By MAGGIE WU
Trigger Warning: Body horror
Autumn in New England always strikes me as an ostentatiously formal affair in which one pulls out their finest wool and leather silhouettes, all in the most somber umbers and teals and siennas. And the dynamic frenzy of summer air crystallizes itself to clarity, a percussive precision dearly embraced. There are colors, too, that convey a taste of sweetness as the leaves caramelize to browns, oranges, apples— apples dipped in maple glazes and chocolate. The mountains are brightly foiled in dark ferns and the sun frosts the valley in maple.
Autumn is clinical and cool and cozy when I want it to be, and I take comfort in sliding my icy, non-adhesive feet against my flannel sheets and slipping them into my microfleece socks. In autumn, I forget that I have knees, that I have legs, that I am embodied with the sour stench of sweat, the slime of sunscreen slathered on my back, and I pass into abstraction. I slink into my wool coat and feel impenetrable and smooth. Poreless and porcelain, like a China doll.
In the attic of an old Greek revival, dust laces my linens and my oak-paneled walls. The night stirs and I wake up; I am bleeding. I rush to the bathroom as my body decomposes and squirts, sloshing red onto the lilac floor below. It is disgusting. Sighing, simmering, I claw at the toilet paper and bouquet it in my hands. In me is a void and I fear its imagination. Above me, the moon is bloated.
Bloated with meaning, you would say sarcastically, and I would mistake your words for earnestness.
It’s autumn in New England.
This is supposed to be a love story.
Before we were anything, we were neighbors. Back before any of us had real friends, we spent Saturday evenings in the solitude of our dorm rooms. On these evenings, the smell of something sweet floated from your room and wafted into mine. I knocked on your door. You were surprised at my interruption. I thought that you were attractive from three angles but no more.
What are you making? I say.
You smiled. Pancakes. You gestured to an Easy-bake oven on your shelf. I stole it from my younger sister.
That’s a fire hazard, I said. But I won’t tell the RC if you give me some.
Come in, you said. And the rest followed.
When you’re stressed, you sing. When you dance, you swing. When you like a song, you call it “smooth.” When you talk, your curls fly up as you punctuate. Indeed, you like to say in a mock-intellectual tone. Indeed, I am tired and I shall bid you adieu, you say before you exit. You always need
to say goodbye to everyone before you leave, never being one to go quietly.
I am sitting in the quad when I first see you this season. There you are, bounding over the hill from the West, in your navy pea coat and all, a bounce in your stride, walking through the incandescence of stars. I fear to look at you for a reason beyond fire; I don’t wave at you; you wave at me, so I wave at you. Hullo, you say. Hullo—I smile—hullo. Yes, hullo, again. You sit down next to me and fumble with the gold rings on your fingers as I fumble with my words.
I am reading Jane Eyre for our class right now, I say.
It’s spooky, you say. And Jane’s a pick-me.
Yes, I laugh. Yes, I suppose you could read it like that.
And we sit there and relish in our criticisms.
The sun gilds your curls, your delicate ears. Lately, I don’t know why it is so difficult to talk to you as a friend, though we have been friends for three years. Yet this autumn, you have become a fixation. I think, if you were with somebody else, I would hate them. I don’t know how to tell you that I love you. Perhaps: I’ve never wanted to be perceived until now.
For a while, you only exist as a statue chiseled in crystallized honey. I picture your hair, your eyes, your neck, and do not notice your dandruff, your pores, your dirt. I like seeing you in wool, in cable-knit sweaters, in checkered button-downs. You are disembodied to me and I do not venture into unseen territory. Instead, I carve
a future in cashmere in which we wear suits of dark tweed and dresses of fine silk and you smell like roses.
On the bus to the next town over, I rest my head on your shoulder and you grab my hand. Underneath my gloves, my palms ooze and pulsate with saltwater. Your hands are likely cool and smooth and hairless.
When we arrive, the avenues are lined with fairy lights that wink and twinkle over the rising mist. From the street fair, you buy us fried mozzarella sticks to share. A fluff of white crosses the street—is that a schnauzer?—you ask, and we both have the same idea to chase it. You pull me along through the crowds of sweatered shoppers in search of the little bear. As we weave our way through the crowds, we’re dashing and flying and laughing and flushing and the silvery world is spinning and sparkling and twinkling, and then we lose sight of the creature and collapse our jovial momentum to the floor of the town green, falling in the exhilaration of our absurd pursuit. I turn to your blooming face. My hand is still in yours and we peel back our gloves. Somewhere, an orchestra swoons in a D-major string serenade. We are close and I pull you closer. Your breath will taste like honey and earl grey tea.
Your lips reach mine and I taste the cheese in your spit. The sour heat of your breath is suffocating, the exchange of fluids disgusting, the jagged bumps on the flabby skin under your neck—a chicken’s flesh. The worms hidden in my mozzarella-flavored teeth march into your greasy mouth. Still, your eyes are closed so I don’t pull away, though I see the craters on your face, the hairs in your nose, and imagine your glands bubbling oil to your skin. Over dinner, you tell me all the things you want to do tonight. I wish we had rinsed our mouths with spearmint. I suppose that this is a love story.
In the coming weeks, I nestle in thick stockings and sweatshirts and corduroy trousers, hiding from you. I try to explain to you that I still love you, but I cannot stand your body and that you shouldn’t take it personally because it’s more of an aversion to bodies in general. I can heal you, you say. We can heal each other. But no. I don’t need to be healed but transformed. I tell you I still love you but I know it’s not in the way you want.
You make me feel monstrous, you say.
The feeling’s mutual, I say. Because you remind me that I have a body.
Stop. Stop stop stop hiding. You say you love me but you don’t give me anything.
Not everything is for you.
No, you say. You just love yourself more than you love me.
You look at me; my chest aches. Then I think of our spit sloshing together and I vomit.
Perhaps we shouldn’t see each other, I say, and I run.
On evenings where we submerge ourselves in pools of poison, I try to forget you. Instead, you brew more potently in my mind than before. You’ve made me feel guilty and I hate you; you’ve made me feel wanted and I love you, and I want some parts of you, too, parts that I picture now amid this intoxicating, overflowing horde of indiscernible bodies. Shadows contour my loneliness as I find my way to your room, and the knocks I knock will resonate until dawn. Why are you here, you say. But it’s clear why we’re here, together, on this sticky evening stuck together. And with the taste of a particular mango vodka stolen from the party downstairs, I share my spit with you, and you let me. In the dark, we breathe together and I decompose, ragged, monstrous, tumorous, and you trace my notches. When the air clears, I am liquid—loosely wrapped in hair, porous and fleshy, with great vaults of oil that ooze out of a semi-permeable membrane, rubbing against another. And I gasp for clarity. It tastes of mango vodka and mozzarella. I forgot that this is also the season of decomposition.
Afterward, I can’t stand to look at you and I block your calls. In your absence, I busy myself with my anxieties, of whom I lug under the degenerating specters of old friends. There is depravity in the burnt sienna of the distant hills as they become speckled with snow. You remind me of fermented fruit and spoiled milk, acrid oil from the fat lard of putrid cheese that stretches and bounces and slaps elastically as it descends from the nethers of a milk cow. There is nothing to hold onto—meticulously, we senesce.
The blood is late. As the moon ripes to roundness, I wait for the unfurling of my barbaric interiors. Yet it doesn’t arrive. Three days. Across the quad, I step on the carcasses of the dead. They pop and fizz under my leather oxfords as the world decays to the grotesque. Moisture molests the soil, yet the rain doesn’t come.
A mound of panic slowly rises from my oozing, glutinous darkness. Four days, five days. I am feverish, wool sticks to my perspiring skin. When I see you, I turn in the other direction, not wanting the reminder that I can no longer pass. You have seen me in my monstrous form and now a monster gnaws within me.
The moon shrinks—still nothing—its light stolen and brazed into the knife in my hands. I am sprawled on the bathroom floor, heaving and sweating with worry at another midnight passed with no blood. In the void, I have manifested my fears into worms. Soon, crepuscular vermin will wiggle into a mound and eat me alive, decomposing my consciousness, corrupting the chambers of my body, snarling and leeching on my insides to emptiness. Out, out, out, I say, yet no charms nor crystals work to dispel them as they insist on nestling their sloppy forms in my arteries. The maggots twist upstream and their bodies bulge through my scalp in uneven, squirming lumps. My stomach swells to a bulbous, distorted ball with quivering veins, and the void kicks me with pain. I will not hide anymore. I slide towards the unyielding door as the dark tears at me, drowning, and I wield the moon-knife, carving inwards, digging into the flesh on my torso, which is soft and fluffy, a piece of cake, easy as slicing bread at brunch, and I push the blade in deeper, not wanting to leave any part of them inside. A glass of wine. I shatter it on the floor, a piercing, metallic scream paired with the hiss of my serpents. I reach in and choke them, quivering, trembling—the monster and me gasp—in unison—and the—blood—squirting out as ketchup would—spilling—dying—and I spray my insides with bleach. A shudder. Then I take my needles and sew myself up, neatly and cleanly.
Below, the blood blooms between my legs. I laugh and welcome it, however tardy. I giggle in an expanding pool of scarlet, elated. Remembering my hands, I scoop up the viscous liquid and baptize myself in red. Overhead, the stars shake. I hold my knees, rocking back and forth on the crisp, purple floor, finally clean, clean, clean.
When you reach me, I will have waited for years. You’ll have a bouquet of dandelions in your hand, worth nothing but tears.
“You had a talent for moving gently.”
When the snow melts, we will meet on the far side of the mountain. By then, the glaciers will have babbled into springs. You’ll see me and I’ll bloom for you.
For you. Spring into you. You, you you you you. And you’ll braid lutetianas in my hair.
In Lutetia, in 1945, when the war is over, I look for you in the crowd. Dust laces the past, a coffee cake dressed in cinnamon, softly. On a mystic island, a woman gives you a crown of laurels, an enchanter’s nightshade that fringes your eyes.
I wait for you and decay.