After Alice


Eight months after moving to the South, Alice tells me, “There’s no ecstasy left,” then paces for a night before walking to the stream at dawn.
        Our town’s the kind of suburb with dozens of paths that all connect if you walk far enough. The expectation’s that you’ll loop back home, but it’s possible to leave if you want, to follow the longest to the ocean.
        When I wake without Alice, I walk to the stream, skip rocks for an hour, then circle back to the wooded shade of our backyard. I play guitar until dusk, barbeque a mushroom cap, call my mother. In the bathtub I read, letting my skin soak into wrinkles and rashes. I sleep on the carpet covered in lint, ignore the cat biting my toes.
        The next day I work, pick up olive bread and wait on the porch. The next day I work, bring home mango juice and sip it as I wander a circuit of trails. The next day I work, bring home vegan bacon and flash fry it in coconut oil on the electric stove. The next day I work and drink cup after cup of rice-puffed green tea. The next day I work and stay well past dusk.
        On the weekend, I pick Alice’s clothes off the bedroom floor and wash them in fabric softener. Putting them away, I find a collection of letters, which I arrange and bring with me to the kitchen. Dust falls out the open envelopes, coating the table with a golden sheen.

Four months after moving to the South, a pair of owls made a nest in our yard. Spring rains dried, and Alice took to outdoors, strung fairy lights so she needn’t come back in. The first night, she read to the trees. The next night, one owl perched twenty feet across from her, and Alice spoke in whispers. Each night, the owl moved closer, until I woke to Alice screaming.
        Inside, I scrubbed her blood with peroxide. “It’s a mistake,” she said. “I should be teaching by now.” It’s a hard economy, though. I wrapped her wounds in white gauze and boiled tea. Look at all this space, I said, gesturing to the wall of windows and a velvet sectional. Our life’s not all bad. “It’s not home, though,” Alice said. “We’re too removed.”

The gift of a city is that you are allowed to belong to multiple buildings and spaces. The trade-off is that your private space is small and maybe windowless, maybe leaking or yellowed, but you are allowed to see the road as a hallway, an in-between trail to collectives, places not quite outside and not quite in. In summer, gridded roads over-heat, and in winter they over-freeze, but the gift of a suburb is that you are allowed a private stretch of grass, and the trade-off is you are only allowed to belong to a discrete number of spaces: your house, your coffee shop, your vehicle, your work. The road is off-limits, claimed by commuters and the last remaining deer.
        When Alice was here the house felt large and familial, full. Without her the eggshell frame caves in. After three weeks, I begin to sleep on the porch, letting the mosquitos have free reign of my legs, stay later at work and drive to the coffee shop immediately after, sip tea and read until it closes. I cling to routine: work, read, drink, sing, cook, clean. I tell anecdotes to the cat. If you were to look, you’d say I’m doing fine.

Seven months after moving to the South, Alice’s friends visited from the North. They were cans and cans of Busch Ice, slumped on our sectional, cigarette after cigarette, cross-legged on the back porch. “They seem depressed,” Alice said. You seem depressed, I said. “I seem depressed?” The city can’t survive itself. The suburbs are what they are.

Five months after moving to the South, I insisted we drive to the mountains. In a quaint tourist town, we day drank, and I bored Alice with stories of work. Desperate to speak about anything else, she searched the bars, made friends with two artists who joined us for breakfast. She combed the trails, made friends with three Marxists who joined us for sunset. She brought me to a gallery, made friends with a sculptor who joined us beside the hotel pool.
        Trapped on the car ride home, Alice turned the radio loud. We listened to four hours of NPR hosts talking about war, city council, television dramas, love languages, elephants. I remember most the segment on elephants and the crackly voice of the guest, all the details she threaded like metaphor. “Elephants communicate by stomping on the ground. For so long we thought they were telepathic because we could not hear what their feet could feel.”
        Back in the suburbs, I spent a morning in front of Alice’s bookshelf. I brought a book to the stream and read wading rocky shallows. I walked home, practicing what I might tell Alice. Under the shadows of houses, trees, every thought constructed beside water suddenly sounded incorrect. I shelved the book and grilled corn, which I sliced and plated beside arugula, cashews, raw artichoke hearts.

We always knew our worlds needed to be more than ourselves. I know my world should be more than her. I always wanted a world that was more than her. I call one of Alice’s friends. I text one of mine. At work they talk of unionizing. I spend time listening. I practice speaking. At home, I make beans without spices and eat them in the grass.

“If I wrote a book of all the ways we end,” Alice said, “it would begin with you dissolving, a cross-fade into this chair, while I watched without intervening, slumped and bored at the kitchen table.”

One month after moving to the South, I unpacked all of Alice’s boxes. I folded the clothes she had carelessly balled up and took the author copies of her only book out of a milk crate, tried to straighten the bent covers. I unpacked a pile of purple envelopes, hand-addressed, and brought them to her, asked who wrote them. An old lover? I guessed. Were you in love once? It was fan-mail, Alice told me. “They’re all the letters I’ve received in praise of my work. No citations yet, but I have this fan, one fan. Read her letters. I don’t care.”

Ten months after moving to the South, the phones in my office turn into intercoms mid-day, warning of a tornado watch in effect one hour from now until dusk.
        At home, I take the cat into Alice’s closet, feed her freeze-dried salmon and sit on a pile of starched laundry to play the local news from my laptop because we were directed to continue working once safely home. I watch a map of the tornado circling our town. It multiplies. The storm is many epicenters. Only one house is destroyed, and no one inside of it.
        The cat vomits on an Amazon box filled with sex toys Alice never used with me. I look through her boxes to find what else she hid. I want heirlooms or writing, but everything is clothes or books or plastic.
        I wipe the vomit with a torn shirt then bring the cat outside on a leash to investigate the yard. No trees fell, but the grass is damp. We lie down together, and I install Tinder on my phone. Swipe right for six people, make one match. She texts me a GIF of a raccoon clapping its tiny hands, and I bury my phone in the mud.

One month after moving to the South, Alice brought all the copies of her only book into the living room with scissors, a hammer, and nails. “This book proposed textual unity,” she said. “Solidarity. This is what solidarity looks like,” she said. “Chains of paper people nailed to cookie-cutter walls.”

Six months before moving to the South, Alice read to me from her book, written in the voice of a mystic. She showed me the scarves she wore to lectures, performed for me the voice she used at conferences. But it’s only an act, she told me. Anyone composed who speaks of prophecy is performing, she warned me. We all reach for something, we pretend, but I always know what is not true. 

Nine months before moving to the South, Alice threw me a birthday party on a second-floor rooftop in our skyscraper city. Alice welcomed everyone as they stepped off the fire-escape stairs, and I drank with my feet hanging over the edge. Three different bands played nearly the same songs, and we ate cupcakes. Someone set off sparklers. There was a full moon that Alice prayed too, a kind of blessing for my year. I lay on the ground just before dawn, listening to everyone leave as the skyscraper lights flickered on. The memory is sleepy, drunk, and I am dwarfed.

Six months after moving to the South, there was an explosion one block from my work. The administration office shook, my boss burst into tears, and we were evacuated into a city of smoke. One man died. A building collapsed.
        The day embedded in my body as a map, sharp lines around the university campus, now tinged in an ominous glow because I wandered it looking for a bus to take me back to my suburb because my car was trapped in rubble and my phone didn’t have signal. Inhaling the scent of burning buildings, I watched sirens and stretchers, ambulances driving to the university hospital. I didn’t know where I was going, walked into walls at the dead-ends of tunnels. I heard two adult children describing their father to the police, all the details of his body. I told a reporter asking for witnesses that I could not speak to the event. 
        Working from home, Alice learned about the explosion on social media. She read the event as a metaphor. Without having heard the shattering windows, or seen dust clouds smolder then settle, the day embedded in her as a prophecy. She started pacing the yard each night.

“I think we’re depressed,” she said. I think you’re depressed, I said. “I think we’re circling.” The world is repeating. But it’s getting worse. Remember what the Mathematician says, I said. “Remember what the Mystic said,” she said. The chains are growing, or they break. The hands are grasping, or they just let go. I remember once reading Adorno saying that if you’re smart enough, eventually you’ll realize every tree looks like every other tree, but I am walking the neighborhood without her, and every inch of the canopy looks unique. I have to believe I am misremembering.

Two months before moving to the South, Alice was laid off over email. We are cutting all adjuncts, the email said. The tenured Literature faculty will now join the Media Studies faculty. Alice was lucky to have me, the single adjuncts said. A safety-net, they said.
            Eight months before moving to the South, I made twenty-eight thousand dollars a year. I kept applying, interviewing for thirty-something. A safety-net, I dragged Alice with me.

If I wrote a book of all the ways we met, I said, it would end with your limbs multiplying, your body, an ocean, sinking, when you could breathe underwater, your skin aglow with phosphorescents, some untouchable charm.
            But if this is a book of all the ways we meet, and you are suddenly underwater, then I must be too. So tell me how I swim. Tell me how I breathe. Tell me my eyes reflect the deep water. I know: I have no limbs, only fins, and six pairs of jaws that fall open in succession. I know: I am tangible and rough but slick. I know: I never sleep. I just keep swimming, wanting, swimming, killing, swimming, wanting, swimming, you.

Two months after moving to the South, Alice took the paper people off the wall and brought out all the paint, glitter, magazines, and yarn she could find. I came home from work to her holding champagne. We ate bread with olive oil. “Time to decorate better,” she said. “I’ve been over-dramatic.” We collaged our walls with faces of models and chunks of useless text. She played me Brent Green’s Carlin, then hammered panel nails and thread yarn around them making huge letters that spelled his words: “There’s euphoria all around you, you are swimming in it.”
        And though three months after moving to the South, Alice undid the words and handed the thread to the cat, I remember this. I trace the holes where there were nails as I repaint the walls blue, and I remember this night because you have to remember when we were happy, or the choice is awash, some blur of unsubstantiated want, or else Alice is flat, and we are unreadable.

When we arrived in the South, we were confused by how removed our rental was from everything. We wandered the busy road, some commercial shops, a gas station looking for people or nature. Then one night Alice climbed a set of stairs off the overpass and found a circuit of trails. At the end of one trail there was a park with a rose garden, and though we moved in winter, I packed us food, and we walked there after work. In the dark, I pointed to all the bare, thorny patches, spoke about potential, some bad metaphors. We drank wine with our food and our vision blurred. Walking home, I panicked about the past, what we had left, and she spoke optimistically. Wine-drunk, we awed the tall pines then fucked outside until our vision returned. Lying cold on patio stone, I praised the space, while Alice dreamt of what we had left.

Eleven months after moving to the South, I flip through profiles on Tinder, knowing each face could be pasted on Alice’s body. Sitting with owls, under fairy lights, I make a collage of all the Alice-bodies with new faces. None are sexy, but I keep swimming, so swipe right, swipe right, swipe right. I work, bring home rosemary bread. I work, drive to a coffee shop, come home and make spaghetti. I work. There is a world, I tell myself. I take a book to the stream. I practice speaking. There is world, I repeat, tracing home under trees.

Is loneliness the easiest story to tell or is it just the final state of everyone around us? We learn school and self-direction, paint our nails, our lips, comb our hair, dress up these bodies, and present ourselves to what kind of world? There’s no ecstasy left between dotted yellow lines and blinking white men. Box after box after box after I walk to the stream and bury my toes beneath pebbles.
        I remember driving home from the quaint mountain town when Alice wouldn’t speak to me, how she unraveled the window. Her hair a pile of golden chains with silver locks on the ends, blowing long in the wind, battering the car’s metal, a berating, ceaseless sound. The radio loud. Four hours and the creaky voice over wind, saying, “Elephants love certainly, we can see it in their grief, stomping feet as they circle their dead.”
        I leave my phone, my wallet, keys, shoes on the shore and swim into the ripples. I reach hands across my jutting out ribs. I reach hands across my shaved head, sharp chin, say, You’re so beautiful, aren’t you? I reach hands to steady myself on rocks and push back to shore. Her words, her hair, her book, a cacophony, or the voice on the radio stating, “You can’t say elephants don’t love. It’s just a matter of what you mean by love.”

Aimee Wright Clow (she/they) is a book designer and writer living in Durham, NC where they co-curate music and poetry at the Octopod. Their writing has appeared in journals including Interim, Bennington Review, Phoebe, and Smartish Pace (where they were awarded the Beulah Rose Prize). aimeewrightclow.com.