With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When she leaves you, you’ll bleed from your nose in your sleep. This cannot be stopped. The blood will go through the sheets. It will soak deep into the fibers of the mattress, and you will sleep on this forever.
You will decide to drive to Denver one night because forgetting her is so hard. Don’t do it during the worst blizzard you’ve ever seen. Don’t stop beforehand at a liquor store and buy cheap beer and shooters of whiskey for the drive. When a sorrowful voice sings a ballad on the radio behind the counter, don’t look out the window into the night, thinking about your eight years with her, and tell the cashier that you’re losing it. The cashier will only fold the bills you’ve handed her and then unfold them again, because she won’t know what to say to you.
Boxing won’t save you. You will be sure that it will, but you’ll be wrong. No matter how much the speed bag blurs, you will not rid yourself of her. You will skip rope to the rhythm of your heart. You will sprain your wrists on the heavy bag because you don’t know what it means to pull back. And when you return to the quiet of your home and the fury and the smell of leather has faded, you will look at your busted-up empty hands and realize you occupy this space alone.
Don’t let the withdrawal get to you. You’ve been addicted before. You’ll be addicted again. You’ll find a spot to fall in your living room, your office, a corner of the boxing gym, when your teeth start to chatter and falling is all you can do. Grab your knees, tuck them into your chest. This might remind you of a black-and-white film reel about surviving a nuclear blast. But this war is yours and nobody else’s. Remember this when you dry-heave in the shower each morning, vomit on your hands and knees in the kitchen, ignoring the neighbors when they bang on your door and call your phone, trying to understand what kind of animal could be howling like this.
The neighbors who live above you will have a baby. Sometimes when you lie on the carpet at night with the lights off, you will hear the way the father talks to her when she’s crying, some kind of baby gibberish he believes she can understand. You will know it’s real words that will soothe her. Real actions: a light touch on her ear, a hand spread over her belly, a gentle two-fingered squeeze of her baby biceps. You will hear instead the father’s video games over her cries, the ring of his phone, his heavy feet moving away from her. When he does pick her up, you will be sure it’s only to place her into the plastic playpen. You will hear its jingling tunes and imagine its glowing orbs above her young and wandering eyes and think, Jesus, why is he not holding her? In his hands? Holding on is key.
One night you will stop in at a corner gas station. The woman at the counter will ask you what you need, and you’ll point to a pack of cigarettes, your late stepfather’s brand. You won’t wait until you get home to open the pack, because you want to smell something other than what you remember of her. When you get home, you’ll pull out one cigarette and throw the rest in the garbage. It will be winter. You will sit in the backyard under darkness and snow-heavy branches and smoke fast until your throat is raw, until the ember is so far down it’s burning your knuckles. You will think of nothing but the old couple across the yard, how sometimes at night you’ll see them through the window playing board games by candlelight, one hand free to move the pieces, one hand holding the other’s across the table. You will want this for the rest of your life.
At first you will masturbate in the bathroom at work when it’s late and nobody’s around. You will turn the lights off and run the faucet. You will come to the sound of rushing water and fantasies about women you will never know. When you get braver — or maybe when you’ve lost all hope — you will masturbate in your office during the workday. Your door doesn’t have a lock in this building full of women. You will hear female voices and laughter through the door. One woman in the office is especially tall, and when she wears heels, she shakes the whole floor with her steps. She is blond and tan and curvy and has a son. You will try to jerk off to her because she is nothing like your ex. The thought of her child, the pictures you’ve seen of him on her desk, will make you stop pumping and put your head down so you can cry into your hands.
Forget the faces of the children you imagined having. They are not olive skinned. They do not have big, round eyes. They will never look at you with those eyes and know you are their father, that you worked days digging ditches and nights stuffing newspapers just to buy them softer jammies. Stop imagining spooning mashed bananas into their mouths. They will never hold your pinkie with their fist. They will not laugh when you throw them into the air and catch them. Don’t put their faces up to yours after you catch them. Do not smile into their smile. It’s not working. It’s not happening. Stop loving them. They are not really there. They are not.
You will believe you can escape her through travel. Israel, Turkey, Greece. You will visit twenty countries in a year. You will see her at every train station: Welkenraedt, Rouen, Naples. When you are in Paris, you will catch sight of her pushing a white stroller on the platform beside the tracks. You are smart enough to know it cannot be her, but the part of you that believes in the unraveling ties of the universe hopes that maybe a blip in time and space has brought her here with your child, and only the next twenty steps across that platform will tell you in which world you truly live. So you start walking toward her and the child, toward the silhouette of her body, her dark hair, the angle of her jaw. With each step forward you breathe the way that you learned from boxing. Then something stops you. You don’t know what it is, why you turn and walk down the platform away from her, hearing all the clicking shoes along the cement and then the metal on metal of a braking train. And you find yourself far from her, all the way on the other side of the station, where you can’t even see her, where you know you will never see this woman again for the rest of your life. Even now you wonder who she might have been, if this was a rip in time you were never meant to witness. You can’t help but feel hope in this world of yours, cosmic illusion or not. But I am telling you now, if this is what you are feeling, stop it. Do not hope. It will leave you with things. It will leave you without things. If you don’t believe me, stop right now and look at your empty hands. Look.