Absolute Value

by Laura Ingram


           She studies French freshman year, covers her eyelids with the closest blue on the color wheel. She is lonely. She eats peanut butter and celery from a brown paper bag and contemplates the past perfect. Her friends say her name like it hurts the roofs of their mouths, leave her behind when she takes too long in the bathroom.   They kiss boys while she sits cross-legged on the couch, paints her nails pink and her heart clear-coat.  They curl her hair like a telephone cord, hanging up because all they ever hear is static and long distance calls cost more. They take her to the mall, stuff her into cracked mannequin shells with locked knees, and she materializes in their nightmares like a mirror, a terror that is silver and exact—look at me.

            She’s never really thought about her body before.  Her friends say she is skinny, skinny, skinny, but like a boy, not a model. She doesn’t know how to fix this, so she goes home and makes herself throw up in the shower, screaming through her fingers. She wants to be a writer, not a doctor, it is an always itch, she thinks of the ink pen she is never without, gouging adjectives from the hollow in her throat that gets sore just before the cigarette, but there are never enough words coming out for her to feel empty again.

            She starts forgetting people’s names, sleeping through algebra because the ugly numbers make her cry, swarming the places where her knuckles protrude. She starts wearing nothing but sweaters even though its spring.  She stops putting peanut butter on her celery sticks, crossing and uncrossing her ankles, too bad she can’t feel elegant, snapping the rubber band around her wrist until it’s raw. Her friends don’t take her with them on the weekends anymore, but it’s nothing personal. They just don’t like the way people stare at the whirling noose of her clavicle, ever-tightening just under her neck, how is she going to keep breathing?  But she is weather-cold and inside-cold and everything they say is just foreign noise, a language like the tap left running, brown water and black bodies, and her bones bending their softened heads in defeat, tired of holding together nobody’s home.

            She drives like an arrhythmia, doesn’t bother to ask for directions, and the universe has been promised to her palms. She is certain of this in the midst of her early morning hunger, rotting along the after-hours of her mother’s rhododendrons, digging for a dead bird she knows she buried there in seventh grade. Flowers wilt, fruit molds, skin withers, and all anyone will ever end up with is the bones. We are trapped in a cycle of incessant decay, all but the bones, and she sees the start of the interstellar scything her rib cage, turning toward the edges of the earth. She asks its axis, where does it hurt, but there is no answer, leastways not along the latitude lines. Her fingers curl around what might be a canary’s corpse, but no one can know if there is just one bird in any given throat.

            Her father carries her back up to her bedroom, does not question why his daughter was sleeping in a dead garden. He lets her have vinegar and asparagus for dinner, while her mother cries quietly over a paper plate of spaghetti, as he stirs his drink with a fork. They all excuse themselves before any of it is touched.

            People stare at her when she goes to the store, but her mother won’t buy her hot sauce anymore. Her friends won’t say hello if they see her wandering around the mall, buying her prom dress from the little girl’s department, stealing salt packets from the salad bar and eating them out of her palm.  she turns the lights off at four in the afternoon, and she doesn’t know how to dial the phone anymore. She cannot say that word aloud, the same old diagnostic. It makes her blood cringe and crumble inside of her. She calls one of her friends and hangs up fourteen times, she knows there is an answer, but isn’t sure how to hear it.

            “I need some help” She tells the dial tone, and swallows six pills. She panics over whether or not she left the water on, prying open her rusted throat with a toothbrush. She slumps into half-sleep amongst towels and tile grout, watching the ink under her fingernails waver. Her fever dreams are filled with the endless clash of space dust and supernovae, and some arbitrary ache of emptiness, that desire that drives us all - the hunger for something better than this.


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