How We Operate

How We Operate by Rebecca Bernard

I’m not doing anything so he comes over and we have sex. We sit on the bed afterwards. I think about his body, watch his abs as they pull in and out with his breathing. He is a tight young thing. I ask myself why it matters, but I know it does. I look at him, but I keep nothing. He comes. It’s over. He says he has to go and he leaves and I think—okay. This feels like before, except I should wash my sheets, only I won’t. I know I won’t. It’s hard to want to do much of anything except fuck young good-looking things and lie around and go to work and feel the inside of my mouth with my tongue. Our mom is dying. I am not a good child.

My sister calls around one and I know what she’s going to say so I don’t pick up. I get great natural light in the apartment I’m living in now. I mean, the best. Like God’s peeking his head in all the time, but today it’s dark and I’m thinking about my mother hooked up to something I don’t know the word for, so I don’t answer and I stare at the phone instead. The way I know the world: beeps, tones, silences. Can you be angry at someone who is dying? That’s the question I ask myself. Is it okay that I think you hurt me? Outside my window, God whistles and grins.

I touch my fingertips to my fingertips and think about cells. I know I won’t be alive for that long. Not that I’m dying, just that we are all finite mush and isn’t it crazy. I put up a piece of artwork. It’s next to a deer head and an old rusty hinge I found on the ground. Together, they look rustic. I put them on my wall to look at, but instead of thinking about how they look, I find myself thinking how when I die someone will have to take them down and put them in a box. Everything goes in a box in the end. It is not a sad thought. It is a thought thought. What if we all walked around in little boxes? Today I will live in my mom’s box. Tomorrow I will be in my own.

My sister calls again but this time the hot young thing is inside me. Earlier in the day I took a walk and felt so happy about how cold it was and how dark it was and how much I knew I was alive that the only answer to any of it seemed to be to find someone to have me. After he’s gone and I am doing nothing, I check the voicemail. She says Mom would really like to hear from me but she understands I am busy. I wish the hot young thing would spend the night, but he won’t. The last time he spent the night he shook in his sleep like a wounded animal. Like a raw, cold deer. It made me want to love him. But that was wrong. My own need masks itself as care for another. Only I don’t care about anyone. I am fierce. I have teeth. My box is built of tough hide and metal. I am impenetrable. Say it again.

The more days I take to return the calls, the more I wonder if I ever will. Can thinking about a person make them heal? I send my healing waves her way; she is the mother after all. She will know they are being sent. I sit on my couch that is not long enough for my body and I try to do things but I do nothing. I think instead about the brute that she raised. How dare she bring forth a child who doesn’t care about her mother’s pain? How dare she? What kind of beast did she create? I go and sit in my closet. It is my new favorite place to be. The walls are close and warm; it is like being loved by something that cannot make a decision about how good you are. Sometimes it is tiring to always have to be around yourself. Why isn’t there an escape hatch in our brains? Why can’t I sometimes crawl out for a day and be liquid, be her, be my elbow, be the God that shines purely through my windows and tells me of the happiness I should always be feeling. I don’t know.

I haven’t told anyone about my mother. I am not sure why I would. The problem with having different emotions is that there are different times of day. So that even if I am glad to be alive in the morning, that leaves the rest of the day to wonder what I’m supposed to be feeling. I’m trying to remember if it’s always been this way—have I always spent so much time noticing what I am thinking and feeling? My sister asks, ‘Are you okay? Have you figured out what to say to her? Not that you have to say anything special, you should just be yourself, of course.’ I don’t respond and the guilt floods in gentle waves. I don’t care! I don’t care about anyone! How about I close my box and we forget there was a second daughter. Because really. I just don’t care.

He wants to have anal sex. He says it like an ultimatum, but not. Which is funny. At first I ask if he’s kidding. But then I wonder if this wouldn’t be a good memory to keep. The time I did the thing I didn’t want to do with the kid I barely knew just to have another memory in place of the memory I didn’t want to have. And he’s persistent, this one. And really, why shouldn’t I? Split me open. Hurt me. Give me something good to think about later. The memory is always better than the real event. Haven’t I learned that by now.

I am walking down that one block, walking. The way it sounds and the way the ground looks and I keep thinking this is it and it’s all for this one moment the trees and the dirt and the sidewalk—the sidewalk that so many feet have crossed and bodies and all at once and this thought is here too and it’s one thing. Everything right now and all at once and all alive and she’d love to hear this she really would love to hear this she would and she could die and you would hate yourself so much if you didn’t say it to her and so what if you think she hurt you bad so what? That’s what they do right? It’s part of their job and she needs you to hold her now and tell her how she made something that can feel such happiness and know that something this beautiful exists and it’s not you that exists but this ability to see something so wonderful some sort of other etherness like a God that lives and breathes light into things and if only we weren’t a family of atheists and if only you could hear the times I didn’t call you. They are so many. We all only live so briefly. I know it. I really do. I wish you knew these thoughts without my having to speak them.

When I was little she used to write down the things that I would say. The poems that I would write out loud before I had the ability to write them down myself. Other times she would be angry and yell in public and tell me things that were wrong with the person that I was becoming. The joke was that they were things I already knew. I lie down on the hardwood floor in my apartment and feel the ground beneath me. If I lie for the right amount of time the earth has a chance to rotate and I can feel sunshine coat each and every part of my body. I find myself at bars staring at young things. Wanting to be held by something that doesn’t have a word for me yet. Feel the outline of my face from across the bar as I run my tongue around my teeth, sharpening. I wonder if I look like an old kite, something blowing away. I want to tell this to them but I don’t. I say other things. I say, ‘Hey, I like your shoes’ and they turn and they ignore me. My mind sends me electric jolts over the next few days—the feeling of what it’s really like to be not wanted. I wrap my arms around the little kid inside and smother her down to nothing.

I drink bourbon with ice cubes until I can’t feel my face and I laugh and touch it again and again for effect. Then the next day I do the same thing. I feel the guiltiest when I know I’m not drinking because of her; I’m drinking because of me. She’s a body in a white room somewhere being prodded and I’m a body here coming to life and we are separate. Only she took the time to make me. And so I owe her something. I lie like a fish on the floor of the apartment and breathe in the wet air around me and when God peers inside to check on what I’m doing I smile back and show him my teeth so he doesn’t wonder where they are. I’m yours—I’m where you left me. I want to tell the boy to hold me but I never would and besides sometimes he does it on his own, when he’s pulling back my hair and pushing me down and when I’m the one thing in the room that has his attention. He’ll look at me and he’ll ask if I’m okay. I touched the scars on his face from when he was a baby and he got burned—the scars that somehow make him more beautiful—the ghost-like traces they left on his flesh. And I think, we all want someone who suffered. But it has to be the right kind. I lie like a fish on the floor and try to paint myself beautiful colors. On the inside of my soul I’m a red and yellow boat.

I go to work and come home and go to work and come home and go to work and come home. I play loud music and move slowly around my one room apartment with its high ceilings and big fat windows. The birds sing and cluster nearby but I can’t hear them over the opera, the gangsta rap, the folk songs. I tell myself I will dance for hours but it never works out that way. My hips move back and forth making waves in the air and then grow tired like they want something else and I wait to be called. The ceiling sinks lower and then rises up again. I touch the four walls of my apartment. One two three four. The phone rings so I go for a walk.

He tells me he played high school football. That on Friday nights they were the most important thing in the town and if they lost it hurt and if they won it was the best thing ever. I put his hand on my face and he pulls it away. I want to tell him about the sailboats in my stomach. Sometimes they poke and echo as they float. I tell him I want it rough and I can tell he doesn’t believe me but he plays along. He holds me down; he tells me what I want and it makes sense as it comes out of his mouth. The phone rings and we don’t care. God looks in the window and stains the hardwood floors with his eyes, with his fingers of light. Later I’ll sit in the closet. Apologize. Sometimes the adult things I do hurt my Russian doll insides. I want to ask the boy if it’s better to win or to lose. If you keep winning what will it be like the first time that you lose? Does it hurt to use your body as a weapon?

I stand on one leg in the street. This is the feeling of being in the present moment. I switch legs. And now, here we are again. It keeps happening. I am hopping back and forth, back and forth. I want to ask who could love this person? But it’s stupid because I can hear myself thinking the answer. I love myself too much for anyone else to find the room to fit inside. My box is crowded up with my arms and legs and the halos I pull down and over my body. I pick up the beams of light left on the floor and wrap myself in them. Make a dress and wear only that and the boy sees me as naked but I see me as fully clothed in his longing.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk to her. She made me into what I am and I can’t help but feel the most grateful when I feel the most angry. I feel the inside of my mouth with my tongue and learn the space and that space was inside of her and now she is dying or not dying and it’s something I should know. I sit in the closet and dial.

Rebecca Bernard holds an MFA from Vanderbilt where she served as a fiction and music editor for Nashville Review. Her work is forthcoming or appears in journals such as Epiphany and Makeout Creek and online at Mcsweeney’s Internet Tendency. She currently lives and teaches in Louisville, KY.