Ways of Leaving
The story goes like this: a Utah writer came home early and found a man in bed with his wife. In a fit of rage, the writer took the man to the Salt Lake City Avenues cemetery and forced him to sit on the frozen ground of January. And while he sat there trembling with cold, the writer stood above him, smoked an entire pack of cigarettes, and flicked each still smoking butt at the stunned lover. Then he just walked away. I used to live in the Avenues and have walked through that cemetery many times myself; it’s a bit of a climb underneath that unmistakable western sky, pierced by tips of pines and the occasional Box-elder oak tree. I’ve also read that writer’s stories. The one about the two women who nicked their shared lover’s Achilles tendon so he couldn’t walk away from them, couldn’t leave them, has stayed with me over the years. Probably because I wonder about tactics against leaving, the ways we leave, the ways we lose.
I was once with a man who lived just below that Avenues cemetery. One night he guided me through the headstones. It had been cold and we climbed to the top of the cemetery and sat on a concrete bench. I’d pressed close for the heat of his body while we looked across the Salt Lake Valley, city lights for miles and just beyond them, the Wasatch Mountains, beautiful, blue, and snow-tipped. “This is why I brought you up here, kind of a nice view—wanted you to see it,” he said. I remember briefly thinking it was funny that he thought the view was unknown to me, that this place, my home, was new to me. Then he had nudged my shoulder and I looked at him. He was pointing, not to the valley or the mountains, but at the ground, at a tombstone, across which read “Hanson” in bold letters.
In One Love Affair, Jenny Boully writes a list of things that ripen to die, “plums, flesh, girl flesh, love affairs…” I sometimes think of the way my relationships have ended—how by the end there must have been moments when we looked at one another and saw rot. It’s not the most painful thing, but it stings a little still. Though really it’s the memories triggered by a touch or sighting, usually brief and seemingly unrelated to my past, that wrench my insides and make me recall things I’d rather forget. Like when my little brother asked me to teach him to read and I didn’t. Or when a friend died in an accident and all I could think of was the last time I saw him—how I’d refused to hug and make-up after a stupid fight. Or the way I tried to save an animal—stayed up all night outside on my parents’ porch holding the puppy. I tried to get her to take food and water, and held her close. When I look back at my child self sitting in the humid dark of Tennessee holding that small thing in my own small hands, I see just how alone the two of us were that night, and still I can’t help but think how I should have done more to save her.
When I was four years old, Annie, the mother who lived in the house behind mine, reached over the chain-link fence that separated her back yard from ours, and gave me an apple. She told me to stop drinking the pickle juice I’d taken from my parents’ refrigerator because it was bad for me. I obeyed though I told her I didn’t like apple peels and she told me to eat it anyway. Annie was married to a preacher who beat their children with his belt, with his hand, with the slight branches he’d rip from youthful trees in his backyard. I’d see him beat his son, heard the yells of a child reach past his yard and into ours. As a kid I hadn’t wondered where Annie was when the beating went on, but now I do. I think a lot of bad must have been happening in that house, and I suppose that’s obvious because one day Annie put herself in her garage, closed the door, started the car, and sat breathing in what she must have thought of as merciful fumes. Only part of her died though, so in the end there had been no mercy and her death turned out to be slow. The fumes had damaged her brain, but her husband found her before they took all of her. He ended up putting her in some kind of a “home.” I never saw her again after that day she went into the garage, but my mother did. She said Annie wasn’t Annie anymore. At some point I started wondering if her body had still been enough Annie to know to tense when her husband walked through her doorway.
Boully also writes a list of “things that bruise”—they are much like the “list of things that ripen to die.” Fruit and flesh and a place to put the name of a man. She writes: “[his name here]” at the bottom of both lists, and also on the bottom of another. The generality of it surprised me the first time I read that list, but then felt love, love given when it should be withheld, or love withheld when it should have been given, has a way of bruising. There is almost always a way of being bruised or making bruises.
The same man who took me to the cemetery used to keep dinner for me until I was out of my late night class. It would be near ten o’ clock and I’d take in the star-filled night, breathe in the cold air, and feel happy thinking of him. It was the little things he did that both surprised and gave me joy. Like when I spent hours in the library staring at my computer screen covered with my words, strung out vague thoughts and incomplete sentences, and my eyes would burn. I’d lean back and look out the windows towards the mountains and feel sad I’d neglected them so much for my studies. Then I’d close my eyes and push my knuckles into them, rubbing unmercifully. He had found me like this, sat down across from me, piling his books on the table, and then got up and left. I’d imagined he’d gone for coffee, but when he returned he’d pulled a small bottle of eye drops from his pocket and sat them in front of me without saying a word. I think that’s when it first occurred to me that I loved him.
Love is odd, especially the varying pace of it. Sometimes I think of what could ever have made Annie love her preacher husband. I suspect he hid his cruelty at first, maybe it had surprised her, and maybe she thought it would leave with the arrival of their children. I remember seeing her, months before she tried to commit suicide, lying in her living room. It was like her whole house had been stilled out of fear, and it felt like we were all laid out, fragile. She was babysitting me and I was supposed to be napping. But I peeked through the den door and saw her across the way, lying on the sofa. A yellow blanket with tiny rosebuds speckled across it was spread underneath her thin body. Her ankles were pale, her toenails a deep red, her hair a bright red. She lay there staring at the ceiling, her chest moving up and down, slow, long exhales and inhales. I saw her husband walk in and lay himself on top of her, but she hadn’t moved except to catch her breath and hold it. I scooted back onto my pallet and hid beneath the blankets.
Once I picked up a bottle of chocolate syrup and held it up to the man who used to bring me eye drops, right there amid marshmallow cream and candy toppings. I said, “I think this and some vanilla ice cream were the only sweet things I had for an entire summer when I was like eleven or twelve. Back then it came in cans, not this plastic bottle. My brother brought it home along with a package of mushroom fettuccini pasta. I don’t know where he got it, or maybe my parents left it for us, I can’t recall. We had been so excited to have something besides popcorn to eat, but that didn’t keep us from trying to out-gross the other at the table with mouthfuls of creamy pasta. We were pretty nasty kids.” I laughed. And he said, “When you laugh after telling me things like that it makes me want to cry.” I wanted to laugh again, to do something that would end this moment I had no idea what to do with. Instead I had just fallen silent and placed the syrup back on the shelf.
One night after having sex, the man who got sad when I spoke of my childhood revealed he’d been sleeping with someone else. I sat up in his bed and pulled the sheets around my naked body, trying to find words, to form a response to his confession, but I was speechless. I said nothing, but in the darkness I got myself out of his bed, reached for my clothes and began to put them on. He turned the light on before I was able to dress under the cover of shadows and it glared at my body, made me feel translucent, and I wanted him to turn it back off, wanted him to turn away from my nakedness, but he watched me closely, already knowing too much of me. I felt soft, overripe, trying hard to stiffen my bruised insides.
I took my ripe wounds and drove to the top of the foothills, just above that cemetery and sat looking out across the valley. It had been dark and ethereal—perfect. I found myself staring at the headstones, the dark iron fence, the cold grass, the black desert sky consumed with perfect stars that remind me of the time I first realized there was no god, and seeing a falling star, wondered if believers thought them a sign of the fallen, the faithless. I had been sixteen when that realization came to me and it had made me laugh low and soft, knowing my mother was beneath an icon of Christ burning herself with cigarettes, wounds she would make me see, faulting me for not stopping her from killing her own flesh.
I wonder about my own way of leaving, the way I always stay too long. And I wonder about Annie. Did she try to leave before trying to kill herself? I wonder if she was one of those women who planned her escape over and over in her mind, but never did make a move because, where would she go? Or maybe she had made a move and her preacher husband had found her, had done something terrible to make her go back. I wonder if, like in that Utah writer’s story, she felt cut up, bound to a man she could not walk away from, and he’d done that to her, made sure to keep her from leaving. But she went on ahead and found a way—not the best way, not a complete way—but a way to show that if she didn’t feel like she could leave, she could at least show she wanted to.
Rachel Michelle Hanson recently completed her PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Minnesota Review, Creative Nonfiction, South Dakota Review, and other literary journals. She currently lives and teaches in Columbia, Missouri.