It’s a matter of feeling slight. She traces her hips and wonders where they’ve gone. The small curve of her backside seems to have straightened, flattened. Is this what’s called wasting away? Her small breasts, somehow, still feel like handfuls in her small palms. Her fingers look like a child’s, thin and frail. The nails bend when she pushes them.

It’s a matter of feeling slighted by yourself. She joins the crowds at night and tries to remember how she’s passed the time. Not one person in any of the dim bars seems to notice the deadness she imagines in her eyes, the only place that feels heavy. Maybe she’s taken to forgetting about meals—though it seems as though she’s been constantly consuming—like Mom used to do, she thinks. She used to get so angry, seeing her mother bite her nails at the table instead of eating dinner.

It’s a matter of wanting to pick a fight. With yourself. Or not—maybe it’s about letting yourself off the hook. She becomes doubly paranoid by acknowledging her paranoia. She realizes that no one senses the smallness, the hollowness, she envisions in herself. Then she thinks for a second again that these people, all of these humans, are feeling this too. She sees it in their eyes, catching vacant glances between the vodka, the gin. But she curses herself later for assuming their voids.

It’s a matter of wanting to prove yourself right. It’s a matter of thinking it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s right.
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Mom and Dad will do anything to avoid this place, you know. They’ll drive to the other side of the city if they need to. But I keep finding myself here–of course I don’t tell them.

You know how I was as a kid. Wouldn’t go to the doctor for a thing. And now here I am, in the ER because I think a little bug might’ve gotten in my ear. I don’t feel the buzzing anymore–I think I shook it out in the car–but, hey, I’m already here. Might as well make sure there’s nothing in there.

Last month it was poison ivy. Mysterious chest pressure a couple of months ago.

The truth is, I guess, that I like coming here now. I understand why the thought of this place makes Mom and Dad sick–of course that’s normal. And that’s how I felt at first, but now coming here is somehow soothing to me. Makes me feel closer to you.

I remember when you took your last breath. I couldn’t find mine. A while later, just before we finally left the cold, sterile space (where I sit now, really), I snuck outside with your purse. We’d brought your purse and all its normal contents, because why would we have assumed you wouldn’t be there to want them in a few hours? You had a full pack of cloves in there. I escaped the awful lighting and smoked my first cigarette in the parking lot there–I’d smartly and stubbornly avoided them until that point because of you, because I had to prove to you that I could.

It felt cool, refreshing.  I already was mostly numb, and the clove seemed to help deaden the still-feeling parts of my chest and core.

I started smoking one a day until that pack ran out. For a few weeks it seemed like you were still there with me.

So, yes, I keep finding myself in this same hospital, and maybe it should feel wrong, maybe it should be uncomfortable, but sitting in here I can remember those last weeks before you left, those weeks when we finally started to share more of ourselves with each other. We talked about our goals, our worlds; we talked about sex, we talked about men, your string of boyfriends, my string of dates I’d backed out on. We shared all those moments in this hospital, finally, after 25 years of being simply sisters. Surface sisters. Stranger sisters.

Yesterday I left Blake’s house in the middle of the night to buy a pack of cigarettes. I swear I hadn’t smoked since that one pack from your purse ran out, but last night I just had the itch. I drove back from the corner store and sat on his porch for a while, thinking about how you always liked Blake. Because he’s funny. He is funny, and he continues to get funnier, but I still can’t say I really know him, or that he knows me. And I realize that that’s maybe how I feel about all of this in general–how does any of this really work for people? But he does keep a smile on my face. I know that’s one thing you always appreciated.

I sat there smoking, wondering how often you fell into familiar beds with foreign men. Wondering if that’s how you perceived it and if I’ll ever perceive it differently. I know we didn’t get as far as we could have into each other’s minds before you died, but I still get the sense that you might see what I’m getting at here. Does it ever leave? I’m not saying you’d have the answers. I won’t pretend you’re some sage older sister just because you’ve passed away. But sometimes I wish we’d had just a few more moments here in the hospital together when we finally started to take the time to learn about each other beyond just the habits, the behaviors. You don’t have to have the answers, but it’d sure as hell be nice to have you here to talk about the questions.

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And, lastly, there’s Tom. Tom is the ego–even compared to Lila. He lives in Chicago and visits once or twice a month for work, which has something to do with art sales.

Tom thinks I’m in love with him. I think he imagines that I just sit around and wait for him to visit. Sometimes it’s nice to be around this kind of ego–let him think that. At least there’s no real fear of hurting him. 

Then again, I scold myself sometimes for putting up with such an ego. This man I rarely see, rarely talk to, rarely think about, and certainly never do anything for–he’s convinced I’m completely caught by him. What kind of person does that take?

Sometimes when he spends nights, I imagine his inner dialogue. Man, she’s eating this up. Oh, she’s been waiting for this. Sometimes I almost burst out laughing in bed, or wherever we happen to be. Sometimes I call Ben the day after with updates on Tom’s oozing “confidence.”

I keep this up, though. It feels safe to know his big head will both destroy and protect him. It feels safe to know that he’s not counting on me, to have these jokes with myself, telling myself at least I’m not like him. 

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Ben. I don’t know how to talk about Ben. Ben gives me a hard time, and not in the way Lila does. Ben pushes me–he reminds me of my plans to explore, to create some kind of beauty in this world. Ben’s mission is to be everyone’s stand-up man, and, let me tell you, sometimes it’s frustrating how ideal a friend he is. Ben’s plans–well, his plans are basically to do this, I think. To be there.

I treat him like he’s one of the others, but he’s not. Not because I’m falling for him–it’s not that. He’s been a friend since grade school, and he just already knows exactly who I am. He knows that my relationships have failed because I need to be pushed. And I don’t go for the pushers–romantically, at least. Ben knows that if I’m not pushed, I won’t give, I won’t share. And it’s refreshing. And, really, he doesn’t even have to push much at this point, because we’ve known each other for so long.

It’s time that’s shown him who I am. Even in the stretches of years when I’ve dodged that responsibility–because of other relationships, because of distance, simply because of my refusal to work for it–time has taken care of us, of our growing together, somehow. He’s the person my mother always naively thought I might marry–it’s hard to hide from someone who’s known you for so long.

The thing about relationships: I don’t think I can afford them, because once one’s over you’re so often left with a lost friend.  Friendship terminated. I can’t bear to lose friends.

And we all say more than friends, as if friendship is a step below anything.

So, yes, I don’t know how to talk about Ben. Maybe he shouldn’t even be a number in this list. He’s like the others, but different, better, because he’s been there all along.

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Lila is the only girl. Her skin is so soft and her heart is so cold, I’ve noticed.

I think we’re in similar positions, she and I. She’s so aloof, so faraway–she wants to maintain this distance that I’m so adamant about with everyone else, but with her, it just makes me want to cling more tightly. To tell her, “Hey, you and I, we’re in the same place here.”

She’s the first female I’ve dated, and she loves that. She hates my dog, says I might as well have an adolescent boy running around the house. When she says my name, she says it like it’s a joke. “Juu-huu-lee-hee-uuh-huuh.” She really does double its syllables, always as if I’ve just said something ridiculous and she needs to make me feel it. She is filled with these semi-insulting thoughts, lines, but they don’t really get to me. Or they do get to me, but I’m not bothered by them. I appreciate them. She’s keeping me on my toes, I guess.

She rarely will spend the entire night with me. She only comes to my place occasionally–usually we go out to see her friends play music, or simply to sit and drink. Sometimes, when we part ways downtown and I’ve drunk a bit too much, or even when I haven’t, I’ll call one of the others–usually Marty or Ben–and ask him to come over, fill that space. I think they understand what’s happening there. I think I don’t feel too great about it.

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Marty is one of the nice ones. He sometimes comes over after work–I’m not sure what he does, because when we met at my favorite bar I asked him sweetly, I think, please not to tell me–with various snack foods and joins me in watching whatever documentary or timesucking show I’ve chosen for the evening. The sugars and salts send me back to another time, another place. Childhood, I guess. When all the messes were expected and forgiven, when we didn’t worry about things like junk food. It frees me a little each time he comes bearing these things.

One night, the credits were rolling, and I grabbed a handful of cheese crackers from the large bag he’d brought over. I turned the crackers over and over in my mouth, embracing the salt. Marty turned to face me. “I just want to figure out your mind,” he said, blinkless. The salt suddenly burned my tongue, the roof of my mouth. For a moment I just took in his pleading eyes, let the burn in my mouth die down a little before speaking. “Well, maybe you’ll do better than my therapist.” Rising from the couch, I switched off the TV and made my way to my bed.

Marty joined me before long, lying behind me, matching my side-sleeping position. My mouth still stung a bit, but I couldn’t seem to get up to brush my teeth. We lay there awhile, and he placed one hand on my forehead, occasionally pushing back what was left of my bangs, and the other across my chest. I realized then just how much he might want–might be asking for, even–both my head and my heart, both of these places he’s touching but also not touching. I knew I couldn’t give him these things, and why would he want them? Used-up, broken-down. I imagined for a moment Marty reaching in, somehow grabbing hold of this head, this heart. And what if I were to let him? Eventually, I think, he’d return them to me, broken as before, barely functional.

So I let him keep his hands there, but not to be cruel, not to hurt him in the long run. I wanted–want–something to hold on to just us much as he does, I think. And I knew that as sleep began to hit I’d start to push him away a bit, squirming beneath the heat of his hands, still uncomfortable from the salt on my tongue. He knows he’s not the only person I’ve been seeing, and he seems okay with that most of the time. I fell asleep feeling mostly content, thinking surely he’s getting enough from this. We’re both getting enough from this. Enough junk. Junk food, junk parts.

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In. Up. Out. With. 

In for. 

Me, you. Time, space. 

The gap. In the blank.

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