"To Be Your Valentine" by Anya Josephs
one. After his mother’s funeral we went back to my parents’ house. Everyone else was still at the reception. I let him fuck me on the smooth wooden floor of the hallway outside my bedroom. I could see the neighbors’ house from the window above the widow’s walk. I watched the sunlight pass by and pressed my hands and knees into the ground and wondered what I would see if I could look into his eyes. During the service his face had been so still that it frightened me, a mask of anger and not sorrow. I was glad that he was moving again, though it felt nothing like joy. He was inside me and yet further away than he’d been even when we spanned two continents.
two. The heart, meaning here the icon of the heart—that is to say, what grade school children draw, or what appears on a cell phone’s display in your choice of black, purple, pink, and red, bears no resemblance at all to the heart—that is to say, the thing in the chest which beats, which has four chambers, which develops disease. There exist a variety of proposed explanations for this discrepancy. Some say the heart, icon, is actually a liver, organ, the ancient site of the passions mistranslated. Some say the heart, icon, is the shape of a particularly curvaceous woman’s ass, organ, cynical or profound conflation of desire into love or love into desire. Some say the heart, icon, is meant to be two hearts, organs, stitched together side by side, two made one, fatally, brutally, permanently. This is gruesome but I like it. It has never seemed quite right that love should be bloodless, that it could leave and leave nothing behind.
three. After he told me—not face to face, of course, though we’d seen each other just two weeks before, since he is or at least was (I know him no longer and so who am I to say) at core a coward, and after I had given up getting the sound on my computer to work (is this funny? in retrospect it seems funny. How we are tortured by the failures of that on which we depend) since I couldn’t bear doing nothing in the bristling terror that followed “call me I have something to tell you”, I sat mute, choking on tears. I watched my own face in the corner of the glowing screen swell up red, listening, only listening, to a nonsense stream of “It was just once and I was drunk, I promise, it didn’t mean anything, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just want to be honest now, I love you too much to lie to you.” After all that I had to get on the bus and go to an appointment. I think it was my endocrinologist. I don’t remember. But I do remember that as I left my apartment I saw two little girls holding hands. They wore gold curls and puffy purple jackets. I thought, knowing myself ridiculous, I will never be happy again, not the way they are. I sat on the bus and pressed my face hard to the glass. Beads of rain fell down, pooling flat on the window. No one asked if I was okay. I gasped for breath. I was grateful for this callous city where I could grieve alone.
four. Love is, above all else, embarrassing, and I have always been spectacularly, even erotically, sensitive to shame. When I was three we made garden sculptures at preschool. We were told to get sand, intention, out of a bucket in the back. I got sand, mistaken, out of the sandbox in the playground. I remember being scolded, I realize now, because the teacher who no doubt was younger than I am now and overwhelmingly surrounded by screaming three-year-olds was terrified when one of them disappeared outside. but that is not part of the memory. Only the shame that I had done it wrong, when it would have been quite easy to do right. This is my first memory.
five. After I had been in the hospital for three months, I was talking about him, and not for the first time. To forgive or not to forgive, or how to forgive. The betrayal itself, and also the lie, duration, three years, and also the distance, seven hundred miles, and also the missed phone calls, too many to count. Another patient turned to me. “Girl. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life. But I have never heard you say one nice thing about this asshole.”
six. B.N. Harrison writes that Ophelia is “proof that adolescent girls don’t just go out of their minds for the fun of it. They’re driven there by people in their lives who should have known better.” I wonder what this means for me, for my mind I mean to have healed, which I was driven out of and dragged myself back into.
seven. After I got sick, and I’d been sick for a long time but I mean really sick, so sick I couldn’t keep lying to myself about it, and after my roommates left for Christmas vacation and I was alone in a cinderblock building in the grey cold city waiting for my admit date or to die whichever came first, and after my best friend stopped answering my calls, and after my father was busy at work, and after even talking to me made my baby brother cry, and after my mother didn’t believe me, he came across the country to a city he always hated to sit helpless and watch as I entered my daily battle with the monster of breakfast. I swallowed one, two, three bites of yogurt, thick cream tang and teeth clenching sweet. “I can’t,” I said. “Please,” he says. “No, I really can’t, I’m sorry,” and I was up and into the claustrophobic tile of the bathroom. He didn’t bang on the door the way I imagined it, the way it would be in a movie. None of this is the way I imagined it, the way it would be in a movie. There were no more pleas, from him or from myself. I must admit I do not put up much of a fight against my own madness at this point. I was exhausted from six months of an increasingly rapid decline, and I was of course starving to death, which has terrible effects on one’s mental fortitude. By now this was my routine, this blissful lack of anything. When I let my illness win I did not have to fight. I did what I must. Hair up. Toilet lid and seat up. Bend over. Mouth wide. Ring finger index finger in. Out. In. Out. Past mouth and into throat. Out. In. Gag. Retch. Nothing except painful twisting gas and tears in eyes and in. Out. In. Out. In. Back out along with a thin trickle of sour vomit which is all I could hope to get since those three bites were all I’d eaten this week. Wipe mouth. Wash hands. Wipe the toilet down. Throw the rag away. Rinse teeth with water, not toothpaste, since that just spreads the acid around and speeds up decay. Let hair down. Carefully examine the contents of the toilet. Flush the toilet. Spray air freshener over the scent of vomit. Rinse hands again. I do not remember feeling anything, though in retrospect, of course I am ashamed. I opened the door and he was there waiting and I said, “you didn’t have to stand right there and listen.” “What if you died?” “What?” “I mean what if this time you passed out and hit your head on the toilet? What if this time you died?” I called him paranoid. I think I said something cruel about his grief, his dead mother. I remember I thought it but I don’t remember if I said it. That whole year is largely a blur, lost to illness. I do remember his eyes welling up and about to pour over like a backed-up sink. Later, this will be a comfort, strangely. Later, when I have cried and begged and scraped my heart inside-out and finally given up I will remember his backed-up eyes and think they must have meant, at this moment if never at any other, love. And later, I will learn that he was right to be afraid, that I have so depleted the potassium in my body that it’s something of a medical miracle that any given time my heart didn’t just, at the age of twenty and with no warning, stop.
eight. Ophelia, in her own words this time, sings: Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, all in the morning betimes, and I a maid at your window to be your valentine. Then up he rose, and donned his clothes and dupped the chamber door, let in the maid, that out a maid never departed more. By Gis and by St. Charity, alack and fie for shame, young men will do’t, if they come to’it, by Cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed. So would I’a done, by yonder sun, an thou hadst not come to my bed.
nine. After my eighteenth birthday, when we had been together only about a month, we found ourselves alone in his parents’ house, on his narrow bed. I told him I was sure. I did not bleed. I told myself I did not feel different, after. Maybe it is only a metaphor to think that he changed me, that he took something that was mine, that he kept something I was owed.
ten. To be in love with your own sorrow, that is, to feel when you should only think, that is, to fail to intellectualize, that is, to lack the appropriate professional distance from which to consider the world—is any sin worse? Except, of course, the sin of chopping your own memories to pieces of thoughts without emotion, that is, to try to make a poem out of them, that is, to try to understand your own life like a story that happened to someone else.
eleven. After he needed me, and then I in turn needed him, after she was dead and I was better, after the truth was told and the distance of miles was closed, what was left for us? Nothing, as it turns out—and no promise left to keep, and no bloodstain left behind.
Anya Josephs’ writing has appeared in the Green Briar Review, SPARK, Proud2beMe, and The Huffington Post. Her plays have been produced by NOMADs, Powerhouse Apprentice Company and One Song Productions. She was raised in North Carolina and now lives, works and teaches in New York City