Start with your clothes, because that’s the easiest. Don’t worry too much about whether you use several trash bags or a sheet.
Size up the living room. Go ahead: it’s only human to salvage possessions from wreckage.
You want to take the couch, even though it’s never given you what you need. It is white with blue flowers stretched across it. Thick, milkweed-straight stems erupt in petals like blue kaleidoscopes of sharp tongues and they are as big as your hand. This Venus Flytrap of domestic happiness taunted you from where you stood every evening in the doorway, bunions bruised after another workday pounding your feet into and against kitten heels and cement floors.
It’s surprising, said your little sister, you and your girlfriend both look like girls. Your little sister was really just a younger person at college who you were supposed to look out for, but she acted like she was older and looking out for you, except for that one time you two went to Prague and she trembled passively when a gang of teenaged boys surrounded you on the train and tried to yank your purses from your shoulders. Later you went to a photo exhibit on the horrors of the Bosnian Civil War and she insisted on eating pizza for the second time in a row.
The couch: it’s sort of the Ice Queen of home furnishings. Your ex-girlfriend once compared you to Tilda Swinton, which was offensive.
Sea thistles, you will later learn the flowers are called, when you see the pattern again in a store years later, where it will hang limply from a rack of fabric samples, not taut and ravenous as they appear to you now, and at that point out there in the future she will become a ghost in Crate and Barrel. But right now you do not believe in afterlives, and you remind yourself, it’s not a couch, it’s a loveseat.
There’s always a piece that brings a room together. But you couldn’t unwind in the loveseat without feeling as if bird beaks from inside the stuffing jabbed at you, taking wrong turns down your throat as you inhaled, jutting into the sides of your esophagus that pass by your heart and your lungs and other important organs where it is very crowded and tight. You won’t take the couch, even though you paid two hundred dollars to replace the down feathers with foam because it sickened you to sit in your own living room.
You can still picture her in purple running shorts, holding one end of it and walking backwards through the access gate from the alley, while the curly-haired neighbor guy—the one in the black t-shirts with band names she knew but you didn’t—steadied the other end, and laughed at something she said.
No one with ugly hands owns a Sea Thistle-covered loveseat. You have ugly hands. You realized it on the day you moved in here, when you splayed them over the coiling flowered arm rests, and your ex-girlfriend’s sister-in-law pronounced it a great fit for a quaint bungalow, turned to you, and asked whether you had ever owned furniture this nice before. You will take care to hide your hands under the table on every dinner date for the next year, especially when it is hot outside and they are red and the veins pop out.
Last week, before it was final, your ex-girlfriend asked you if she should send flowers and try to woo you back. You let it slide into the smudge of words and the dinner parties for people who pretended not to see that you avoided each other’s eyes.
Even after you replaced feathers with foam, you couldn’t breathe too deeply without a gnarled cloying feeling in your chest. No, you’re going to let the loveseat and its cushions go.
In the closet, you fumble onto her shoebox of old letters from you, from when you were in love and separated by four hundred miles. You recognize the one on top.
You can remember the squeal of bus brakes as you started to write the letter on your way home from work, and then, giddy as a third grader constructing a time capsule, you remember finishing the letter on your roommate’s leather couch. The harrumphing sound of your neighbor’s ancient Irish Setter against the shared wall is what you told her about, as well as the delicious simultaneous sinking and swimming sensation the leather couch provided, and how you felt scholarly in the hunter green room.
The pile of letters have a pace and a rhythm from another time, a time when you preserved small moments in her absence to be stretched and re-shaped all over again with her. Your breath slows; you start to hope you will stay friends. In reality, you will throw a rock at this apartment one night three months from now. It will be a small rock, but you will be drunk and feeling invisible, and you will throw it hard.
The letters are a lot like your ex-girlfriend now: details once savored now dehydrated and disassembled: small round shoulders, tight ponytail, bird-like cheeks that sink into a cleft chin.
A sound of an impact in the living room brings you back to moving day. You look past the couch, squinting at the windows. A messy cough against glass, and then something that sounds wet, like someone choking on phlegm. A bird’s wing is propped flat against the window, its body tangled in between the rose bushes and the juniper bush that lets sun through in tangled blobs.
For whatever reason, you can’t wait to catch it in the act of trying to survive. You perch on the couch, hanging over the back like a little kid, and a pigeon, a big black one, pulls air into its white chest with effort, only to have it dragged out again, as if it were exhaling thorns from the rose bush, but it’s not. The curly haired neighbor guy sees it, too, from his car where he’s parked in front of your window. He’s on the phone, but he’s focused intently into your living room. He has no right, but he’s looking anyway. You don’t want him to watch. You watch him get out of his car and stride toward your window.
He squats down and sews the air between the thorns with his hands. “Here, I’ll help, I think it’s wing is broken.” He thinks it’s another day to patch things up.
“No,” you say through the window at him. You can see his spongy curls.
He looks at you like he hasn’t heard, but holds the bird now, a rough lump of feathers with wing, pointing up at a right angle. You grab the marble pastry board leaning against the couch—it’s yours—and hold it up, to do God knows what. Sweat from your hand loosens the grip on the cold stone. You tap on the window with the board and he raises his eyebrows.
“No,” you say again. “No,” you’re screaming now, easily audible through the window. “Get the fuck away from me.”
He curses, his eyes crazier than you thought a good-natured guy’s should get. There are veins in his arms and his hands. He probably works out. You drop the board and it crashes against the window, shattering one of the bottom panes of glass near where he cradles the wounded. Tiny shards shoot like stardust across his dark curls and his hands. He recoils and starts to stand up, glistening and careful to hold the bird while he does.
You threaten to call the cops. He says you should be the one who is worried about him calling the cops. You tell him he’s a fucking peeping tom, and he calls you “lady.”
“Lady,” he says, “You just threw a marble slab through a window at me. I was just trying to—”
But you don’t want to know any more about how he helps. You back yourself into the living room, stumbling backwards over the couch, which sits dumbly in the center of the room. He forgets he has a dead or dying bird in his hand and glass sand on his arms when he wipes his forehead. He says more things that you didn’t think a nice guy would say, but you aren’t surprised, and he carries the thing off so he can be a hero somewhere else. You tape up the window with a piece of cardboard and sweep up the glass with your hands as some sort of penance. You use a wet cloth on the tangle of red lines across the inside of your palms, all tiny, but all painful.
Your ex-girlfriend will come back to the apartment after you’ve left, and see the bloody rag on the couch and the broken window. She will feel that you always had the capacity for violent outbursts. She will remember the time you wrestled her and that moment when each of you stopped playing and really wanted to win. You accused her of foul play because she’s small and knows you have to restrain yourself. You bruised her twice, and now she feels like maybe she was battered. She’ll smell musty papers and see you’ve been through her things.
Now you’ll focus your efforts on keeping your wounds clean so they won’t get infected. You forget a few things from the kitchen, a good, reliable spatula, and your stupid 101 Dalmations cup which you bought in a moment of pure whimsy, but you’ve never cared much about things.
Alison Barker’s work has appeared in Front Porch and Switchback.