“This is What We Do Now” by Becky Shirley

You come home, half gallon of milk in one hand, the other snaking around my waist. Head buried in my shoulder, no words, just small noises that I can feel against my skin but cannot translate into a proper language. No orthography, none of the fancy linguist terms you bring home from campus. A single, uninterrupted line of murmur. I am at the stove, 2am pancakes, not tired at all, despite the shadows under my eyes, and not even hungry, despite my mechanical movements in the kitchen. We pause like this for a moment, me frozen and you wrapped around me from behind. Not holding each other up or leaning into one another, softly merging into one, but empty, desperate, clumsy clinging, because this is what we do now.

The leaflets from the clinic stay in a pile on the edge of the dresser, neither one of us moving them to a drawer or throwing them into the bin only three steps away, deciding instead to let a light layer of dust descend upon them. Ignoring them and yet not ignoring them. It would be too final to get rid of them, even though they are useless now. We have no need for a clinic anymore. But we leave them there, never acknowledging them, never forgetting them, because remembering to forget is the opposite of forgetting.

I buy my own tampons and keep them under the sink now, hidden from you. I know you notice that I never ask them to buy them anymore, that I never write them down on grocery lists, that I never leave them on the back of the toilet. I know you notice this and I know you feel a prickle of hurt, barely nameable, but this is what I do now.

The unused pregnancy tests at the bottom of the trash bag, the subtle move you think I don’t notice. I don’t tell you that I found them, and I don’t tell you that I fished one out and shoved it into that little leather bag you bought for me in Soho those months before. I don’t tell you because I have no explanation for why—why I did it, why to tell you, why to bother. It isn’t like me to relish in a secret from you, even a small one, and it isn’t like me to do something so irrational. But then again, it isn’t like you to throw away something that so clearly belongs to me, even if it is useless now. This isn’t like us at all, but it’s what we do now.

The card from my mother that I keep tucked in my copy of Great Expectations, the big hardcover version from when I was a kid, the one with no footnotes that bleeds dust. The card with the little bear with a tear running down his fuzzy face and a balloon declaring, in garish, pink bubble letters “I’m Sorry For Your Loss”. Those disapproving clicking sounds you made with your tongue when it came in the mail, muttering “Isn’t that just like Maureen?” to yourself because—even though you know I agree, you know I am irked and repulsed by this mawkish thing—you know better than to point out in exact words how the gesture is uncouth. I keep the card tucked into the front cover of the book to remind myself of how kind you are, how you love me enough to bite your tongue, how good it is of you to leave the words muttered and clipped, to not mention that it is my fault that she even found out in the first place. I kept it there until the day it fell out onto the subway floor and I watched it land silently, sitting alone and still. I stepped over it without hesitation when I got off at our stop, even though it would have been simple enough to retrieve it in the uncrowded car. I drop it and leave it, abandoned on the ground as if it never belonged to me, because this is the kind of person I am now.

The sex with no words, the libido never slowing, only shifting. No dirty talk, no sweet whispers, no gentle calling of names turning breathless and hysterical the more frenzied we got. Sex without names. Anonymous sex. Sex without faces, sex with my face pressed up against glass shower doors, sex with your face obscured by steam, sex with you underneath me and my eyes focused upwards, away from your intense, empty eyes, even in ecstasy.

Your name lighting up my phone screen and me staring at it, rigid and unmoving. The phone ringing itself out on the table, its vibrations making tiny roars that echoed out into the soundless apartment, grating against my skin and yet, making no move to answer, to make it stop. Your claim that my texts didn’t come through and me sneaking a look at your phone while you’re in the shower to confirm the lie, because this is what we do now.

The yellow legal pad with your messy scrawl dirtying the crisp, clean page, the letters squished together and the words tumbling into each other, the handwriting I had to learn to translate. The two columns labeled KEEP IT and GET RID OF IT because that’s all it was in the end, an it, a bloody thing at the bottom of the toilet that you have never even seen, only heard about, tried to picture, and fell short every time. The decision that only came down to paper and ink, not so different than the fucking bear card and my mother’s cursive inside of it. A decision no different than any other decision of ours that is broken down to  list, to an answer that can be defended and legitimized and can give you an excuse to fall asleep at night if only you chose the right answer. The pad of paper tossed carelessly on your desk, with a trust that I would never read it. But I did, of course I did. Because even though I knew you trusted me to never read it, I trusted you to never write it.

“It’s one thing to choose it and another to have it chosen,” you say one night, your face buried into the curve of my neck, where it always ends up when we lie in bed. You have lovely clavicles you said once early on, when I wore that low cut shirt you like, the thin silk straps barely creating a crack in the sweep of my skin, the flow of my body. That was the kind of thing you said then, the kind of thing you noticed. I reach an arm behind to touch the back of your thigh, to grip until I can feel the solidity of bone inside. I do not answer you, because I truly do not think you should have ever had the choice at all. I am secretly relieved it happened before you could decide, before you could cast a vote, but I’ll never tell you this. Instead, I run my hand up and down your leg, no words anymore, but skin to skin language now, because this is what we do.

Becky Shirley currently resides in Oceanside, California, where she was born and raised, and is in the process of moving to New York City to pursue an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. 

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