Hymnal

William VanDenBerg

We took a vacation; my doctors advised that we take a vacation after the surgery.

I brought my own pillow, the hard foam kind with two curves. You brought handwritten recipes for cocktails. We both brought stacks of books. Your mother slipped some in, books with the words “dysphoria” and “gender-variant” in their titles. The books were a show of support.

Our love had been oscillating—what I mean to say is that we got better and worse at it. It has something to do with what your voice does to me. Not your words. Your voice.

 

* * *

 

The day before we came here, the doctor removed the drains from my chest. The pain had been relatable before then, like a torn muscle. After the drains were out, after he declared my healing “amenable,” the pain was a thing both present and absent, like a glimpse.

 

* * *

 

We stayed in the bungalow for three weeks. You walked around laughing and saying the word: bungalow. You wore old shorts that were very short and had a white stripe up the side. They were worn thin—I could feel an old scar on your thigh the same as if your shorts were off.

From the house we saw Lake Huron. What I mean to say is that the windows were so huge we couldn’t help seeing the lake. We couldn’t help seeing the beach. Even when it got cloudy you were down there, sprawled out in a lounger. The label, when we bought it, claimed that the lounger was “endlessly adjustable.”

We saw no sign of trouble out in the water.

We spent the first week feeling like everything was borrowed—we ate with unfamiliar silverware, spooned food around on scratched plastic plates. It took a while to get the couch feeling like a couch. You found a collection of long hairs that had been painted into a dark red wall.

 

* * *

 

Then came the second week. You found her body first. What I mean is that you were the first to hear her out there, coughing up water and sand. I was asleep when she arrived—I was still a little asleep when I made it down to the waterline. You leaned over her and your old lifeguard training kicked in: do not bend your neck; keep calm; cough it up. You told me to go get a towel. You said, can’t you see she’s shivering?

In my haze of sleep, for just a moment, I couldn’t tell you apart.

I carried her inside and draped some of my clothes over her. You said she looked ridiculous covered in fleece. The woman said nothing, just kept coughing. You said, doesn’t she look like you.

That’s when she coughed up the book.

The book was a hymnal. She died just after it passed through her lips—they were stretched horizontal.

The police came, the coroner came. They had no interest in keeping the lung-lodged volume. They just took the body. They just talked about all the other drowned girls, all the other books. The evidence room was approaching a library, they said.

 

* * *

 

During the third week it rained hard and I found you often out on the beach in the rain. When you came in, after I called for you, you were warm. How do you do that, I asked. How do you stay so warm.

The pages dried out. We spent the last day there singing songs from the hymnal. They weren’t in our language so we improvised the pronunciation. Your voice was limited in range but the notes you could hold were beautiful. Mine had gained gravel and depth. Sometimes you’d stop singing and just watch my face and the voice coming through it.

We got better and worse at love.

I still can’t explain it.

 
 
 


William VanDenBerg’s chapbook of stories, Bodies and Homes, is forthcoming from Caketrain Press. His work has or will soon appear in Juked, Pear Noir, Hobart (web), and others. He lives with his wife in Denver.