“Cutting” by John Luciano
Brian Clark is dead. He died June 23, 2008. I have no right to be saying this. He had a red and black tattoo of a swallow on his forearm, the kind I always see in pairs on punk girls’ chests. I guess he had a Mohawk, whatever that means. He was working at a movie theater up the highway. Before he got that tattoo, he was my classmate in high school. We sat together in Calculus. I’d show him how to do the harder problems, but the guy was smart, and it never took too much. He caught on. When we did group work, Brian, Daniel and I were always done first, and the two of them would play Magic: The Gathering. One day, I asked them to show me.
We had mutual friends. We weren’t really friends. He hunted. He shot a boar and proudly showed its picture to me once, on his camera phone. I didn’t have a camera phone. I thought he was poor. He didn’t brush his teeth enough; they were covered in a white deposits. He chewed gum sometimes, though. I don’t remember his breath being bad. He was a Christian. He was a good guy, and we had mutual friends. We weren’t friends. He liked Slipknot, and I guess I held him in slight contempt for that. That was stupid of me. I shouldn’t be forgiven for that. We might’ve been friends. He had Asperger’s. He had a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University. He died of a heroin overdose in a hotel room. His friends dumped his body in his mother’s front yard and drove off. At the funeral, his skin shone blue under the mortician’s heavy foundation. They took out his piercings and shaved his head. They put him in a suit. I never saw him in a suit. I wasn’t there because I had to work. My fiancée told me what he looked like. His mother said it was his first time.
But we weren’t really friends. There’s nothing there.
Peter Agnew is dead. I don’t know when. A year ago, I guess. Our friend Jonathan called to tell me. Peter was good guy. He was a skinny guy. The last time I saw him, he was in my dorm room. He was gonna save the world. He was accusatory. I was defensive. He said that there was little net good in recycling: too much energy expended, not enough material preserved. He said there are too many people. He said breeding should be controlled, restricted, maybe even outlawed. He said that we have thirty years left on this planet. I took all of this without debate, only nodding in agreement, because I knew it might true. But he lost me when he said that he was the answer. Why not him? I was astounded. I wince at pride. I wince at assuredness. But his eyes were shining. His hair was red. Peter was proud and sure and in my dorm room.
I knew him from high school Latin class, where we read De Bello Gallico. Original Latin. As written by Caeasar. He used to pop and lock at the football games or in the parking lots of movie theaters. I hung out around him, not with him. We weren’t friends. When he died, Jonathan made me listen to his music. I didn’t like it. His singing voice grated on me, and I couldn’t help but point out that the percussion was off tempo. I was still jealous. He shot himself in a hotel bathroom. He laid himself down on a tarp to collect the blood and brain matter. He was considerate. He left a note. I never read it. It was an open coffin. He was pasty and plastic. I wondered if they had reconstructed the back of his head, but I couldn’t see it from that angle. I shouldn’t have been there. He was thoughtful. He presented arguments. The priest said “an unexamined life is not worth,” and then trailed off. I was standing closest to him when everyone bowed their heads. I was angry. He was an atheist. I wanted to move. It was dishonest for them to have the priest. I have no right to say that. We weren’t friends. I avoided shaking his father’s hand and ducked out before the end so no one would see my eyes, which had no right to do that. I hadn’t seen Jonathan in a year, and now we talk almost every day. We’ve recorded music together. Jonathan told me, “I don’t want you to feel like you’re replacing Peter.”
There’s still nothing when I think of this. I need something stronger.
In my fantasy, my fiancée is dead. That extra pancreas crouched on her stomach lining finally flared up, and she succumbed. This may be likely. Cancer rates sky rocket for additional organs. After five years, the survival rate of pancreatic cancer is four percent. Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer. He was a millionaire. It didn’t matter.
Her decline was slow enough for me to steel myself to the blow, but rapid enough that she did not linger in a state of dependency. She fought hard, and the battle was draining on all of us. I was accepted to an MFA program and dropped out to spend as much time with her as I could. We never discussed any of this. I do not regret this. I wrote her beautiful poems that would have no trouble finding homes in literary magazines across the country, if I could stomach sending them out. Or maybe I haven’t been able to write at all, but I will five years from now. Is this disgusting? The words will be beautiful in their pain. She is beautiful in her hospital gown, and her mother jokes with her that she is finally as pale as she wanted to be. “It’s the arsenic,” she says. “Aren’t I fashionable?” She gets another tattoo, which is not a gesture of hope because tattoos are forever. We both tattoo our wedding rings. I am now a widower.
The funeral in this dream is not beautiful. Her father calls himself Catholic, so we’re in a church he goes to once a year. There are relatives here who didn’t bother coming to the wedding. I sit and listen to their introductions, then their condolences. They tell me she is with God. It is well within my rights to tell them to fuck off. I could spit on all of it. Instead I nod. I look down. I actually tear up when they read Thessalonians. After this, I will never see her again. I consider taking a picture of her with my camera phone, but she isn’t here. And that would be uncouth. And I don’t have a memory card for the phone anyway. The casket is open. She is a pink she’d never once approached in life. She is at least wearing a dress she liked to go out in. I can still see her upper arms, which they didn’t bother to cake over. They are almost her tint, a soft olive-yellow from infantile jaundice. I am sitting in the front row. Jonathan is on my left, and my mother on my right.
I am crying now because her smell was not perfume or shampoo, and it will never fill my head again. My eyes sting. She made up whole vocabularies I can never use again. Can never touch her cheek again. My hands are clenching as I keep rattling these off. Never wrote her a decent love song. I never made her a five-course meal, and we never went to see the Louvre together. I resist the urge to rub my eyes while I think about the fact that we never got a friend for our cat Lucy. I am sitting in a pew in a church. The funeral is in a church. I am filled with hate because they know that we didn’t have clergy at the wedding. We didn’t mention God, and now I’m being reassured that he’ll accept her soul. Fuck this shit. The funeral isn’t for me or for Madison. I don’t need to be here. But I am. I wait until the end and then brush past the comforting hands. I go home to the apartment and throw the dead bolt and go to sleep.
When I wake up, I do not care what day it is. I do not have any voice messages because the phones were in her name. I have seen no one since the funeral. My mother has been trying to insinuate herself back into my life, but I have resisted. I just don’t answer the door. I am not interested in talking with friends. I have nothing interesting to say. I lie on the couch and scream along to the albums I’ve been shoving into the DVD player. Or I sit at the computer and scream along to them playing through the speakers. Sometimes I play both at the same time. Howling Celtic punk. She was not a fan of this music; this fact helps. The apartment is not a mess because cleaning does not take thought and because I have never been a complete slob and because our cat cannot live in filth. Lucy’s litter box must be emptied, and she needs new food and water. I provide it. It doesn’t take much. She is affectionate and I imagine understanding. I need physical affection right now, but I am terrified that I would go to bed with the first person who offered me a hug. So I sleep next to my cat. I try not to remember transferring her over to my fiancée’s lap when I’d get up to go to the bathroom. Cat transfer. I do not think of picking her up from the ADL. I do not have to think at all about the cat. When she mews hungry in the morning, I hate her until I decide to sleep on the couch next to her food bowl. She will gain weight. I will lose it. Soon I will drag myself to the super market.
I have twelve-thousand dollars in the bank from misspent weekends and harried weeks. Rent is 580. That’s about twenty months. We used to spend about 180 on groceries each month, so I’ll say 100. Gas was 30 a month. Less, now that I have no particular want to go anywhere. Electricity was 60 to 90. Further math isn’t necessary; I can live like this for about a year and then move in with my parents. Or I can’t. The room they’d have for me is too open. There’s a door to the kitchen. Another to the hallway. A sliding glass to the study. My father keeps his weight bench in there. I could never masturbate in peace. I could move in with Jonathan, but his house is ridiculously filthy. They don’t take off their shoes. There are leaves everywhere. It would be safer not to be alone, but I’m not sure I could live there with him. I’m worried that his girlfriend Mandy would try something and that I would dumbly go along. That’s not true. I’m more worried that Jonathan would suggest it. I’ll have to work soon. I’ll have to get out of here soon. I could go back to the cafe, where they said they’d always have me. I could commit myself to nothingness and discard my degree. I could head down south. I could join the army. I could ride the rails. The world is open to me. It’s my oyster. My tether’s snapped. My anchor’s weighed. I am adrift in a sea of fuck fuck fuck.
I’m too vain to kill myself and too terrified of nothingness, so I’ve taken up cutting again. It’s a relief. It’s been a few years. We had given each other the strength to stop, and she took that with her. I’ve never been a drinker. I hated that she smoked. I’ve always turned down medication. So what’s a widower to do? This old favorite is coming back strong now that there’s no one around to grab my arm. This is freedom. I fumble with the scalpel that we kept in the box for old time’s sake, and now I’m facing a dilemma: so many scars have been covered over with ink. Expensive ink. I don’t want to ruin that. So where? The arms are too visible. The neck’s too extreme. The legs would work, but they’re so unbearably hairy. There’s no glamor there. I need glamor, above all. I need proper lighting, and a flattering angle. I settle at the hips, where it is black and runs purple then red then pink as it dribbles in the water around my feet. The last time these were fresh, I was seventeen. We had been together less than a month. I thought I was torn. I do not drink because I hate to lose control of myself. I do not smoke because the smell is horrible. There’s no glamor in it. This is glamor, and this is relief. I am relieved.
As I write this, she is sitting in our bed reading. She wears red exercise shorts and a t-shirt from her university; these are her sleep clothes. The pancreas in her stomach is fine, benign, unlikely to cause anything but a surplus of insulin and digestive acids. I look over and feel a stab in my heart. Another physical organ. The pain is the adrenaline that accompanies a particularly strong emotion, though I do not have a name for this one. Guilt. Love. Confusion. Happiness is caviar. Or it is a mansion with too many rooms. Happiness is something expensive and rare, something unfamiliar that I have not yet learned to deal with. I have not developed a vocabulary for it unbound by the conventional. So when I say, “I am so happy,” I preface it with an oh, like I’m Elizabeth fucking Browning. I say that when I look at her, I see a beautiful future where we are untouched by mundane concerns and rise above ourselves, but I also see her because she is not a symbol. She is self-referential. This is happiness, and it sickens me. More than that, it unsettles me. I don’t know how to present myself. I don’t know what measure of pride is acceptable and where I would cross into the obnoxious. I do not know how to align myself with a perspective that is now invested in something beyond self-immolation.
Sometimes, at least. Sometimes I do not know. So I need the familiar warmth of despair, a commodity I cannot find in a life with her. This feeling, it has to be melodramatic, or else it is unspeakable. But I need the ability to release. To not care. I care for her so much, but I need a fantasy where I am unbound and tottering. Where I am falling and rushing and sinking. I don’t drink. I hate that she smokes. We gave each other the strength to never reopen our scars, so now this is the only blade I’ve got left.
She can never read this. I can never tell her this. Please don’t show this to her.
John Luciano is a graduate from Trinity University, where he studied poetry under Jenny Browne and prose under Andrew Porter. Though from San Antonio, John currently lives in Iowa City with his wife, where she has received a fellowship for her history doctorate.