The Permanent Ache by Gary J. Garrison
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The Permanent Ache
Last week we put out cigarettes on our wrists. It was Sarah’s idea. We hadn’t planned it. We planned to drink ourselves stupid and fuck. But the burns were exciting behind the alcohol-haze. We slammed the counter with our fists and yelled the dirtiest words we knew until they threatened to throw us out.
The whole bar glared and whispered to their friends. The bartender looked down on us from behind his bronze counter. He made us drinks because he remembered us, because he felt sorry for us. We’d unwound there in our graduate years.
We drank with a desperate thirst. The jukebox played songs that we’d heard in our childhood, and songs that we’d danced to in college, and songs we’d made love to—or over or through. We had never made love to anything.
The air swirled smoke. Winter pressed and breathed through the double doors. The world now seemed to exist solely as motion in constant. People came and left and laughed and hugged and kissed and fucked.
The first burn hurt the most. I clenched my teeth and gripped the lip of the bar until my fingers throbbed. Sarah pressed the cigarette into my skin and twisted. The edges blackened and the ash tumbled and the cigarette folded and died. My nerves lit and blossomed from my palm violently—twirled circles with the gin and pulsed dizzy with nicotine. She kept her fingers wrapped around my wrist—all beautiful five of them—and they held. We had not touched, not really, in a very long time.
“Did it hurt?” she asked.
My skin melted and moved, turned red and white. I told her it hurt like something permanent.
“My turn,” she said. She pulled her jacket from her shoulders and the thawing flecks of snow dripped lazy to the floor. She rolled up the sleeves on her sweater. It was red and wild with frayed strings and age. She’d worn it often years ago. She’d bought it on sale one winter, worn it casually, forgotten it. I’d made her wear it that night, dug it from a box in the closet. I knew she wanted to tear it off, rip it, burn it through with cigarettes.
I could feel every pair of eyes in the room pity us, look down, embarrassed for us. They crawled deep in the tense of my shoulders. I told them all, quietly, to fuck off. But Sarah did not care. She ignored the looks; they could not reach her.
She lit another cigarette, breathed deep through the smolder and poison. She was determined to waste nothing ever again. Smoke curled from her mouth, and she passed the cigarette to me. I clung to the tips of her wet fingers. I loved the damp of her lips on the filter. I had not tasted her in months.
We discussed the terms. She couldn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t burn herself. So I would. I’d never hurt her before, never physically. I’d broken our bedroom door from its hinges once and smashed the mirror over the sink. And she had destroyed plates and bowls and cups until we ate from our hands and drank from the faucet. We tried only to survive. We punctured the walls and tore down cabinets and shelves until our books and photographs piled themselves in corners, until our mattress had no frame, until there was nothing left to destroy but our bodies.
I took a final drag. It was Friday. The city was warm skin and out-of-key singing. Everyone drank. We drank. And they packed their limbs together tight. They kept their distance from us. They let themselves sweat. For them there was nothing more than now, and what could be built from the structure of these moments. Life was fragments and so extraordinarily possible.
Sarah pressed her eyes shut. We sat at the end of the long bar. Everyone kept away. She dug her nails into my arm, her perfectly white teeth clinched. I branded her, below the palm. She didn’t make a sound, she held her breath, her face contorted and shifted and expressed.
She found pride in the wound. She pressed her thumb over the bloated skin. “More,” she said. “More!”
The room filled and receded and pulsed. The walls spun and buzzed. A man and a woman kissed hard in a booth, his hands spreading, consuming her. I felt jealousy simmer in my throat. There are times, I know, when life beyond myself is utterly impossible.
“Do you want to talk?” she asked.
“Sarah,” I said. I stared at the couple in the booth. “That’s not why we’re here.”
We drank until words and ideas abandoned, and furniture became fluid, and the floors and walls and ceilings lapped rhythmically. We made sounds and rounded letters, shaped them like thoughts but we avoided saying anything. We had tried ourselves sick for a year. We had tried until we broke. So we emptied bottles and glasses and thrashed in the humid swell.
“Sarah,” I said again, wanting, for a moment, to give way to her. It was a beautiful name, endless, encompassing. My tongue twisted itself around the ellipses that formed as the vowels drug themselves out and faded into the thunder that twisted from the ground and hung on the walls and reverberated.
“David.” Her voice was tired, sweat plastered her bangs to the skin above her green eyes. Her arms pulled from joints in her wild. “What?” she asked.
I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t been able to look at her naked in a year. I didn’t tell her everything would be okay. And I didn’t tell everyone else in the world to shut the fuck up. I wanted to tell her, “I’m sorry.” Even though it felt like such a waste—everyone had said it, sang it until it was a static that hummed through the walls of our apartment. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, because I felt right then that there was no limit to how sorry I could be for her.
We bought more drinks with the money that she said we shouldn’t keep because it hadn’t been meant for us, even though it was our money, even though we’d saved it. She tipped wonderfully. She tipped so we could stay. She smoked a whole pack and we burned ourselves braille. The flesh melted and bubbled and looked so permanent.
I let her carry me along into madness.
Sarah refused to leave when they ordered us out. The bartender told us he was our friend, but we had to go. He kept his voice soft. He said we’d had enough, that he was sorry. Sarah smashed her glass on the wooden floor in a way that made sense. She swore he couldn’t make her leave, swore she would stay, swore he wasn’t really sorry. She screamed, veins pumping through her thin neck. She made them carry her out thrashing. She made them touch her and lift her, like I hadn’t done in so long. She made them prove that they could make her.
And, outside, she told me it didn’t prove anything.
I told her I wasn’t so sure. And I told her to stop screaming. I told her we were drunk. I grabbed her arms when they hit my chest and my shoulders and my face while she yelled the name we’d agreed upon years ago. In heels she was as tall as I was and I held on to her.
“It was such a pretty name,” she said, collapsing into my chest. There were so many new cracks in her voice.
I told her I agreed, that the vowels and consonants went together so perfectly. “It sounded right for everything.”
She leaned on me because we didn’t hold hands anymore, because that reminded us too much of the waiting. She looped her arm through mine and rested her head on my shoulder.
We walked six blocks, drunk, before we found the right road. The snow was coming hard, packing the ground and swallowing everything up, making it all look better somehow. She told me it was a waste of snow, that in the morning they would plow it and shovel it and hide it until it melted away.
We leaned towards 15th. The city went home wasted. Soon it was us and the quiet. Towers stood in the clouds and the street signs covered themselves in a thin, clean white. We made the newest footprints until we made the only footprints. Twice Sarah slipped on ice and nearly fell. She was only getting drunker. She’d mostly stopped eating.
We passed 18th and she kept twisting her lips and her tongue. “Are you using me?” she asked. “I want to be used. I want you to use me all up. I want every good bit of me wrung out before I die. If you’ve got something good left at the end, it’s wasted, it dies with you.”
I did not know how to say that there is always something left, and that a life is not wasted just because it has ended. I did not know how to say that potential is passed on, that it would only be wasted if we wasted it. I did not know how to say anything. So I told her I would use her, as fully as a tube of toothpaste rolled from the bottom. She liked the idea and told me she’d decided to die empty and all used up.
She pushed away from me, drunker still, and stumbled to the middle of the street. “I was a mother,” she said, back to me, head tilted up toward the towers, “I can’t be afraid of that anymore.”
As she walked she looked down at the red of the sweater that stuck from beneath her jacket. She grabbed hold of it and glanced back at me. She struggled from her coat and tore the sweater off and threw it into the snow. She kept walking. She tripped off her shoes and her socks and tugged off her shirt and her jeans, unpinned her hair, undid her watch, unclasped her bra, pulled at her underwear, threw it all to the snow and told me, “I want new things. I want new clothes. I want to redecorate and buy a new car. I want a new apartment.”
I gathered her clothes in my arms and followed her down the block, under streetlights. I kept dropping her heels. I was drunk. Her underwear was damp—rubbed my chin, reminded me she was naked. She had not been naked for me in so long.
Her red sweater was soft between my fingers and wet with snow. I wanted to force it back over her head. I had hope that we could rewind, that I could dig up her old clothes, that we could donate the toys and paint the room white again, refill it with shelves and books and my desk.
I could see her nipples when she faced me, pink and hard and part of her. Snow was tangled in her hair and melting down her shoulders, over her breasts, curving towards her belly button and glistening in her pubic hair. She waited for me. Goosebumps rippled her body. She hugged herself and looked sickly and barren—a fabrication of ample.
“I don’t know how,” she said. She looked at my face, but never my eyes anymore. “I don’t know how to do this.” She spoke too loudly because every day—for 365 days, for a full year—had compounded and become an affliction. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to keep going! I don’t know how we’re supposed to keep going like it didn’t happen. It happened. It happened no matter what you want to pretend, David. It happened.”
A car rolled around the corner, tires crunching snow, windshield wipers batting. I could see the shape of a woman at the wheel, by herself. She slowed when she saw us and arched around into the other lane. Her headlights lit up everything in swaths, throwing shadows wildly, casting and recasting our city. They washed over Sarah, paled her, made her glow for me. She was my wife. I could see her.
We had not had sex. Not in a year. Maybe longer. We had tried though. One time before we’d even dared to enter the empty room, and once again a week before we’d found the tiny baseball glove wedged behind the sofa. We’d only spread further since, widened the gulf in our bed and between our words. We were a life in divergence.
“Let’s go home,” I said after the car had passed, rounded another corner.
She was so still. Snow collected in her hair, clinging to the reckless strands.
“Did we do it right?” she said. “Did we get drunk enough? Can we fuck now? Can we fuck like high schoolers?”
“Just come home. It’s freezing, Sarah.”
“No. No, I’m fine.” She shook her head, hugging her chest. “I’m not going to say that I’m okay anymore. Nothing is going to go back to the way it was.”
The silence that throbbed through the crisp white streets built and chugged through my ears. I took a breath and closed my eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s okay. Just come home.” I glanced toward our apartment and waited.
“Tell me we can start over.”
I looked at her for a long time and she did not waver. It was freezing and I was worried. She stepped away and shook her head. Her hands rubbed the cold from her arms. I knew that she could keep walking forever.
“Okay,” I said.
She held my stare. Finally, she looked down, whispered toward her feet, something I couldn’t hear, and shook her head.
I followed her home, keeping my distance, trailing in her wake. She waited for me on the stoop, naked and keyless. She pulled her jeans from the bundle in my arms and searched the pockets. I dropped her red sweater. She unlocked the door and slipped through. I stared down at the sweater, tangled in itself, draped over the hills of white snow. I did not pick it up.
I followed her up the stairs. “Let me do it,” she said when I tried to help her with the locks on our door. She held out her hand to stop me. She was shaking and drunk and she couldn’t work the key.
And I knew then—as she trembled, naked in her soaking flesh, fully exposed to me in the dim light of our hallway—that sex could never last, that we couldn’t screw into anything infinite, let alone happiness. We couldn’t fuck back into the past. We couldn’t fuck scars into our wrists. We couldn’t fuck to permanence.
But we could fuck. We could fuck despite the empty pit that had welled up in our stomachs. We could fuck despite the cold in our skin that would follow. We could fuck despite the way I would shrivel inside of her and pull away. We could fuck despite the empty rooms we feared. We could fuck despite having to wake up. We could fuck despite the fact that we would never stop remembering. And we could let sex be what it was before we understood anything at all, before we created and lost, before we forgot how it felt.
She pressed her shoulder to the door and coughed and cursed herself. Her body slid toward the carpet, smeared melted snow down the wall and I let her shake on the floor until she closed her eyes.
I turned the locks, lifted her inside the warmth. I wrapped her in towels and blankets, laid her across our bed. I took off all of my clothes and, naked, slid beside her, pressed myself against her icy skin—all of me.
There was only so much that we could destroy. The world had broken us. And Sarah had faced it head on, had tried to break it in return. She had tried wonderfully and I had wanted, deep down, for her to succeed. But she was only one quaking war. It was hopeless and she was exhausted.
I closed my eyes. There was silence then, pushing through the sounds of her breath; a silence that we both took part in, a silence that never built or rose, a silence that we created and laid between. It was there in that peace that I held her while she slept.
The night continued without us and we warmed, and for the first time in a year I wanted only to be still. I could feel something new, a throb and burn somewhere deep inside of my wrist as it spread through my arm and toward my chest. I could feel the permanence ache.