Break All the Way Down is also available in Joyland Retro Vol. 1 No. 3.
The mother of my boyfriend’s youngest child called in the middle of the night. He was asleep, the heat from his body wrapping around us. I stared at the dark shadows of the ceiling fan lazily spinning above us. He sleeps soundly despite many reasons he should not.
“I’m at the front door,” she said. Her voice was tight and thin.
I tried to shake my boyfriend awake but he merely shifted, stretching his leg across my side of the bed. He snored lightly. I sighed.
The mother of my boyfriend’s youngest child, Anna Lisa, handed me her daughter, still in her carrier, as well as a large duffel bag. She nodded toward the bag. “The baby’s things.” I looked at the baby, neither cute nor ugly, a blob of indeterminate features. We stood quietly, listened to moths and other insects flying into the bright, buzzing lamp covering us in its light. My shoulders ached. The air was damp and heavy. Anna Lisa is beautiful but she looked tired. She wore a loose pair of sweat pants with fading block letters down the left leg. Her t-shirt was stained. Her breasts were swollen. I could see that. Her hair hung limply in her face. She smelled ripe. There were dark circles beneath her eyes. I don’t know that we looked different.
I invited her in, offered to give her a bath. I wanted to help her undress, pulling her shirt over her head. I wanted to run a bath of hot water, to wash her body and scrub her back and her thighs, the still loose skin of her stomach, to wash her clean.
“I cannot take care of my child anymore.”
I looked at the baby again. The baby stared back, yawned, and blinked tiredly. “You want to leave your baby with him?”
Anna Lisa shook her head. “I’m leaving my baby with you.”
My husband hates my new boyfriend. I do too. He is the kind of person everyone hates. My husband is the man I love. He likes his eggs scrambled soft with freshly ground pepper, sea salt. I woke up early every morning to make him breakfast, enjoyed the rhythm of it, enjoyed feeling useful in that way. My husband calls me daily, says, “Why are you punishing yourself?” He says, “Come home.”
My boyfriend isn’t really my boyfriend; he and I aren’t quite living together. We came to a silent agreement where more often than not, I am around. My things are still at my house—four bedrooms, three baths—with my husband. I visit my things, my husband, often. I run my fingers over the modern statue near the front entrance, the dimple in my husband’s chin, the thick, ropy muscles of his shoulders, the mahogany mantle over the fireplace. I belong with these things, they are mine, so I do not stay long.
A mosquito bit my cheek and I winced. I pressed my hand to my stomach, ignored the thin roll of scar, how it pulsed against my palm. The baby whimpered so I set the duffel bag just inside the foyer and picked her up out of her carrier, held her against my shoulder. She smelled sweet and powdery and settled as I patted her back, soft, steady. I said there, there baby love. Anna Lisa covered my hand with hers as I comforted her child. Anna Lisa’s hand was sweaty.
She did not look at the baby as she walked away.
I sat with the baby in the living room, setting her on a clean blanket. When I tired of watching her, I stretched out, resting my hand on her stomach. I fell asleep with the baby staring at me, her eyes wide open.
In the morning, my boyfriend kicked my foot with his heavy work boot. “What the fuck is this?”
I sat up quickly, holding a finger to my lips. I stood and pulled him into the bedroom. “Anna Lisa brought the baby last night. She can’t take care of her anymore.”
My boyfriend shook his head and reached for his phone, quickly dialing his ex. “This is bullshit,” he muttered. When Anna Lisa didn’t answer, he threw his phone against the wall. “What the hell am I supposed to do with a baby?”
“Keep it alive.”
He shook his head and brushed past me. “I have to go to work. You deal with this.”
I have read many baby books. After my boyfriend left, I filled the kitchen sink with warm water and soap and washed the baby, gave her a fresh diaper and chose the cutest outfit. I prepared a bottle and fed the baby and she fell back asleep. I did a quick inventory—a stack of neatly folded onesies, seven outfits, a stuffed animal, three bottles and a Ziploc bag filled with nipples, two cans of formula, a half-filled package of baby wipes, six diapers, and a notebook filled with detailed instructions about the baby’s personality, likes and dislikes, daily schedule, what the baby’s different sounds mean, the kind of accounting made possible only by the reach of a mother’s love. We needed to go shopping but first I needed to share this development with my husband. Once or twice a week, he works from home. I found him in his office bare-chested, wearing a pair of flannel pajama pants. He smiled when he saw me and I wanted to crawl inside him.
When he noticed me carrying a baby, he stood, frowning. “Why are you holding a baby?”
“A woman gave it to me.”
My husband peered into the carrier. “That’s not funny.”
“I’m not joking.”
A lot of people decided I went crazy after the accident. They kept waiting for me to strip naked in a shopping mall or eat a cat or something. When I took up with an asshole, they breathed a sigh of relief. “Your situation is still fixable,” my mother said when I was still taking her calls.
I am not crazy.
My husband, Ben, crouched down and tapped the baby on her nose. She smiled and he did it again. He looked up. “You didn’t, like, steal this baby, did you?”
I shook my head. “It’s his baby. His ex dropped her off last night. She said she was leaving the baby for me.”
Ben sat, and pulled the baby out of her carrier. He started clapping her hands together and singing a silly song. I felt the scar across my stomach stretch tightly. I ran to the bathroom and reached the toilet just in time, heaving until my back ached.
Ben appeared in the doorway. “Are you okay?”
I stared at my breakfast, floating calmly on the surface of the toilet water.
That night when my boyfriend came home from work, he was drunk. I heard him at the door trying to make sense of how his key fit into the lock and what he was supposed to do next. I didn’t try to help. The baby was already asleep in a small basket I bought for her at a baby store for people with too much money and no sense. The saleslady who knew me from a different time, looked down at the baby and said, “He’s gotten so big,” because all babies look the same and all women with babies look the same. I bit through my tongue and nodded.
I sat on the couch with the baby in her basket and we watched a reality show, one about famous people pretending to suffer from fake addictions.
My boyfriend finally made his way into the apartment. “Woman, where are you? Goddamnit,” he said when he realized I was not alone. “That kid is still here?”
He pulled me up from the couch and dragged me into the bedroom. I relaxed, made myself into meat for him. He threw me onto the bed and started unbuckling his belt. “Why are you always so damn quiet? It creeps me out.”
I said nothing. He did not need my voice. He crawled onto the bed, spreading my legs, pulling my jeans down. He lay on top of me, his body so heavy I sank deeply into the mattress. He pressed his boozy lips against my neck, squeezing my breasts between his fingers, reshaping them. It hurt. I groaned. “Say something,” he said. I closed my eyes and hoped the baby couldn’t hear her father. He slapped me and my eyes watered; the bones in my forehead felt like they would splinter. I turned my head slightly, offering him my face.
“Seriously, say something or I will lose it.”
I opened my eyes. “Don’t wake the baby. She had a long day.”
He clasped my throat and squeezed harder and harder, leaving his mark. I held his gaze. I waited for him to punish me and when he did, it was perfect relief.
My husband called the next day. “If you felt like coming by with that baby, I wouldn’t mind.”
I looked for a long-sleeved shirt with a high neck but couldn’t find one so I covered myself with a hooded jacket and too much makeup. I talked to the baby in the rearview mirror as we drove. Ben was waiting on the front porch and he came out to the car when we pulled up, carefully removed the baby from her car seat, opened my door for me. “Just like old times,” he said, softly.
I gritted my teeth as I sat on the couch, one of the first nice things we ever bought.
Ben put the baby in the playpen that has been empty in the corner of our den for months. She began playing with the toys—plastic things that made noise. He sat next to me, pulled the hood of my jacket down. He slammed his fist into the coffee table. One of the books slid onto the floor. “I’m going to kill him.”
I leaned into his shoulder, the warmth of it, and then I lay my head in his lap. “I’m really tired.”
He pushed out a heavy burst of air, rubbed my arm softly. “You can rest here,” he said, and so I did and he watched over me.
A few days later, the baby had a fever. She cried and cried, her face red with tiny, heated rage. I stripped her down to her diaper and stood with her near the open freezer while the air conditioner covered us in frigid air. She wouldn’t stop crying. She missed her mother, I decided. My boyfriend came out of the bedroom, his boxers hanging off his narrow hips at an awkward angle. I held the baby closer, whispering sweetly.
He reached into the refrigerator for a beer and nodded toward us as he removed the cap. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She has a fever.”
He took a long swig of beer, wiped his lips. “Does she need a doctor or something?”
“I don’t know yet.” I began bouncing around as the baby calmed a bit. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
My boyfriend hopped onto the counter and sat, swinging his legs. “How do you know so much about babies?”
I rubbed the baby’s back slowly. “We don’t ask each other those kinds of questions.”
He spit into the sink and took another sip of beer. “Suit yourself.” When he grew bored, he wandered back to the bedroom. The baby stopped crying, her body trembling every few minutes as she hiccupped. I sat with her on the balcony because it was cool outside and the air was clean. I called Anna Lisa.
She answered after seven rings. “Is everything okay?”
I nodded even though she couldn’t see me. “I thought you might want to know how the baby is doing.”
She was silent for a moment, coughed. “Yeah, that’d be good.”
The baby held on to my t-shirt, her tiny fingers curling around the cotton. I told her mother about the fever and how Ben and I played with her and took a long walk. I told Anna Lisa how the baby enjoyed bathing in the kitchen sink. I told her about the new outfits.
“Does she miss me?”
“Why the hell are you with him?”
“I’ll call you next week.”
I hung up and stared into the night sky, dark and heavy and still.
The baby was still fussy in the morning, wouldn’t rest easy in my arms, sweaty and squirming. She barely slept. I barely slept. My boyfriend got mad because she kept making this sound, a high-pitched whimpering, and she wouldn’t stop and it got on his nerves. I lay next to him, waiting for him to explode. He would. He did. I went slack and hoped he would beat me until my bones finally softened.
When he was done, he said, “There’s something wrong with you.”
Later, Ben called as the baby wailed lustily like an old sorrowful woman. I admired her for it. “I want to see your face,” he said.
I smiled. “I want to see your face, too.”
“That kid has one hell of a mouth on her.”
I bounced the baby on my hip. “That she does.”
In the bedroom, my boyfriend sprawled across the bed on his stomach wearing only a pair of jeans. I asked if he planned on going to work and he grunted something unintelligible. Ben was once again waiting in the driveway for us. He took the baby and jogged slowly toward the house. I leaned back as I watched him. He paused on the porch, waved. I nodded and closed my eyes.
Seven months ago, we were in a parking lot at a grocery store, the kind where everything is organic and artisanal and overpriced. For the first time in our marriage, we could afford to shop wherever we wanted. We bought lots of olives in those days because there was an olive bar at the fancy grocery store. The absurdity was irresistible. We made a lot of tapenades. We were adults. We had a boy, who shared his father’s name. He was fourteen months old, still getting used to how his legs moved him, his chubby thighs rolling around each other with each awkward step. He always held his hands in front of him when he walked. We called him BZ or Baby Zombie and sometimes, a lot of the time, we gelled his hair so it stood on end. We took a hundred thousand pictures, the excesses of parents of only children, capturing how he curled his fingers when he neared us and how his nose wrinkled just before he laughed and his eyelashes, they were so long, you could see each one like some perfect extension of his beauty. Our parents thought the zombie nickname was crude. It was funny.
Ben and I were flirting as we put the groceries in the trunk. There was a bottle of wine, some organic merlot such and such and a promise of what we were going to do after we drank that wine. I said we didn’t need to wait and he said something about blindfolding the baby for the drive home and we laughed and leaned into each other over the cart to kiss, wet tongue sloppy. Ben Jr. started smacking the handle of the grocery cart, shouting da da da da da. He wanted out so I lifted him, enjoying the weight of his body against the curves between my thumbs and forefingers. I kissed both of his cheeks and his forehead and his father rubbed the baby’s back as I set our boy on the ground. I pulled his hand to my jeans and told him to hold on to me or he’d have to stay in the cart. He nodded and grinned, his dimples deep and winking as he hugged my leg. I looked at that boy and the man who helped me make him as we stood in the center of a perfect life. The heat of that joy could have burned us all.
A young guy walking some shitty little dog passed by. Ben Jr. loved dogs, called them doshi. We have no idea where that came from but it was his word so it became our word. Doshi doshi doshi. He shouted, “Doshi,” and let go of me and when he let go, when I no longer felt that tug, I was so cold and hollow. There was nothing holding me to the ground. Ben Jr. started running and both Ben and I leapt after him but those tiny, chubby legs of his, when they wanted to, they moved real fast and we were still happy so it was hard to make sense of the urgency. Our son chased the doshi, his arms in front of him like he intended to make that dog undead. An eighty-four year old woman, Helen McGuigan, came barreling through the parking lot. She couldn’t see my little boy over the hood of her 1974 Grand Prix, a real tank of a car. Ben and I screamed. Ben Jr. stopped and turned to look at us, was so startled by the pitch of our voices, he cried. The last thing my child did was cry because he was scared. He held his arms higher, the way he does, the way he did, when he wanted to be held. The curves between my thumbs and forefingers throbbed violently. When the car ran him over, I did not look away. I saw what happened to my boy’s body. I saw everything, all of him, everywhere.
I don’t allow myself to be around dogs anymore. I could kill them all, every last one of those dirty animals with their wagging tails and long hanging tongues. I cannot stand the stink of them.
Ben and I did not go to the funeral. After the viewing, after seeing the impossible size of that coffin, we had nothing left. Our families could not understand. During the funeral we sat on the floor of Ben’s nursery, waiting for him to come home. We are still sitting there.
Ben called my name. He stood on the porch, handsome, his hair wild and curly, the baby strapped to his chest. I swallowed hard as I got out of the car. In the corner of the yard, I saw a red plastic bat. Acid burned my throat and before I could stop myself, I puked over the hedges lining the house. We used to trim them together. We’d wake up on Saturday mornings and say, “We are doing yard work today.” We’d giggle because our fathers do yard work, raking their yards in sandals and knee high socks. Ben rushed to me and rubbed my back. He said soft soothing things. He led me into the house and gave me water. I drank but my lips remained parched.
As I leaned over the kitchen sink, my shirt rode up. My head was splitting so I forgot to pull it down.
My husband rolled my shirt up further, hissing. My heart sank. I had no energy for pretending he couldn’t see what was there. “What the fuck is this? Seriously, babe, what the fuck is this?” He pulled my shirt up around my shoulders and slowly turned me around. I couldn’t look him in the eye. He traced an angry, spreading bruise along my ribcage, dark purple, almost black around the edges. I winced. “That’s it,” Ben said. “That really is it, Natasha.” He unstrapped the baby from his chest and handed her to me. “Stay here.”
“Don’t,” I said, grabbing his arm.
He shook his head and ran out of the house. He kicked the car door before he opened it, kept kicking the door until it caved. I’ve never seen him so angry. He pointed at me. “Don’t you dare leave.”
I watched as he sped away. I took the baby into our bedroom and lay on my side, holding the baby to my chest, inhaling her warm, milky breath. She finally stopped fussing and we fell asleep. When I woke up, Ben was sitting in the reading chair near the foot of the bed. I sat slowly and pulled my knees to my chest. There was a bruise on his chin and his knuckles were red raw like meat.
“Enough,” he said. “You’ve broken yourself enough. You’re coming home.”
I pressed my forehead against my knees. My chest was empty. It was nice for someone to tell me what to do. Ben stood and took the baby, still asleep. He disappeared with her and was alone when he returned. He set a baby monitor on the end table and crawled into the bed next to me. It is hard to breathe in a house with no air but I tried. I stretched myself against him and when he started to undress me I let him. My desire for him was unabated. My tongue could not forget the taste of his skin, his mouth. Pale evening light filled the room, enough light for us to see each other plainly. He kissed the bruises along my collarbone, around my navel, the dark spreads of purple on my upper arms, my thighs, in the small of my back. It had been a long time since a man touched me gently—such luxury. I had almost forgotten. Ben held my face in his hands as he kissed me, and then, I fell into his tongue in my mouth, his mouth on my breasts, his fingers between my thighs. He filled me in a way that let me know he was taking me back. I opened myself to let him. I kissed his red raw meat knuckles and his chin and wrapped my arms around him. I said, “Hold me to the ground.”
It was late, crying from another room. I lay on my back, Ben’s body half covering mine as he slept. I covered my chest with my hand, rubbed softly like that might move my heart back to its proper place. Still there was crying from another room. I tried to remember when I was. My mouth was dry and sorrow, my lips still parched, my eyes dry. Everything was dry. I ran my fingers through Ben’s hair. The crying grew louder so I kissed my husband’s head and slipped out of bed, tried to remember the geography of the room I had not slept in for months. My breasts ached uncomfortably, engorged with the milk of sweetly spoiled fruit. Ben’s shirt lay on the floor and I pulled it on then held my hand to the wall as I walked to the nursery. When I turned on the light, the baby rolled over and blinked. The room still smelled like my son. He was there even though he was not there. I could feel him in my fingers. I picked the baby up and cradled her along the length of my arm, the weight of her nearly tearing my heart out of me. We went outside for fresh air, sat on the patio Ben and I built ourselves, all brick, more yard work. I called Anna Lisa. She answered again after seven rings.
“I am leaving him,” I said. “You should know that.”
“I left my baby with you.”
“You can’t be serious. I can’t be trusted with a child. This isn’t legal.”
“I know what happened to your son, saw on the news.” Anna Lisa said. “It was not your fault.”
“This is not the answer to whatever you or I have going on.”
“I don’t know anyone else who can help me.”
“We can’t stay it here. We are leaving.”
“Don’t tell me where you’re going,” Anna Lisa said. She hung up.
The baby shifted in my arms. I traced her little lips with my finger. “What am I going to do with you?” I asked. She cooed and grabbed my finger, wouldn’t let go, so we sat like that for a long time, her grip growing tighter and tighter. I thought she might break me too. Damp circles spread across Ben’s shirt. No matter what I did, my milk refused to dry. My body needed something to feed. When I went inside, Ben was holding his phone and car keys. His hair stood on end. He looked so young, like when we first met. We were freshmen in college and he chased me across a quad because he liked the pink streak in my hair. He said he always knew he would love a woman with a three-syllable name. I wasn’t sure which Ben I was looking at and then he came to me and pressed his nose in my hair and told me I smelled like the night air.
“I thought you left.”
“I thought you said I couldn’t.”
His face stretched into what has become his smile.
“We can’t live in this house.”
“We can’t live in this city, nowhere near.”
I looked down at the baby. “She’s coming with us. For now. Until her mom can take her. The baby won’t fix what’s wrong. I’m not crazy the way everyone thinks. I know who this baby is and who she isn’t.”
“You can say his name.” Ben’s eyes met mine. Our son had his eyes. There was a time when I wondered if I could stand to look at my husband for the rest of my life. “Say his name,” Ben said.
I held my hands open and shook my head.
When Ben Jr. was born, we had been married for seven years. We are both only children. We were still young but our parents had resigned themselves to not having grandchildren and then this bright beautiful boy found his way to all of us. After the accident, I called my mother to tell her what happened. I told her while sitting on the front porch because I couldn’t be in the house where there was no air. Ben sat next to me. We held the phone between our cheeks. My mother moaned when I explained to her that my son was a bloody stretch on the hot pavement of a parking lot, that he was driven out of his shoes, that he was lying somewhere, alone and cold.
I tried to stay in the morgue with Ben Jr. the day he died but it was against regulations. A stranger with cold hands kept saying, we’re so sorry but you have to leave. Eventually, two police officers escorted us to the parking lot. I made a wild, messy scene. I’m proud of that. One of the officers said, “We don’t want to have to take you into custody,” and I shouted, “Are you fucking kidding me?” People walking in and out of the police station stared, pointed, shook their heads. The officer grabbed my elbow, pulled me close enough I could smell coffee on his breath. He leaned closer, said, “I’ve got four of my own but you have to leave,” and again, I shouted, “Are you fucking kidding me?” My throat was raw. All of me was raw. I didn’t give a damn. I would not leave my child alone. Finally, Ben snapped out of his trance and dragged me away. I fought him hard. When he finally got me in the car, he stood by my door. He pointed and said, “Stay, baby,” then ran around to his side of the car. Sweat trickled down his face and neck. There were damp arcs of sweat around my neck and below my armpits. We were rotten, filthy with grief. He turned and looked at me. “You’re stronger than I thought.” I pressed my hand against the car window as we pulled away. I said, “You have no idea.” Later, we drove back to the station, parked a few blocks away, and sat silently near the morgue window in the back until Ben Jr.’s body could be released to us in the morning.
Instead of saying something kind, instead of saying nothing when I told my mother my son was dead, she said, “How could you let this happen?” I started shaking and yelling at her but I made no sense, all yerga ghala fraty ghuja, crazy rage words. Ben took the phone. He said, “How dare you?” We stayed in the garage that night and the next night and the next night. The refrigerator where we store deer meat and High Life hummed loudly. We’d listen to it all night, pretending we were asleep, pretending sleep was possible. It was hot in there, smelled like motor oil and dirt and grass clippings. Ben kept his arms wrapped around me, never let me go.
We moved to a tent in the backyard until the neighbors complained. We cooked canned food on a small camp stove and drank wine and smoked, while we sat in lawn chairs until we were too tired to stay awake. Ben would say, “Talk to me,” and I’d try but nothing would come out but dry air. I took a leave of absence from work but Ben kept going to the office, said he needed one thing to make sense. While he was gone, I sat in the parking lot of the fancy grocery store where we bought eight different kinds of olives. Sometimes an employee recognized me and brought me coffee, said, we are so sorry. I heard that phrase so often it started to sound like one word, wearesosorry wesorry sosorry sosorry sosorry.
I lost all the baby weight that lingered and more. Ben grew angry when I said I couldn’t eat, said I had no right to ruin myself. One evening, he made my favorite pasta. When I refused to eat, he straddled me as I sat, and force-fed me. I couldn’t keep the food down. Ben got so angry he threw the beautiful clay bowl holding his beautiful pasta on the kitchen floor. He made a terrible mess. His hands clenched into tight fists and I wanted to feel his knuckles against the bone of my jaw. I threw myself into him. I said, “Hit me,” but he wouldn’t. I hit him and hit him and he didn’t stop me. I said, “Hit me or I’m leaving.” He refused so I left. I slept in my car near the railroad tracks where we used to take Ben Jr. when he couldn’t sleep. My husband found me and told me to come home. I didn’t go home.
I found a man who would hit me at a bar. It wasn’t hard. I could smell the anger on him by looking at him. I was drinking Maker’s, wearing nothing much, all bare tits and leg. He sat next to me and ordered me a drink even though I wasn’t halfway through the one I had. He tapped my rings and said, “Where’s your husband?” I slammed back what was left of my drink and the one he bought me. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. He talked and we drank for hours and when he said, “Let’s go out back,” I let him pull me along. The man pushed me against the wall and covered my mouth with his like he was trying to eat my face. He came up for air, said, “How do you like it, baby?” I grabbed him by his belt. He tried to kiss me again and I turned away. I said, “I want you to hurt me,” so he did, over and over and over again. I stopped sleeping at home. Every time that man sank his fists into my body, I could breathe a little. I used one hurt to cover another. I became a fiercely tender bruise as he broke down my skin and muscle and bone and blood until I felt nothing but the way he used my body for a few perfect moments every day, moments I’d worry between my fingers until they were well worn away.
Ben grabbed me by my shoulders and shook me. “Say his name.”
“Harder,” I said.
The baby giggled. She grabbed his shirt and mine, like she was trying to pull us into each other. Ben stilled and looked down at the baby. He let go of me.
I clasped the back of his neck and stood on the tips of my toes. I closed my eyes and saw each letter, the shape of our child’s name. I tried to lose myself in my bruising. I put the baby in the playpen and walked to the nursery. Ben followed on my heels. I stood next to the crib, gripping the railing. Our child’s favorite teddy bear was still propped up in one corner. The sleeve of a small t-shirt peeked out from beneath the pillow. And then I couldn’t stand anymore. I fell to my knees, gasping.
“Hit me,” I said. I begged. I grabbed his hand and curled his fingers into a fist and held his fist to my breastbone. I said, “Please, if you love me, hit me.” My voice was so ugly and hungered. If Ben would break the broken places in me a little more, if he would break whatever was left of me beneath my skin, I could finally break all the way down.
Ben knelt beside me, uncurling his fingers. “I do love you.” He wrapped his arms around me as I reached for air. He was so gentle, so terrible.
“My God, please do it, Ben. Please.” A ringing in my ears made it hard to concentrate on anything but the bitter ache in my chest.
He pulled his arm back and I watched his fingers tighten back into a fist and I cried out but then he relaxed. “No,” he said. “I will not.”
I held on to that crib, shaking it, slamming it into the wall until the bolts loosened, until the crib that held our child broke all the way down too. The B-E-N hanging on the wall above the crib fell to the floor. My arms grew tired and I let go of the broken railing in my hands. Sweat pooled in the small of my back. I thought about shoving everything in that room into my mouth, thought if I tried hard enough, I could make room. Ben leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the ground.
“I miss him as much as I love you. I love you as much as I miss him,” I said. I collapsed against him and somehow, we fell asleep like that, breaking against each other.
The next morning, we took everything from the nursery and put it in the backyard on our brick patio with the uneven edges. We burned all of it until it was nothing. The neighbors stared from behind parted curtains. They weren’t going to be our neighbors for much longer. I raised my middle finger high in the air. We stood and watched everything melt into a black, hardened mass—toys and sheets and t-shirts and very small shoes and pacifiers, all of it. When the fire finally died, our skin was coated with a thin layer of soot. The air reeked of the scorched memory of things that should not be burned. The baby slept and slept and slept.
We stumbled inside and I tore at Ben’s clothes, kissing him hard with the bone of my face, the whites of my teeth, wanting to feel something different even as my body ached sharply, everywhere. Ben folded me over the dining room table, his hand pressed against the back of my head as he entered me. He breathed hotly onto my neck. What we did, the way we sounded, was untamed.
After, I said, “Please get me away from here,” and Ben said, “Say our child’s name.” I held his face and wiped away some of the soot beneath his eyes with my thumbs.
In a few weeks, we would hand the keys to our house to a realtor who would eventually sell the house and wire the money to a bank account. We would tell Anna Lisa she would always know where we are. She would tell us she would not follow. We would pack what we needed in our car. We would put the baby in the backseat, listening to her babble happily. We would look back at that girl child, her features growing more and more determined with each passing day, and say this is crazy, this is wrong, this is right, this is wrong. We would drive north and west and north and west until we reached an ocean and rocky shores and green everywhere and a big, big sky to hold the baby up to while she laughed.
Before that, though, I kissed Ben, softer, softer. His curls spilled through my fingers. We tasted like the whitest heat of a fire closest to the ground where most things burn. I said Ben Jr.’s name into his mouth, memorized the charred taste of it.