A History of Love and Violence
From Calton Hill I crawled south toward the burial ground. Through obstinate coastal fog and legendary rain, I dragged this body through the darkness, baring my soul to the trees. Branches scratched the air like mahogany talons and the wind drew ghosts from their graves. In the cemetery I clawed at the earth until the ground loosened, and worms and maggots replaced dirt and gravel. I took the Past off my back and unpacked it for the final time.
There were the souvenirs:
- 14 museum guides
- 10 laminated name tags
- 37 concert tickets
- 24 movie stubs
- 11 playbills
You hated the way I couldn’t sit still during long productions, the quickness to my browsing in art galleries. At times I thought your lingering was just to spite me, to imply that you saw aesthetic depths in certain paintings that my mind was too shallow to comprehend.
I hated how you didn’t understand the fears that were awakened by certain horror films, the way you’d attack my neuroses when I was drunk on my birthday.
It was after we watched The Shining that I began to doubt. I kissed your neck with light bites. Instead of kissing me back you pretended like you were homicidal Jack Torrance. So you put your mouth next to my ear and your hands around my throat. In a menacing voice you said: Heeere’s Johnny.
Letting go: Wendy, let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me. And then it takes me time to get back to where I was. You understand?
Maybe you should pursue a career in acting.
Now, we’re going to make a new rule. Whenever you come in here and you hear me typing or whether you don’t hear me typing, or whatever the fuck you hear me doing; when I’m in here, it means that I am working, that means don’t come in. Do you think you can handle that?
I’m going to bed.
Now, why don’t you start right now and get the fuck out of here?
You’re not funny.
You started laughing. It was manic and you wouldn’t stop. I pulled the comforter over my head and said: Christ. Will you cut it out?
Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair of your chiny-chin-chin? Well then I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.
Stop. You’re scaring me.
Aw. Am I scaring you? Come out, come out, wherever you are.
I swear to God. I really hate this shit.
Why, baby? I’m not going to hurt you.
I said I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to bash your brains in.
I moved as far away as possible without falling off the bed. You were silent for ten minutes then, like a possessed child, grabbed my arm with one hand and the scissors from my desk in the other, yelling: Red rum! Red rum! Red rum!
I screamed and hit you: This isn’t fucking funny anymore. I’m scared. Just stop.
The lights outside glowed red and the soundtrack played on the television. You pinned me to the bed and said: Gonna bash ’em right the fuck in!
I was frightened and yelled: Get away from me.
Your normal voice came back as you said: Fine. I’m leaving.
It’s four in the fucking morning.
You started getting dressed.
What the fuck is wrong with you?
You wouldn’t respond. I grabbed your arm. You wouldn’t respond. I finally slapped you. You said: I’m proving a point.
And what the fuck is that? You’re acting completely crazy.
Now you know how I feel when I’m with you.
What are you talking about?
Your emotions make you a monster.
You said it like a curse until I believed it, until my nails became bloodied claws and my words screeching howls.
I sat on the floor and cried. You picked me up. You fell asleep holding me with your shoes still on.
You thrived on that control.
There were the gifts:
- 3 canvases with a note: For my biggest fan. My love. I couldn’t have done these without you. You are my muse. Think of me often.
- 1 framed picture of yourself from your mother
- 6 bags of Pull ’n’ Peel Twizzlers with a note: Here’s to cavities and mustaches and eating like the dogs from Lady and the Tramp.
- 10 mix CDs
- 13 pages of loose-leaf with cartoons saying: In the world of stick figures, obesity is a non-issue. Let’s build a campfire. I want marshmallows! I want you! Here’s a picture of a squirrel. Squirrels! I’m rambling. You make me silly. You make me realize that everything is beautiful. Even when you’re angry with me, I love you. Even when we don’t understand each other, I love you. When we hurt each other, I love you. Your eyes could kill me. You’re so much stronger than you make yourself out to be. P.S.—I like to believe that ladybugs have dinner with each other behind pieces of fine art.
- 20 novels
- 1 fake rose with a note: It’ll last forever.
I thought the standard things like dates and flowers could keep us normal. But it was the subtle derision in your smile that made me want tosmother you in your sleep after I said things like: It aches sometimes—how life seems so long.
You thought therapy could keep us sane so you made it an ultimatum and flushed my Seroquel down the toilet.
You told them: She’s always threatening to kill herself.
I told them: He’s always telling me to kill myself.
And they looked at us like we were the most beautiful kind of sadness.
There were the stolen items:
- 4 shot glasses
- 1 pair of bowling shoes
- 1 salt shaker
- 3 Cow Tales
- 1 pocket-reference guide to wine
- 2 pairs of 3-D glasses
- 1 hand-painted hermit crab shell
What are these things? Why do we keep them?
When I imagined our future, I saw us only in terms of our collective belongings. Cheap amplifiers and cameras. Oil paint and candles. Records and magazine clippings. And a two-story library for the hundreds of books. I thought that the material could serve as an adhesive for the abstractions.
But, of course, real truths lay in unconscious choices. We observed each other and analyzed. Like how you interacted in groups. The dramatic gestures you made toward others, particularly women, in the form of grand embraces and playful humor—this ceaseless need to be liked, an almost defensive display of affection to showcase the friends you had and to point out the ones I didn’t. A recurrent desire to be the center of attention.
Or the way you’d cock your head and squint your eyes every time we passed a reflective surface, stealing glances at yourself. Sometimes you’d run a hand through your hair or suck in your cheeks and I wondered what you thought about in those moments. Other times I couldn’t help but smirk at the overconfidence in your step.
You’d say things like: You have Daddy issues.
And I’d say things like: You have Mommy issues.
You’re pathetically unsure of yourself.
You’re disgustingly narcissistic.
I’m not narcissistic, I’m histrionic.
I’m not unsure of myself, I’m just shy.
It’s so like you to skirt around your vulnerabilities.
It’s so like you to pick the personality that allows for your unnecessary exhibitionism.
We dug into each other until we were so naked and damaged that we didn’t know who to be, what to say, how to act, what to do.
There were the miscellanea:
- 23 corks
- 1 hospital band
- 45 Polaroids
- 8 arcade tickets
- 1 turquoise bouncy ball
- 11 buttons
- 4 shoelaces
- 1 Dead Kennedys sweatshirt
- 5 funeral booklets
- 12 gas station receipts for coffee and cigarettes
- 1 pair of handcuffs
- 6 guitar picks
- 1 old-fashioned key
It was distressing—the active construction of our own nostalgia, like a constant preparation for the End. You built me a treasure chest to put the objects in, to preserve and remember, as if we had to convince ourselves that there was happiness once. Even though it was never that simple—there was always the heartbreaking pain of uncertainty.
At the diner you said: I think we should see other people.
Where did that come from?
It’s been here all along.
We’ve been trying for three years, babe. It’s a bit asinine at this point.
Who says ‘asinine’ in regular conversation?
Are you really criticizing my speech right now?
I’m sorry. I love you.
I don’t know what love is anymore.
That’s such a bullshit thing to say.
Well, it’s true. I need time. I need space.
Do you want some pie? It’s cherry.
No, I don’t want any fucking pie.
I laid in trails of tea leaves and loose tobacco that you left on my ink-stained sheets, but the space of your absence, the shape of vacant air, was the most painful remnant to sleep with. When I wasn’t in bed I spent hours in the shower pulling out my hair until I collapsed into the tub. Like a diminished chord—unstable and dissonant—used in passing on the way to something fuller. I choked: But I need you.
Never resolved, always a half-step off.
You said: You’re so weak.
Everywhere I walked through ghosts. It was you. It was us. It was pain. It was lust.
I began researching self-induced amnesia. I thought I could extract the pieces of you from my memory. I called it spring cleaning. The doctors called it intentional brain damage. I gave myself twelve concussions before they sent me away.
It was: Let the girl out. (Let the dog out.) Let the girl out.
Don’t you miss me the way I miss you?
Whole months are gone, blacked out.
Why do we remember? Why do we forget?
Time and Space
The first thing my roommate said to me was: Did you know the human heart occupies the same amount of space as a clenched fist?
I put down my bag and asked: Who are you?
Why are you here?
I killed my momma with an ax.
No. I broke into a pharmacy to steal a bottle of Dilaudid. You?
I can’t remember.
There was a silence. She was assessing me and I, her.
She said: You seem hurt. It’s okay. We all hurt. Just let it bleed. Let it bleed.
There were daily meetings to talk about feelings. The nurse called them “discussions,” in an attempt to dispel the stigma of psychotherapy.
She said: I want you all to write down your earliest memory.
Zoe wrote: Being.
I wrote: When I was a child, I caught a glimpse of a horror movie on the television set. It was in passing on its way to another channel, but the image pierced and darkened my imagination. After Mom and Dad tucked me in, I crawled out of bed and crept into their room. I tugged at the blankets and said: I’m scared. I want to sleep with you.
They said: No, no, no. You’re too old for that.
So I went back to my room, but couldn’t fall asleep. With the sheets pulled up to my chin, I stared into the strange incandescence of the hallway. The natural creaks and moans of the house made me think that someone was breaking in, that something ethereal was about to steal me away while Mom and Dad were sleeping, unaware of my abduction. The anxiety made my heart thrash. I couldn’t bear lying around in vain, so again, I slipped out of bed and went to the top of the stairs. Every night I did this. With bloodshot eyes I stared into the darkness and sat waiting, waiting, waiting to be taken.
Zoe and I never had any visitors. To ease the sting of loneliness, we wrote dirty iambs in red felt pen across each other’s thighs and went down on each other after lights-out. Not even the Zoloft could reduce our sex drives. We needed a diversion from the overwhelming sterility of the place. There was a certain comfort in her boyish build. I told her I loved her then took it back an hour later. She adjusted to my extremes and I to her crippling depression. I tried to paste your face on top of hers but could never quite summon you there.
Your body was my favorite haunt. Some nights I dreamt only of the smell of your unwashed hair and sweat glands. Other nights I dreamt of desertion in the dead of winter.
On the shore of a ghost town, we snuck onto the pier. It was under construction. The wooden planks were rotting; the foundation needed to be replaced. There was always something unsettling about an off-season boardwalk at night, like something sinister was lurking in the darkness. We crept onto the Ferris Wheel—the one the little girl died on. At the top, you jumped off and ran into the funhouse. There was a shadow and a threatening growl. I followed and yelled for you, but the words didn’t work. My voice was broken. I ran around and around but was lost in the labyrinth. Abandoned in the abandon.
You were always leaving me in my dreams, even after you’d already gone.
Dr. D said: Tell me a little bit about your parents.
I drifted into the Past and dug my nails into green carpet. Trying to pluck the fibers out like blades of grass I asked: Why is this happening?
Dad said: We went our separate ways.
What do you mean? I don’t understand.
As if talking about expired yogurt: We just went bad.
I want Mommy.
She’s not here.
But I want her.
Hey, what am I—chopped liver?
He joked, trying to make me smile, but was unable to mask his watery eyes. A single tear fell and got stuck in his red beard.
I ran to the phone and choked through sobs as I called Mom, screaming until Dad made me hang up. He said: Hush, hush.
I laid on the cold counter in the kitchen, curled in the fetal position.
He always stirred my chocolate milk.
Someone was shaking me: Wake up.
In the common room Zoe and I watched the Royal Wedding on TV.
I said: I think that’s why people cry when they’re happy.
Because they’re afraid.
Afraid of what?
Well, the bride and groom cry because they’re afraid of losing their happiness. And everyone watching is crying because they’re afraid of never attaining that happiness, or have already lost it. They’re crying out of fear.
Daily discussion: Tell the group something that makes you upset or angry.
Zoe said: My body.
She picked at her skin until it broke open. She sucked on the wounds and whispered: Lacerate. Lacerate.
The nurse said: Don’t do that.
I stood up and said: In Catholic school, they’ll tell you three of many lies: 1) Adam and Eve were real people; 2) Mary was a virgin; 3) Love is patient, love is kind. And those ideas will be enough to completely pervert all of your perceptions about the possibilities and actualities of life, stemming from a basic misunderstanding of evolution, reproduction, and the inherent complexity of human emotion.
Zoe laughed off her chair and the old women protested: She’s evil. God loves his children! God loves his children!
I cursed and stuck my middle finger in their wrinkled faces.
The nurse said: That’s enough, dear. Take these.
I dreamt in haunted houses.
At the mouth of a dim tunnel I was swallowed into an enclosed river. The rapids ruptured my screams then spit me out into a narrow, empty basement. Soaked and shivering, I crept into the flickering fluorescence. On the walls were thousands of opened scissors suspended on nails like crosses. A growling came from behind and I saw her limping toward me with that demented smile and dark, blood-matted hair. She whispered: You can run but you can’t hide.
I ran anyway but couldn’t, of course. She lunged and pinned me onto the damp cement. Frightened, I yelled: Get away from me.
You can’t get away from yourself.
Who are you?
I am you and you are me.
I’m not you. I am myself.
What is the self?
It’s me without you.
No, I am a part of your being. I exist in your self.
You are your pain. You are what you carry.
I struggled to the doorway at the end of the hall. The walls were closing in and I could see her shadow trailing my body. The scissors were vibrating and falling down like spears. Through the door was a small windowless room, blank except for a large brown rucksack resting in the center. I turned the lock and dumped out the bag. A sea of masks poured onto the carpet, gathering around my ankles, knees, thighs, drowning me. I tried to resist, but they overpowered my efforts, so I grabbed one and put it on over my face. Everything stopped. I forced myself out of the pile of theatre, ritual, masquerade, defense. The door through which I entered disappeared and a new one formed on the opposite side. I opened it and stepped into the foyer of an old mansion where I heard the growl again, approaching from behind. Repeating the process, I entered room after room after room, getting lost in histories unfamiliar. They were infinite. There was no escape.
She whispered: You can run, but you can’t hide.
I outran the darkness, but was still trapped in its structure.
I thought: What is Time in a place like this?
It all flowed into an amorphous, melancholy chime.
Zoe and I had been writing letters. We were supposed to read each other’s before sending them out to prevent any sort of excessiveness, obsession, or madness from going through. We promised. We never kept our word.
One day Zoe came back to the room sobbing, handing me an envelope. There was that initial sigh of relief knowing that you hadn’t forgotten about me completely, then a heartrending sense of dread. Zoe didn’t have any mail. She never had any mail. I took her in my arms. She shook as she said: It just hurts to know that no one cares about me as much as I care about them.
She said: I never meant to depend on anyone so much.
I know. I said: I know.
After she fell asleep, I opened my letter.
In one sentence you wrote: I know you want to hear that there’s something special about you, something that would bring me back to you, but there’s not.
I kept my screams and scars in mason jars under the bed.
They started putting more medication in the tiny paper cup.
I was becoming inhuman, or extra-human. I absorbed others’ sadness the way a sponge absorbs water. It spilled out from my pores, was wrung out daily in small convulsions.
There was no filter of skin and expression; I saw right through to the very core of each person—felt their weaknesses, their flaws, their fears. It was like that first summer when we lived in your parents’ house; your cocksure attitude revealed hesitant, nervous confessions at my touch, and I clung to those insecurities because they were the only things that made you real.
I sat and wrote: Blue atoms fall into Tuesday, the moment both here and there, a working tragedy-catastrophe.
Dr. D said: Tell me more about your father.
I drifted again—to the parking lot of a Blockbuster.
We were walking out of the store when the sound of sirens erupted in the distance. There was shattered glass all over the pavement. As we got in the car, I lifted the dinner we bought earlier from the grocery store and put it on my lap. A man ran out of the bar next door with a baseball bat in his hands. Dad was backing out and the guy was running right toward us. Dad tried to be a hero and corner him with his Jeep, but the man pulled a gun from his waist and shot three times. The front windshield broke apart. The third bullet struck the head of the diamondback rattlesnake tattooed to Dad’s chest. He used to tell me: It’s the deadliest snake in the world.
I sat there in my father’s blood and a mush of chicken pot pie. Daddy. I yelled: Daddy.
It was the loudest I’d ever screamed.
Someone was shaking me: Wake up.
In the common room Zoe and I watched the Royal Wedding on TV.
I sat and wrote: Fingers pull eyelashes leaving commas on the floor.
Zoe asked: How did you know?
That you were in love?
I shrugged: He always stirred my chocolate milk.
Daily discussion: Share what’s on your mind.
Zoe said: Death.
I said: I have these dreams.
The nurse asked: What kind of dreams?
What do you mean by haunted?
I don’t know exactly. There’s always this little girl covered in blood. This sort of Other.
And sometimes when I wake up I can’t remember what I was doing before I fell asleep. I don’t know the difference between what’s happened and what’s imagined.
You should talk to Dr. Dasein about that in your next session.
I don’t know why I’m here. I’m anxious. There’s this urgency.
Perhaps the reality you’ve been running from is now catching up with you.
I’ve lost myself. I’ve lost my purpose.
You must transcend what you’ve become.
I’m afraid. I’m so afraid.
I sat and wrote: Button aberrations to the alien, preserve in consciousness the incoherent and disconnected, for it is all we have.
Zoe was in her bed drawing bleeding eyes in a composition book.
I asked: Who are you?
I’m a creation.
Why are you here?
Because you want me to be. Your text is becoming unhinged.
Well why don’t you leave?
Because here I’m alive.
What’s this all about?
You’re coming to the End now. We all are.
How much self-determination is there?
Dr. D said: Something’s troubling you.
Yes. This isn’t helping.
Psychotherapy isn’t the answer. It’s just a step. It’s a temporary solace until you learn to take control of your own life.
I don’t understand.
Often one’s depression and anxieties stem from repressions of trauma, abnormal or arrested development in childhood, unfulfilled desires, et cetera., but even more often these perceived sources of despair, like a lack of parental love or too much parental love, are just another mask for the true issue—a fear of failing our responsibilities to the world before we die.
How does one overcome this fear?
Live an authentic life. You must project yourself forward and recognize the fresh possibilities of being. We are human because we are bound with others and the material world. We are represented by history and time. These relations are not accidental. They are constitutive of our life.
Every time I leave here I can never remember what we talked about.
Because you’ve been running. You have to stop resisting. Go outside and pay attention. Existence is just a dialogue with the world. All you have to do is listen. Listen and respond. Transmit your pain to the earth. Transmit, not transmute.
I left and walked down to the water. I reasoned that self-transcendence must mean re-creation, that this creation could only come from destruction, and that the infinite must just be that—everything all of the time. So I slashed at my hospital gown with unclipped nails until it fell off in sheets. I curled into myself, hugging my knees in the fetal position, naked in the Firth of Forth. I pretended it was cleansing, baptismal, until I cried myself dry. But it wasn’t enough. When I sat up I noticed a message on my calves. It said: In case of emergency, cut here.
A dagger washed ashore. I took it and pressed the blade into my flesh. Those legs that used to wrap around you bled black and slow. I kept cutting and cutting to get the darkness out. Hysterical and determined, I sliced through tissue and started working on the bone. It wouldn’t break through. Storm clouds burst open and I saw your ghost drifting closer. The people standing on the shore turned and faced me, pointing. With my right leg dragging by threads of muscle, I put the dagger between my teeth and crawled fast up the hill. Resting next to the monument, I looked down and noticed the same message on my left arm: In case of emergency, cut here.
I incised my skin. The blood still poured midnight black. I thought of you and cut. I thought of my father and cut. But your ghost kept drifting nearer. Through the darkness I pulled my body to the graveyard. The rain came down like bullets and the wind whipped my hair. I chanted: Order. Chaos. Creation Destruction. Order. Chaos. Creation Destruction.
I started to remember. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I clawed at the ground to transmit and let go. On my chest it said: If all else fails, cut here.
I had no choice. The traces were everywhere, woven into the very fabric of my existence. So I began cutting again to crystallize this gloom. The breastplate was tough, but the heart melted in my hands. I buried the Past with broken limbs and internal organs, interring myself with blood to pass on, to forget, to transcend.
On your knees, face me. Cherry pie, baby.
But under gothic arches, engraved in stone, you remain.
Brittany Harmon is a writer living in Philadelphia. She holds a BA from Temple University where she studied English and American History. Her work has previously appeared in Monkeybicycle and Dogzplot, and is forthcoming in The Philadelphia Review of Books.