A Human Rupture
I only wore red when I wanted my teeth broken.
I only wore red when I wanted my teeth broken. When I wanted to become unrecognizable to myself. I slunk to the mirror with my tears beaming in the fluorescent bathroom lights, but by the time I finished transforming I bared my fangs at the new woman in the reflection. My mousy brown hair was replaced with an ice blonde wig, my eyes slashed with smoky eye-shadow and fake lashes. The veins in my neck popped as I practiced my new rage.
I put on a red dress and red nails and red lips, and red on the inside of my cheek where I bit down. I squeezed my own throat until I gasped for air, and enjoyed the marks I left behind. I turned away from the mirror and walked back into my office with a new height to my shoulders. My computer monitor blinked words at me I no longer remembered writing.
I read a single simpering line, then deleted my novel and headed out to the city.
Inside my car I unrolled the window and smoked a cigarette. I turned the radio off, so I only heard the scrape of road noise and my heartbeat trying to escape.
I had yet to start drinking, but I already felt plastered to the sky.
Ray Bradbury wrote that you needed to stay drunk on writing or reality would destroy you. When I was Autumn I believed the idiot. Autumn with a bent and aching back, ugly contortionist at the keyboard, eyes unfocused as she tried to write something real. Autumn who ate lunch alone in her car, with quiet furtive bites, as if at any moment someone would yank open the car door and steal her food.
Yes. Escaping reality sounded wonderful. I must become small and drunk, limbs folded nicely, shivering at eye contact and rejection emails in my inbox. Please, sir. I’ll be good. I’ll close my eyes and stick my tongue out. Use me. Just don’t hurt me.
That was who Autumn was. Just another fly who climbed into the mouth of a bottle and drowned.
But when I was Vanessa, I wanted to be destroyed.
Vanessa breathed in smoke until she burned. She wandered the bars downtown and spit in unattended drinks. She stepped on a homeless man’s hand with a stiletto heel while he lay sleeping in the street. In a club a man in a goatee leaned in through the dark pulse of music, smelling of patchouli and sour sweat, and asked Vanessa what she did for a living.
“I used to be a writer,” I told him.
“I write too!” he said. “Have you read Franzen?”
I pressed my body against him and felt his heartbeat quicken. I leaned close, raised on tiptoes, and nuzzled his neck. I tried not to shudder at the proximity. The way his body reminded me of a dirty cutting board.
Then I bit down on his ear until he howled. I slipped away into the mass of dancing bodies before disappearing through the back exit.
The moon stretched my shadow until it spread black wings against the alley walls, dripping rain like wet scales.
Later I went home with a tranny in a pink skirt and plastic heels, and kneeling on a linoleum kitchen floor I tried to gag on her dick. But the hormones made her soft and she couldn’t even make my mascara run. She slapped me with a weak wrist, and at some point I grabbed her hand and tried to get her to do it right, palm firm against my cheek, hard enough to push through my numbness. But it never hurt enough for me.
With both of us unsatisfied, she gave up and fixed us both vodka and tonics with ice. But I’d already gone to the bathroom earlier to chug my flask of whiskey and snort coke off my car key, so when she handed me the glass I dropped it. The edges of my body felt like chewed up gum. I reached down to pick up the shards, but I stumbled and fell.
The glass sliced deep into my knees. She rushed to help me.
“Stay away from me, you fucking faggot!” I shouted at her.
She gasped and backed up. I laughed as I stared down at the broken glass. One of my fake lashes floated in the vodka on top of the shards.
Vanessa unraveled in the scattered reflection. Wisps of my brown hair poked through the top of my wig. Red lipstick smeared against my teeth. Cracks in my eyes, veins shot blue.
I glanced up at the trans-woman pressed against the kitchen counter. The tornado of my anger disappeared.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” I said, trembling weakness blooming in my rib cage. “I… I don’t know what came over me.”
I wished I wasn’t familiar with the look she gave me. A look like she’d accidentally let a feral animal slip through the door.
I went to work the next morning with burning lungs. I promised myself I’d never smoke again, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw away Vanessa’s cigarettes.
I got four stitches in each knee and when I looked across the huge expanse of the lobby toward the elevators I wanted to crawl across the floor like a dog. I slunk low in my black men’s t-shirt, dirty converse dragging against the marble. I grabbed a coffee in the break room and spilled it all over myself.
In the bathroom trying to blot out the stains with paper towels, I realized this was going to be the rest of my life. I’d go to bed screaming and wake up torn. I’d be burnt out, wounded, sick, and standing in front of a hand dryer with the sweat running down my throat until I died.
When I finally got to my chair, My boss Robert came up behind me. I straightened up in my chair and my skin flushed. My heart wanted to beat faster, but I didn’t have the strength. It just sat inside me like a computer monitor flickering with dead pixels.
“Hey, what’s the status?” he asked me.
“The build failed on the load screen,” I said. “Andy and Chris told me they thought it might’ve been the new animation module.”
“You’re too smart to sit around contemplating ‘what if’s’ with those monkeys,” he said. “That’s for the engineers to figure out. You just observe and report.”
“I uh…” I swallowed. “Okay.”
Robert was the kind of person that made people sit up and pay attention when he walked into a room. He filled it with his presence, in a way that made the air become electric. I’d seen a statuesque blonde with a chiseled face climb into his car one evening. I couldn’t compete with someone like that. I couldn’t even look Robert in the eyes without wanting to swallow my own tongue.
I wanted him and I knew I didn’t deserve him. All I could hope for was that he didn’t notice one of my stitches had already busted open, and my jeans were soaked in blood.
So when Andy texted me ten minutes later I met him in the garage parking lot, in the hidden spot wedged behind a column, and kissed him until my stomach turned sour.
I didn’t want to be his, but I needed to belong to someone.
I began to edit my new novel in my head as he slipped his hand underneath my shirt and touched my breasts. He pushed weed smoke into my weak mouth, and I imagined that Sylvia Plath must’ve looked beautiful with her head in an oven, with those dove eyes and beach blonde hair.
I never looked that pretty in the middle of a suicide attempt. And I’d never write something half as good as Ariel.
I headed back to the office ten minutes later alone, with tears in my eyes. As I crossed the long expanse of empty garage Robert came out of the exit and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jeans.
“Are you okay, Christian?” he asked.
I tried to hide my tears behind my hair.
“I don’t know,” I said, which was probably the closest I’d ever gotten to the truth.
“You don’t know,” he repeated.
I took a breath. I wanted to fall to my knees in front of him, head bowed, and beg him to rescue me. Please help me. My bones are made of sponges and I can’t stop opening my mouth for anyone who wants to come inside.
But all I said was:
“I mean, yeah. I mean I’m fine. New build should be ready for testing by now.”
Robert didn’t break eye contact as he lit his cigarette. The way he looked at me made my brain swell with white noise.
“You’ve got my number. Call me if you need anything,” he said.
If I was Vanessa I would’ve strode through that empty parking lot with my heels buoyed on that white noise, tongue like a parched snake, sucking the warm air into my stomach.
But I knew Vanessa wouldn’t be enough for him either. Vanessa couldn’t kiss someone like she wanted to keep them.
I became Vanessa again, and stood underneath a flickering street lamp with a broken heel in my hand, my smashed phone in the other. Earlier I’d broken up with one of my boyfriends at a late night Korean restaurant, and watched his face fall with hungry eyes. I pushed aside a plate of bulgogi, holding my glass of soju, and leaned across the table.
“We’re terrible together,” I said, hooking my elbow around his, unable to hide my smile as his eyes watered. “Let’s drink to it.”
It’d felt good in that moment to hurt him. He’d been getting too familiar with me. He sent me ‘good morning’ texts and started to get jealous whenever I mentioned other boys. He needed to be punished for thinking he could love Autumn.
When I went to the bathroom to vomit, the red meat looked like threads of my heart being pulled apart.
Later standing alone outside in the cold I couldn’t feel my heart at all.
The screen on my phone still worked, so through the cracks I thumbed over to my contacts and hovered over Robert’s name. He said to call him if I needed anything, and I needed him.
I needed him. But I knew that if you stuck me with a knife, nothing but dust would come out of my veins.
I put my phone away and walked the two miles home barefoot.
Autumn sat at her computer with unwashed hair, black hoodie like a shell, shivering even though the thermostat was cranked up. Autumn always wrote stories in which she was bad mythology. She was Zeus’s forgotten daughter perched on the tip of the lightning bolt, laughing, as it drove through yet another one of her homes that exploded in fire.
For generations young writers had been nursed on the idea that death was a home in the suburbs, someone that loved you, children, reliable friends, a steady job. Good literature could never come from behind white picket fences and children’s birthday parties. That world would grind you down while you were still alive.
And we used AstroTurf on our lawns now, so you wouldn’t even be good enough for fertilizer.
The solution was to only love men who broke your heart like Henry Miller, who beat you like Tolstoy, who called you a cunt and kicked you off a couch like Bukowksi.
Autumn thought there was something romantic about being a woman discarded. The stuff of great literature. Real Anna Karenina and Ophelia shit.
But when Autumn sat down to write, the same sad images always came to her. The same demons. The same quirky girls who bled chaos magic. Mothers who were bad witches. Fathers who wore clown shoes.
And at the end of another day of failed writing Autumn stood in her empty living room, listening to the tick of unrelenting time engraving lines into her forehead, listening to her soft throat taking in air despite her brain telling her to stop, and she realized her pain was the most boring thing in the world.
Autumn backed away from the computer and headed into the kitchen. She’d never bothered to decorate, because she never lived anywhere for very long. Vanessa made sure of that. Empty wine bottles spilled across the dirty countertops. She opened the fridge and only found a half eaten rotisserie chicken.
The emptiness roared.
Maybe Hunter S. Thompson, and Kathy Acker, and Ernest Hemingway, and Anais Nin, and Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace, and Sylvia Plath, and Jack Kerouac didn’t know a goddamn thing. They wrote entire libraries telling us how to live, idolized by millions, and they all died like the worst of us.
They stumbled across brilliance like an accident. Genius was nothing but a genetic disease.
Autumn grabbed a bottle of whiskey off the top of the fridge. When she tilted it to her lips she saw straight through to the bottom. There was no escape from the boredom. No inspiration. Nothing.
Nothing but Vanessa with her wolf teeth, blood in her lungs.
The molly peaked a long time ago, but if I closed my eyes I could almost still see filaments of warmth. Then the stranger I was fucking reached out and caressed my cheek from behind. Such a strangely intimate gesture for sex in a bathroom stall, his pants around his ankles and one of my legs propped up on the toilet. That caress made every good feeling I had disappear.
Muffled club music pulsed through the door. In the stall beside me, girls giggled as they snorted coke. Suddenly I became aware of the raw, scraping, ugly way that everything around me was arranged. And the smell. God.
“Get the fuck off me,” I said to the stranger. “I’m done.”
He kept going.
“I said get off!”
I shoved him off me. His cock slipped out of me and he hit his head on the side of the bathroom stall. He opened the door and ran off, slamming it behind him. I pulled up my skirt and headed out.
I stopped when I saw myself in the mirror. Ice blonde wig torn askew and my red top stained in the front. My mascara dripped down my cheeks. There was a cigarette burn on the inside of one of my elbows. The scared face of Autumn peeked through Vanessa’s costume, downcast, glancing up shyly from a tilted chin.
I stumbled forward and pressed my face against the mirror. My breath fogged the glass.
“You stupid, weak bitch,” I whispered, black tears screeching down my face. “I fucking hate you.”
I tried to stare her down. Because of her we’d become broken halves that couldn’t be pressed together. She’d made sure that as long as we stayed alive, we’d be bleeding.
But she couldn’t meet my eyes. She never could.
“Look at what you’ve done to us,” I demanded of Autumn. “Look, or I’ll take everything from you!”
She wouldn’t look.
I slammed my face against the mirror. I tried to make her jump. To cry out. To respond at all. I wanted the pain to get through to her. It needed to for both of our sake. For the thing that we might be able to become. She needed to see the tornado of dead animals that’d she made our lives into. She needed to see how much she disgusted me with her weakness.
She needed to see that every single choice she’d ever made, despite all her cries of helplessness, had led us to this moment.
But still, she wouldn’t look.
I cried out and punched the mirror, right in the center of her forehead.
“Fine. When you’re broken and screaming, remember that you gave me no other choice,” I said. “There will be nothing left to do but see the ruins I made for you. Then you’ll have to look.”
Dawn pushed through the night, the color of sleepless eyes against aluminum. I headed out the club exit and rifled for my keys at the bottom of my purse.
Robert stood outside the club, leaning against his car as he smoked a cigarette.
I stopped. I didn’t know if I was Autumn or Vanessa. I slipped around inside of myself and came out without an answer.
“What are you doing here?” I asked in a weak voice.
“You called me,” he said. “Ready to go?”
I hadn’t remembered calling him. But I couldn’t remember much about that night. My temples ached and my mouth burned. My underwear felt damp. My ankles shook in my heels, and it felt like I could could barely support the weight of my body.
I saw myself in his eyes, and I knew that whoever I was, I’d disappointed him.
“No,” I said. “That’s okay. I just…”
“Christian,” he said, his voice firm. “It’s clearly not okay. I’m already here. I’ll take you home.”
He opened the passenger side door for me and I climbed inside. The lights of the city strained at the edge of my vision.
“I’m such an idiot,” I said, putting my head in my hands as I began to babble. “I shouldn’t have called you. I’m sorry. I’m so embarrassed.”
“You’re not an idiot. You’re just acting like one right now.”
I made a low, whining noise. “God. I’m such a mess.”
He unrolled his car window and lit another cigarette. He pulled onto the highway and the road unrolled in front of us. I felt like we were on an ocean made out of asphalt as I watched him inhale. Exhale. His shoulders never dropped. His chin never wavered. It was as if the world flowed around him and yet he could remain still.
If I belonged to Robert I knew that I’d never want to die with my head in an oven. I’d never sit down at my computer and blow an aneurysm trying to write something new. I’d be the kind of person that wouldn’t starve, wouldn’t choke, wouldn’t hiss, spit up, snort whatever was in front of me.
But I couldn’t be his. I was just the glass that boys smeared their fingerprints on.
“Autumn,” Robert said, his name striking through me, “If you don’t want to be a mess, then don’t be. Just stop. You say that to me like that’s just what you are, and you have no choice to be anything else.”
He took another drag of his cigarette and the night lurched around us.
“But you’re the only one making you act like an idiot,” he said. “It’s you and nobody else. All you have to do is decide to be something else.”
Vanessa’s face appeared in front of me. She opened her mouth in a silent roar and hooked her fingers into my cheeks. Blood vessels popped in her eyes with the strain, and the red flowed in-between us.
I turned to Robert with my body trembling.
“Fuck you,” I said.
I lunged for the steering wheel, grabbed it and yanked. The car spun out into traffic, searing, screaming, into the lights.
When I came back to consciousness, I knew by the angle of his head against the steering wheel that Robert was dead. The strings had been cut from his shoulders. His lit cigarette fell from his fingers and burned in his lap.
His dark hair glistened. Like oil on asphalt.
Someone shouted at me. An ambulance wailed in the distance. The sky and the road switched sides as I opened the door and stumbled out of the wreck. I crawled along an asphalt horizon until I could get to my feet again. The ribs on my left side felt broken, but the adrenaline was cushioning the pain. Cars honked at me as I ran across the highway and tumbled down into a ravine.
“Oh god,” I whispered, willing everything to disappear. “Please. God. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
But as I clamored to my feet, the cold air blew into my lungs like poison and the ground underneath me would not bend to accommodate my missteps.
I stumbled and something cracked inside me. I groaned, and fell into the grass. I grabbed my side, and blood trickled from my fist. I tried to get up. That’s when the pain came.
I wanted to scream, but all I could do was gasp. My nerves felt like they were knotting around my broken bones. I wound myself around the pain, and Vanessa smiled at me. A moth fluttered stuck in her teeth.
“Look,” she said.
And with open eyes I saw. And when I twisted to the side, back and forth, to try to blot out the sky, I saw. And when I squeezed my eyes shut, I saw. And when I slammed my head against the ground, trying to grind myself back into unconsciousness, I saw. And when I begged God, over and over again, to take it back, knees pressed into the dirt, I saw. And when I pressed my hand into my shattered rib-cage to try to overwhelm myself with pain, I saw.
There was nothing left, and I saw.
Vanessa dissolved, and so did Autumn, and the thing that unwound from the broken core could do nothing but see.