:: Article

A Phantom Lover

By Jaclyn Dwyer. 

You said to me once, “When we’re asleep, I’m afraid of you. Like you might kill me. I never know what you’re going to do.” But, Michael, I would never hurt you, not like that.

Words used to describe me: anorexic, borderline, pianist, prodigy, promiscuous, self-destructive. Once, I was even called a sociopath, but none of these words are me. I exist beyond words, beyond being. Just as you are more than the sum of your parts and missing parts. More than a refugee, more than an African, a scarred black man with a funny accent and gaps between his teeth. 

Facts about me: I change too often to have any truth about me. I am the river you cannot step in the same place twice.

Facts about you: The color of your skin is panther black, smooth as a penny flattened on the rails of train tracks, oil spilled from a barge across the surface of the Alaskan Pacific. Your body is a topographic map, guidelines to remember you by, your skin and scars are the key giving directions, orienting my body around yours. The raised scar on the side of your elbow, a mountain ridge separating your humerus from the paired bones of your forearm. The valley between the lid of your eye and the ridge of your brow, the place where you were poked by the rooted branch of a baobab tree.

I smiled my first time fingering it and you scolded me, pulled your face away from my finger, “It’s not funny. I almost lost my eye.”

“I’m not laughing,” I said. “I’m happy. I think it’s beautiful.”

Sometimes I think you were afraid that I loved your scars more than you, but sometimes your collection of scars was more you than you could ever be all at once.

That scar was a rainbow, the tail of a comet gliding over your pupil-less eyes, black and white like half an Asian yin yang. Even your nail beds were black, not the expected peachy pink of other black men, whose flesh-color nails flash so bright they looked like they are painted on. Your body was the pure absence of light, the undiluted existence of pigment.

You got mad when I asked, “Would you love me more if I had scars like you?”

“Don’t be stupid,” you said. I didn’t know it was a warning of sorts.

Other times it’s just nice to close your eyes and vanish for a minute, when everyone is looking at you, it’s nice to disappear, you know. You can be so pretty in your dreams and everyone can love you, really love you, if you want them to. Anything is possible.

The first violinist: Sometimes I think your soul can fall out. I felt it falling out of me when I was away from you. There was nothing I could do to keep it in. It just kept seeping out through my fingertips, sweat, tears and even in the air I exhaled. I tried, but I just couldn’t hold it in. The last bit, I think, slipped out while I was sleeping, so I didn’t quite know when it left. One morning I woke up, and it just wasn’t there. When your soul falls out, it doesn’t make a sound. Sometimes I think maybe I can replace it, but I don’t know how. What people don’t know, it hurts when your soul falls out, hurts for days afterward, and then you don’t notice it, like it was never there. It’s not at all like losing you because I feel you still, a phantom limb that itches and hurts, especially in the mornings. On this North American tour, I wake up in a new city each night, sometimes forgetting where I am, but never where I’ve been. When I awake, I reach for you, Michael half-expecting you to be there, confusing the hard pillows on the hotel bed for your body, but you’re never there.

Two years ago, it was only a short tour, a one year residency reduced to the academic calendar. Nine months, enough time to spawn a child, to procreate. But London was so far, and the time was all wrong, Night for me, day for you. It was so hard to turn him down when, at night, at home, I was so alone.

He kept chocolates in the bedroom and grapes in the kitchen when all I was eating was grapes. You, who made me eat other things, any other things, kosher or not. Raw fish that might have been still alive when it passed beyond my teeth and sent a murderous shiver down my spine when I swallowed. You were always telling me that I would find a musician like myself, that I would marry him, as if I could only ever love myself, but you were wrong. I missed you, I did. Even when I was with him, I was still missing you. And I was glad you forgave me. I was glad you took me back, and I know you will take me back again.

Deconstructing the self: I know, Michael, that you love me because you put up with things you would never tolerate from someone else. The scars on my arms, legs, and stomach that are fading now, white lines like worms that fatten when I flex my arm. A parallel series of railroad ties rise to the surface with each bicep curl, then flatten out when I release. All except the thick, raised pink seam over my wrist where I cut too deep and nicked a vein. That scar’s so thick it cannot change and move as the others do. An immutable moue that can’t smile or frown, a sealed set of lips so full I can pass it off as a burn, even though it came from a razor. “Baking brownies,” I say, “I leaned on the pan.” When people ask, “What happened to your leg?” I crane my head to look at the back of my thigh and pretend I can’t see, “I don’t know. It must have happened a while ago. I can’t remember.” Most people don’t believe me, but I don’t care. It’s not their body, it’s mine. And yours too, Michael, it’s yours.

Remember, Michael, how you used to inspect me like it was a game? I would giggle and laugh as you pushed up my sleeve and held out my arm, how you pulled off my pants and twisted my leg high in the air so you could see every side of me. “It’s not funny,” you’d say, and I would laugh harder. Then you would fuck me, hard, so hard it hurt, but I didn’t care. I liked it, Michael. I loved it. I did. 

“How could you do this?” they ask when I tell people the truth about my arms and my legs, but not you. You never asked, you only said, “Stop.” And you never threatened to leave me when I kept doing it, like so many others had.

They ask because they are curious. They ask, “How could you do this?” as if it couldn’t be done. Anything can be done.

“Did it hurt?” They ask. “Yes. . . . and no.” I reply. Because that is the answer to all questions but one, Yes. . . . and no.

Was I ever unfaithful? Yes. . . . and no.

Did I love you Michael? Yes always yes.

Now you are punishing me, like I am a child. Michael, is that what you want? Like when you would tell me to go to bed because you didn’t want to answer my questions, “Michael, do you love me? Tell me you love me. I need to know now.” And you would say, “Go to bed.” Not a yes, not a no, just, “Go to bed now. We’ll talk in the morning.” But by the morning I had forgotten to ask. I was just glad you were there.

The other girl: Yes, Michael, I read them, even though you told me I shouldn’t. And I knew they were love letters then, but I was so happy that you’d taken me back, I forgot all about them.

You hid them, but that day while you were in the shower washing me off before work, I opened your drawer, and they were just there. I recognized the blue twine holding the letters together, I remembered the pretty fold, the paper from work, a time sheet the grid on the outside because the note was written on the clean, white backside. At the bottom I saw her name, and that she loved you.

”Did you love her?”

”No.” “Did you say you loved her?”

”If I did, I didn’t mean it.”

“Then why would you keep them?”

“You can throw them away.”

But I didn’t want to throw them away. I wanted to unread them. I wanted her to unwrite them, to unfuck you. I wanted for you to say, “I never loved her. I always loved you.” Instead you said, “She was just something to do. You had your lover. You did it first.”

But I didn’t do it to hurt you, Michael. Any of it. I did it because I can’t help myself, but you, you should have known better. You should have known how it would hurt me inside.

That night, after we fought, I was angry. The razor was just there, so I picked it up and I nicked a vein. I kept repeating, “I’m sorry,” while the blood poured out of my arm. I don’t know how much blood because I was afraid to look and I’ve never been afraid to look before. This time, I knew it was too deep. I watched the razor disappear. I watched my skin split open a way it never had before, and I covered it with my hand right away because I didn’t want to see what I’d done. I wished that I could take it back, so I closed my eyes while you fixed me. I let you put the bandage on right away because I didn’t want to see. All along you were trying to fix me, weren’t you Michael? Is that why you left? Because you thought you had failed?

“I think you need stitches,” you said.

“I don’t. It’s fine,” I said, even though I knew I was wrong. “Oh God, I think I nicked a vein. Will a vein close itself?”

“Let’s go.”

“But you’ve seen worse, haven’t you? In Africa. That scar on your arm, and the one over your eye, were they as deep as this? Tell me they were deeper.”

“I don’t remember. They were deep.”

“Deeper than this?”

“You need to go to the hospital.”

“I don’t. I’m fine. I have butterfly bandages. Will you put them on?”

Michael, you shook your head, “I think you need stitches.”

“But you’ve seen worse in Africa. You have. I know you have.” I started to cry more, screaming and squeezing my arm to make the blood stop, “Please, help me. I’m scared. Please, I said I was sorry. Just tell me it’ll be ok.”

“Ok,” you said, closing the gap and taping one side of the gash to the other, “But if it doesn’t stop by morning, I’m taking you to the hospital.”

I sat up with my arm all night, cradling it like a newborn baby, nursing it with ice, squeezing it until my hand went numb. Then I panicked thinking I had severed a nerve. But the feeling came back a few minutes after I let go and my arm thawed out. I could still move my fingers, everything was alright. “I’m sorry,” I kept saying, sobbing to myself. You, who stayed up with me even after I told you to go to bed, said, “Stop saying that.”

For weeks it hurt to play. For weeks, it refused to seal, but I played anyway. Delicate, pained, I played, as if at any moment I might break open and bleed onto the keys. I imagined the sweet tincture of my blood seeping into the cavernous body of my baby grand, weighing down the strings, dragging the entire score into a lower octave. Finally, after I thought it had healed, seeing the crusted dried blood of what I thought was a scab, I went to wash it off under the kitchen sink, for the first time in nearly a week, and goddamn, it hadn’t healed at all. The damn thing split open again and I had to start from scratch. I had to dry it off and get out the butterfly bandages again, only you weren’t there to help me this time, so I had to do it myself, and I couldn’t quite pull the skin tight enough. I couldn’t line the sides up evenly, having only one hand. Maybe that’s why the scar is so wide, so thick, an asymmetrical scar that will be there forever, that will not fade like all the rest.

I know that you only took her after I sent you the photographs of my lover’s apartment where I lived and lost fifteen pounds eating only chocolate and grapes. Without you I shrunk. I became a half note, a quarter note, a rest. And I know I shouldn’t have sent them, but I wanted to show you how beautiful I was, how desirable. It’s true I wanted to show you the other man, but only because I did not want to begin a habit of hiding from you, you who know everything about me, you who’ve seen everything there is to see inside me. You were so disappointed in me, Michael. But did you cry? You said you cried, but I never saw those tears, and so it’s like you didn’t cry, like I never hurt you at all.

Finding you: After you were gone, I visited the alchemist and the fortune teller on South Street. I gave change to a beggar, which landed with a clinking thud in the bottom of his Starbucks cup. I lit a candle in the grotto of the cathedral and tossed quarters into the fountain at the mall. I prayed that the God who gives second chances might also give a third.

The God who created loneliness is the God who made us fit so perfectly together, one part into another, one person’s presence filling the other’s empty space, our fingers interlaced in bed, our scars mapping the places we’ve touched each other, holding memories so we’ll never forget. God’s hand reaching down to the ocean floor, resurrecting the Titanic, then dropping it with a seismic splash to sink again, disintegrating on its way down. Your hand around my back, lifting me up when I was too lazy to rise. My hand guiding yours over the black and white keys, teaching you songs you were reluctant to learn.

Now, mostly, I miss your hairs, so tightly wound they curled into circles. Round black eyes on my stomach and thighs staring up at me hours after you left. I used to love to fall into you, your body so big and strong and black against mine. When you squeezed me tight, tighter until all the bones along my spine would crack in a ripple of snaps, you winced, disgusted as if you’d broken my bones, as if you hurt me, but it felt good. A therapeutic release of the day’s tension brought on by quarrels with people who weren’t you.

There are refugees scattered across America and you are one of them. You can’t be far. I just wish I knew where to look for you, Michael, and if I knew I was going to lose you like this, I never would have let go.

# # # # #

JD: The idea for this story came from a number of places. I think that our bodies hold physical memories, and so I wanted to write a story about scars. I wrote the first draft of this story in three days, and when I revised the story, I tried to envision each paragraph as a prose.

Jaclyn Dwyer received a BS in biology from Gwynedd-Mercy College and a Master of Liberal Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. She has also studied at the University of Oxford, and is currently enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame, where she is the recipient of the Sparks Fellowship.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008.