Deadnettle and Other Weeds, in Three Acts
Already, on purpose, everybody can tell the difference between a girl and a man.
The play-act structure of my frantic dance around you builds this way, in straight, angry pillars: My body is small. That is what you like. I am nothing but the arms surrounding me. You are self-harm in a human package. The easiest avenue to self-loathing. You want to hurt me. This is independent of me asking to be hurt.
I am not easy to make happy, or any of the other lies you tell yourself to sleep better. This is not real life; it is a costume party.
In real life, there is an undercurrent of misery running through everything I touch. In real life, I do not always know what to say.
In real life, I lie here, counting the seconds it takes before you act on me. Passive recipient to your desires. The perfect girl.
Is there more than this? Am I more than this? Do I deserve more than this? If somebody were to figure out what I want, would I even believe them?
I think if I could meet the person who cared more about the contents of a package than its wrapping paper and stamps, then I would not mind the prying eyes and hands as much. (“Lookie-loos,” the Obvious Choice says, “Are what you call those people who turn and look — ” and here she cranes her neck, searching for an invisible catastrophe over her shoulder, “When they see a bad car accident.”)
After it is over, after you have twisted me into every shape and pulled me in every direction, you say, breathless, “That was amazing.”
And I, stone-faced, “This isn’t working.”
I wish I had a sketchpad; I wish I could capture the moment. I am a real pretentious artist like that. You with your tentacles flung around me, me with my wings tucked into myself. Oblivious; contemplative. Kraken, meet albatross.
It is hilarious, how close to somebody you think you can be without ever actually seeing them at all. It is devastating. How close to somebody do you think you could be without ever actually seeing them at all?
Parody of a person; parody of a Pisces. That is how I feel — like an unstopped drain, like the flood that wipes everything clean. I can’t make it stop. I really can’t.
You revolutionized me into somebody who thinks about the future for the first time. Somebody whose future is plausible. Somebody who deserves more than this.
It is stupid, how much less the sum of you is than your parts. I buy you gifts and you think it is a love language. Gift giving. Acts of servicing you. It is a dialect of selfishness: Putting my feelers on everything. Putting my mark on you, leaving myself in every inch of your space. Giving you no choice but to see me, always. Infecting every part of your livelihood and conveniently leaving you no way into mine.
I’m like a virus in that way, the way that I can ruin things so silently. You suspend my thoughts and force me to purge all the things unsaid. Unholiest priest. I fill you up with them, with all of my harsh truths and you take it, blow after blow. Like a tree in a hurricane, swaying in the torrential downpour. One day you’ll take down a power line. One day you’ll start a fire. Today, you are standing up.
I’ve never not had the words to say what I mean. You took my words. I am taking them back. You’re a reciprocal romantic. I am a fucking cactus. I purge the things I have stored for safe-keeping.
I have always gravitated towards a sense of normalcy. I love rectangular women, aligned with the corners of themselves.
I could live comfortably in the margins of somebody’s life. There is a lot of pressure in being the single basket to carry a shit-ton of eggs.
It’s New Year’s Eve, I will be twenty in three months. I call her and the phone rings, and I cross my fingers and I pray she does not pick up. I don’t know why I am calling. The phone rings and rings and keeps ringing, but I don’t hang up. It is the metaphorical afterparty, I am metaphorically sweeping away the confetti, silently willing her to burst through the gymnasium doors.
In psychology, they have this concept of object permanence. It’s something to do with children, a critical point in their development when they are able to understand that things continue to exist even when they can’t be seen, or heard, or felt. It’s not like there are two separate versions of me: one calm, in control, behind the wheel; the other in hysterics in the passenger seat. There is just me. In math, they have common denominators. The tornado, the eye of it. It is all just me.
It’s almost a relief, that I missed the boat. That I never got a chance to discolor her rose-tinted image of me. The potential of her still exists; the kind of love that feels infinite and safe, stored at the hottest core of myself.
I’m a very devoted addict.
When I think of her now, some gaping hole in me yawns wide, emptier than ever. This sense of not-good-enoughness and never-been-good-enoughness, this sense that I let her down. The feeling of me crowding my head onto her shoulder, crowding her voicemail with my high-pitched whine. Invading a space that I am not meant to be, an invisible parasite to the regular people.
It rings and rings and rings and clicks and she says, “Hello?” and, stilted, awkward, drunk, I say, “Uh — ”
A picket fence is still a fence. You can feed me, and water me, and pet my feathered head with your knuckles. Pick me up and put me down at your leisure. I live on your bookshelf. Secondhand doll with a stupid, painted smile.
My father once received a gift of exotic seafood from a patient that he treated, and he called them sea orchids. My father once had me on my hands and knees, scrubbing the bevels in between the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush. Every weekend saw us outdoors, pulling weeds until the soil permanently settled under our nailbeds. On our hands and knees, sinking into the hot dirt under the hot sun and everything is hot, lighting you up from inside out. Sweating you out. You start not to mind being dirty so much; you start to understand why pigs roll around in the mud, and it humbles you. Here, you means people, generally, or maybe it means me. I do not think you have ever broken a sweat in your life. You, particularly.
There is this weed that perpetually clung to the expanse of our home. It’s this climbing, all-entwining perennial. Incredibly persistent. They are beautiful, with these white fluted flowers. They can grow up to ten feet in height and smother the less-aware plants they creep over. Their root system slithers ten feet below the soil and strangles the others. They can infect an entire landscape if you leave them to it. Before you know it, you have a garden of weeds. And, if you are that dedicated to the idea of something, and happy ignoring its reality, you can pretend it’s calla lily.
You live in hypotheticals, the antithesis to my truths. You do not like to talk about things that are hard to talk about. I live in reality. I think I could fix the entire world, if somebody would only let me pull it up from the roots.
You say, “I don’t like to think about things like that. I figure, I can’t fix any of those problems right now, so why should I bother stressing myself out?”
I am heartbroken. That’s the only way to describe it. A split-down-the-middle kind of broken. I am heartbroken as the perfect image of you that I have spent my time chiseling crumbles and I say, “You don’t care about people?”
You laugh. “What, so when you talk about, like, world hunger — ?”
“I do,” I insist. You do not have to sound so incredulous. “I care about every single person in the world that is hungry right now. Don’t you?”
You laugh. “You’re strawmanning me? Fuck. Is this what it’s like to debate you? Just fallacy after fallacy?”
“I didn’t know we were debating.” That is true. Why would you not believe me? “I thought we were just talking.” I need you to have a heart that bleeds as much as mine. “And that’s not what strawmanning is.” Also true.
Is this really what I want? This dispassionate and fettered affection? Compartmentalizing which words to keep close and which ones to share?
Do you remember when we saw that old truck on fire from the inside out, vertical in the median? The smoke billowed up, a black, heavy signal drawing in the traffic. You white-knuckled the steering wheel. You nearly broke your neck trying to look.
I live, housed in the flaming wreckage of my body. Entirely self-contained. I cannot carve out pieces of myself and give them away, sacrificial lamb- or Adam rib-wise. More than cannot. I do not want. I do not want you to pull me out of the burning building of myself. It would be so easy, for you to be the weed here.
I guess the experience of courting me is somewhat like that of getting a feral cat to trust you. You put out your hand and let it do the rest: some days it scratches, hisses, retreats; other days it nuzzles you, all-encompassing love and adoration for the hand that feeds.
You wish you were the weed, draping your heavy body over me. You want to be the weed more than you have ever wanted to water me. Your hot, disgusting breath in my ear, and the full weight of you on me, compressing my chest into a flat, two-dimensional piece of paper. You and your venomous mouth, confirming every truth I have ever known. You sink your teeth in my neck. You say, I don’t care. Shut up. No one cares what you want. Shut up. It doesn’t matter. Shut up. Shut up. I want you to shut up. I know what I want. I want somebody to ignore all of the signals in me begging for pain and punishment and take care of me instead. I want you to want to take care of me. Not your burden, not your chore. Not your obligation. I want you to want and to want and to want and to want forever and ever.
I wish it could be enough, that you think you like me. You like me in the way people like music or art or movies. Something to consume; something to be consumed. Something to learn lessons from, some tool to teach you. It is not enough. I do not want to pretend it is. I do not know what you want me to be, besides a still body in the corner of the room.
You ask, “When you go quiet like that, what does it mean?”
I wish I could give you an answer that did not sting. It bothers you, that I am quiet. That I can cling to the mast in a shipwreck and bear it in a lofty, disciplined kind of silence.
Here is the problem: we are sitting in a lifeboat, stranded out in the vast expanse of the sea, and I do not give you my hand. It does not matter if you make it back onto the boat or not — I do not give you my hand. I do not help you back in. It is a matter of self-preservation. Lifeguards will tell you so.
You would have hated me as a child, I want to joke.
If you get back in the boat or do not get back in the boat, it does not matter. I did not give you my hand. We both know, now, that this is what I would do, and I would be okay with it. We both could have lived not knowing that.
You would have hated me as a child.
In truth, you were dead the moment you got in this boat with me. In truth, I think we both knew this.
So further back into myself, I retreat.
Here is the box that I live in, alone. I would be okay, if everybody left me alone. That troubles you. This image of me stranded in the rain clinging to my umbrella, committed to being forgotten about. Something uncomfortable sits in the back of my throat. I can feel myself choking on it. You pretend not to notice, so maybe I am not even choking.
You say I escalate too quickly, give up too easily. I make mountains out of molehills. I say I trust my survival instincts. I say as much as I despise myself and this slimy skin, I am not some stupid frog. I will not sit around in a simmering pot of water waiting for it to boil me alive. I would rather not be in the fucking pot.
This is a lot to ask. It is predictable, that things would turn out like this.
The Obvious Choice has the most comfortable couch I’ve ever slept on.
Maybe that’s why I keep finding my way back to it. It’s this giant L-shaped feature that takes up her entire living room. A couch that you could sink into and never crawl out of.
I lean in to listen to her low voice, huddled together on the island of a booth in a dimly lit bar.
“I feel like such a big fucking dyke,” she says, and she is ashamed. My heart hurts. I want her to know.
“I like you as a dyke,” I say. I don’t know which way I mean it, but I say it anyway. I really do. She is effortlessly warm, with deep dimples in her smile. I could kick myself, I am so embarrassed — to be having these feelings, to be saying them out loud, to be sitting so close to her that our legs are pressed together from ankle to thigh.
“Nobody likes me,” she says, laughing.
“I like you,” I say, and it sounds too sincere. I have a special talent for making a room uncomfortable in record time. She keeps laughing, and I say, louder, “I do!” God, is this really what women do? How frustrating, to communicate with us. To participate in this silly, meaningless dance. This withholding, avoidant game. I do like her. Still, we hang, trapped in the suspense between knowing and not-knowing.
And the truth is this:
She buys me another drink and keeps laughing, and I let the admission fall to the background.
She holds my hair while I vomit on the side of the road.
She helps me into the car. She hands me cold water, cracks the window.
She holds my hair while I lean over the toilet.
She peels off my salt-brined clothes on the couch, tenderly. Not to touch me, not to look at me.
She puts them in her washing machine. She starts a cycle.
She brings me water and Alka Seltzer.
She ties my damp, heavy hair in a knot at the top of my head.
Not to touch me. Not to look at me.
Just to do it.
And I want.