then, you said, so I did.
I was walking along the hard shoulder, once stopping at a bright orange telephone and moving on, because I thought I needed this walk, I needed to think, and then I heard tires breaking against road, and up ahead there was smoke and silence, and the smell of petrol clung to the air like a virus. You couldn’t have driven that far. But you were fast. I remember the tightness in your hands and the blush in your cheeks. I pictured you driving into the wind, pictured myself slamming the car door behind me. I ran and ran, waiting for the blue-red to fly past me and through me and light up the scene and yellow fluorescents to pull apart metal with metal. I pictured them smashing the windows of your car and thought of an aquarium, all that life and water behind the glass.
The weather impacts the blackbirds' breeding. The wetter the season, the more broods there’ll be; they know there’ll be more food when the chicks arrive. But it’s the nest that matters. The female nests alone. She will build it low to the ground; she’ll carry twigs, leaves, grass, straw. When the chicks arrive, the male will help feed; he’ll fly away, but she will stay. After a few weeks, the chicks will watch their father in the open air, stretch their wings and flutter.
I called my parents the next day and they were sorry, quiet. They said, We’re here for you. Why don’t you come over? I hung up, never wanting to speak to them again. I wanted to ask my mum why she threw the cake away on our plate; why throwing a cake away made even a little bit of difference to who was or wasn’t my girlfriend.
I lay on my bed that night and thought about your hands hard on the steering wheel and the tight skin around your knuckles. I thought about your lips against my ear. I thought about foxes, birds, fish. I sat up and took out the note from my bedside table and read it again and again and again.
Carlotta Eden is a writer and editor living near London. She co-founded and edits Synaesthesia Magazine. She can be found on WhiskeyPaper, CHEAP POP, Chicago Literati, Visual Verse and Thresholds. Also on Twitter: @1chae.
Stephen Linsteadt is a painter, poet, and writer. He is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection “The Beauty of Curved Space” (Glass Lyre Press 2016) and the non-fiction book “Scalar Heart Connection,” which is concerned with humanity’s connection, or lack thereof, with Nature, the Earth, and the global community. His poetry has appeared in Silver Birch Press, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Pirene’s Fountain, San Diego Poetry Annual, Saint Julian Press, Poetry Box, Spirit First, and others. He has published articles about heart centered consciousness in Whole Life Times, Awaken, Truth Theory, Elephant Journal, and others. Stephen’s paintings were featured in the poetry anthology Woman in Metaphor and have also appeared in Reed Magazine, Badlands Literary Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal, and on the cover of various poetry collections, and can be seen at StephenLinsteadtStudio.com.