Before the Aftermath

Sarah Guilbault


I am living in the endless moments before we touch. I press my hand against the top of my thigh imagining it’s yours. When we leave, I lean in to smell you. We hug through cloth and nerves, our skin never meeting though I imagine your hand on me as I read. As I am found in another world, your hand lays absently on me, gliding over my knee and calf. I feel tethered to you through that phantom touch. I wonder how we will get to know one another’s bodies and perhaps through touch—one another’s souls—though that may be too much to ask. And I want to elongate the time until we do, to savor this unknown. 

It begins with a walk. Aimless wandering, our feet follow a path as our minds spill out. It’s controlled, at first. But that never lasts. And when I get home I race through the possibilities. I form new inquiries and try to hold onto the answers. The facts matter less than our cadence. Too much to share, to know, to consume the other and to be consumed. I want to be delicious. And we walk from warm spot to warm spot holding comfort in our shared words, remembering to breathe again as we laugh too abruptly. I hope we stay funny. I think I will, but I tease in something serious to test your constitution. I must be careful with someone so soft. Careful not to have too much hope, careful not to plan too much, or to write it off. 

You bring me to the used bookstore on Broadway and 80th street and I breathe deeply as the door rings closed behind us. I am drawn to the delicacy of an old mass print book with its pages pressed thin to spare expense. I admit I’ve never read Persuasion, and you buy it for me with three crumpled dollar bills. I let it fall open in my hand and the spine silently groans on the verge of disintegrating. Its cheap printing and inability to preserve itself is what I like most. These moldering pages smell sweet. Their disintegration is a reminder of death that is in some way pleasurable—we all die. And that which is perishable, I want.

If I keep my eyes closed and my ears closed, I can hear my heart in my head, the blood pumping to my brain. It’s like being underwater when I would roll over and over in the pool feeling my stomach turn and flutter up to my throat. Each somersault leading to the next only bobbing up for a brief gasp, hoping never to be called to get out. Underwater all I can hear is woosh, everything muted, even my own body is muted. Best of all if I bob up and down sipping air with each breach, I can pretend not to hear my mother calling me to get out. 

Now, on this hot summer night, it’s late—too late to sneak off to the neighbor’s pool. With my eyes closed I can feel the forty-seven hot sticky steps across the asphalt, making sure the gate doesn’t creak, I slip into the water without triggering the motion sensor lights. But tonight, I am forty-seven steps plus several thousand miles away. The windows are flung wide open to the city; the white noise of air conditioners, the chirp of a smoke alarm low on battery, a child crying to their mother. I am one of two naked bodies, tangled, sprawled on a bed. You groan that we are tired. I am not tired. I get up and sit by the window, writing by candlelight in a peeling orange journal so as to be discreet. 

A light in the window across the alley flicks on and suddenly I can see my words clearly. Each letter I write is minute, a centimeter above the faint grey lines on the page as if the words, like myself, are trying to take up as little space, make as little noise as possible. I flit back to the beginning of the journal, through a hundred pages of scribbled frustration, hope, and fear to see the first entry from two years before. 

I woke up on my birthday the year she died with no one to speak to. I couldn’t open my mouth to let out hot air, nor could I pull sound from another mouth. And since, I have become so unfamiliar with these rituals of interaction that I am not sure I can relearn them. I taste grief and she is sweet. Breathing, hands sticky from honey, radiating warmth, buzzing—I feel our presence as we were. My eyes leak, tears tickling the hair above my ears as two continuous creeks burbling up from their glandular reservoir. Good grief is a hot cup of tea in the bath. I wonder whether she would have liked you if she had lived instead of me.  

Just before you came in to gather the last of your things, I pictured you in my head. I’ve found the pictures disappearing lately. The feel and the smell I recall, like my skin remembers different kinds of touch, but we’ve never touched, not really, and without that I can no longer hear the sound of your voice. Maybe I can grasp a single eye but if I were to try to name the color it would elude me. The word for—what color eyes are yours? Gone. The moment you say it, it immediately slips through the folds of my ears without reaching my memory.

I can’t stop talking though I have nothing to say. If I stop, I might disappear, become that nothing that I have to say. I gasp for breath between the words tumbling out. I forget them as soon as they leave my tongue. Our conversations are increasingly empty, inserting more hollow words into the space expands it between us. I don’t recall your name when I go for it, my tongue doesn’t remember the shape of it. I salivate your name, let it ooze without structure. What’s in a name if all I can think of is the empty bed and the blank wall and the tattered book and the silence I keep with my head under the water.