It had been a very long year. The plastic flute of champagne on the table before me was undrinkable - as disappointing as the year that had passed.
I rang in the New Year with a man who told me, “put me inside of you.” He smelled of expensive bourbon and soap; I used to say, “he smells the way I imagine heaven does.” It was dark, and he didn’t notice that my eyes filled fast when he kissed me. I’d loved him for years; he didn’t love me. I fell asleep covered in his sweat, filled with his cum, feeling his body jerk violently as he slept. I woke up alone. He had reasons that tightened around my throat like a noose. There would be someone to take my place the next evening. There always was. I made the bed in the morning and wondered when last the sheets were washed in his guestroom, tried to wipe clean the mascara that had slept under my eyes, and kissed his children goodbye over pancakes.
February brought a woman. At a masked ball, she slipped her hand in mine and demanded that I follow her to another room. We stepped around the bodies of others who loudly faked orgasms. I grew wet from their sounds. Her body required a lingua franca, this type of intimacy, foreign. She urged my mouth to hers and gently corrected me to her puffy nipples. Gripping tight to my fingers that opened her with caution, or fascination. I felt something inside of her as familiar as myself. So, this is what it’s like for a man. “You are my first,” she told me as she dressed, an indiscernible accent breaking. I knew she was lying but blushed at the thought.
Two men in March. An old colleague who stared at my breasts as I sipped an old fashioned in an elegant bar. I tied a cherry stem into a knot with my tongue; he traced the curve of my collarbone with his index finger. He was handsome; could have been a model somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska. He told me about his new life, which sounded just like his old one. I listened with feigned interest, waiting for a chance to talk. For days, we disappeared into a hotel room where my hands got lost in the forest of his chestnut hair. His coarse beard branded red, the milky white of my inner thigh. He was warm; I needed to be loved. I painted my lips red and let him smudge them with his thumb before he kissed me. He went back to Boston, and I went back to January.
“You’re mean. You know that don’t you?” he announced when I walked into the soft light of his home. He told me that I live inside my head. I wondered about the place he grew up that left him so hard. I drifted, tuning him out and becoming hypnotized by the rhythmic opening and closing of his mouth. He tired of his insight and kissed me desperately, as though he’d been starving. We both knew that wasn’t true. He never starved. I pictured our wedding and how he’d smile while trying to slide a thin, golden band over my large knuckle. I had learned to take all of him into my throat. My hands clutched the silvery throw I’d knitted, the one his mother loved so much, as he took me from behind and demanded I tell him, “how that other man fucked” me. How many women have grasped that blanket to brace themselves for his entrance? I dug my knees into the splinters of the wine glass I’d broken, leaving the mark of my persistence, my existence, upon his carpet.
A sticky breeze swayed the Spanish moss about and brought me a Carolina couple in late -April. I fell in love with her in low country, at a bar whose dirt floor was littered with the shells of peanuts and crabs. She bit her fingernail when she listened to my stories - clamped tight like a vice until releasing quickly to wrinkle her eyes with a smile. Her daddy was a root doctor, and she still practiced hoodoo out in Beaufort. She smelled like patchouli and tasted like cinnamon. I wanted to build a nest in her ginger locks and join her coven. No one could love her husband, not even her. He smelled like stale cigarettes and sweat and was fluent in hatred. The rot at his core leaked out through his missing teeth. Years of cheap whiskey left him unconscious on the linoleum floor of their trailer. As she laid down next to me on a pile of fleece blankets, moonlight reached through the slatted blinds to leave their shape on her skin. “I don’t think I’m ready,” she whispered, lips brushing my ear. I buried my face in her hair and wept. Her husband left his mark when I tried to take her with me. She remained. My eye deep purple and black.
“I had a flashback to our first time together,” my high school sweetheart wrote to me in May. His memories were of someone else – or maybe about someone I no longer knew. I wrote his master’s thesis. He passed out inside of me after my wisdom teeth were removed; I vomited from the smell of his cologne. He made me feel cheap like I was home again. He was my antithesis: the steadfast simplicity to my eternal complication. He spoke of how deeply we had once loved each other, the amount of emotion that we created together when we were young. He had been handsome and charismatic. Now he was fat, married, and contained nothing of value. “My marriage is sexless,” he explained. I understood why when I felt the force with which he shoved his fingers inside of me. His breathing was labored. He couldn’t stay hard and made himself cum with his hand. I was sure that he had a heart condition and glad that I looked better than him.
In June I pleaded with January to save me from the heat - to embrace me with his cold. His life was full of distractions, and his brow was damp with the sweat of his nurse. I told him that he could have us both. Half his height, I looked up to him to watch his lips move in time to his unending refrain, “We both know that you aren’t nice, and she is infinitely so.” I wanted to ruin her happiness, make her hurt. She was squatting in a place that belonged to me, and I wanted to turn her to ash. I gave reminders in the shape of flesh, what she could not provide. He laced his fingers in between mine while speeding up the Ohio. His eyes all desire. High and wild. I rambled politics; he mused about relocating. I loved him. He still didn’t love me. When he told me that he was uncomfortable with exclusivity, I thought about how vulnerable he looked with another man. I was tired of being alone. But I lied to myself and told him, “I agree.”
At a bar on 15th, in the dripping heat of July, the District bore fruit in the shape of a young man. Newly twenty-three and on business from New York. I drank enough scotch to be interested in what he had to say. He cooed in my ear that he, “liked older women,” and I fixated on the caramel birthmark near his temple. He lives with his parents in New Jersey. He tried to impress me with his poor selection of wine, and told me, “I don’t read much.” I fucked him anyway. He hammered away at me like he had something to prove. I faked two orgasms to feed his ego, or to get things over with: maybe a little of both. He asked for my number, and I typed in my name as, “The Best Sex You’ve Ever Had.” He said, “You’re cocky,” but I knew I was right.
Past became present late in August, and a man from twenty-years prior became my frequent bedfellow. We spoke little. I was alone, and he was a good reminder of it. A barbed-wire tattoo stretched across his thick bicep, while other ill-advised tattoos covered the rest of his gym-bound body. He filled time and space, or he kept a spot warm for someone better. I think he worked in finance; I never cared enough to ask. He was shaven clean of all body hair and lacked personal style. He stretched me taut and made my body feel small against his. Each time he felt like a stranger. I was too tired to fake it, and he never cared to try. The sound he made as he came reminded me of a hyena. It echoed in my mind and turned me off until I stopped responding to him altogether.
September was spent alone, in purposeful abstinence. I sank into the damaged parts of myself. The places still bruised from when I fell off my bike and my mother screamed at me for bleeding. I swam in the pain of having only wings, the pain of being endlessly untethered – free. No one belonged to me, and there was no one to whom I belonged. Existing only in memory, I was a story to be told. I was a woman who let someone inside of me, who let them feel where I was warm. I was a woman who laughed as they tried to stop the bleeding, each one of them who had run headfirst into the concrete wall at my core. I lit all the candles in a chapel. I prayed to Mary and to the Saints whose names I’ve never known. I kept my money in pocket - safe from the collection tray. The candles stolen; my prayers looted. Tears fell rhythmically automatic; I prayed to no longer be alone.
The leaves turned from green to brown and fell dead like they do every October. January called to tell me, “Your mother is in the hospital. Things don’t look good.” He held me at her bedside as I broke. Blood spilled into her brain for the second time. The rain came in sideways against the window and interrupted her hallucinations. She was missing a front tooth. A consequence of her husband. He was all-important, and I was unlovable. She was beautiful when she was young when her saliva would hit my face as she screamed, “I should have killed you.” I had always been sure that she meant it. Her life was spared; he had saved her. Perhaps with the help of the nurse I’d taken him from. Drops of my mother’s blood were still on his shoes when he told me, “She’s going to be just fine.” He still smelled like heaven. Nothing else mattered.
November was spent settling into January. I fell in love with him in my mind, forcing the reality I wanted. Safe there, I made his dinners, I fixed his drinks, I rubbed his shoulders. I glued our unmatched pieces together so tightly that they could never come apart. He opened wide and his love burst out like paper confetti. My wings transformed into roots. My stolen prayers: answered. In his reality, we screamed about trust. I wanted him; he had given pieces of himself to so many of us that there was no way to get them all back, to make himself whole for me. So, I laid across his bed and spread my legs wide for him. I let him spread me open for other men to see the emptiness inside of me. He filled my void with cum. I made myself his fantasy.
December was ushered in as a reckoning for the year that came before her. The collection of long, auburn hairs beneath his pillows signaled an end. “She’s nicer than you,” his words so hot they branded themselves inside of my ears. I screamed my hurt through threats. He scoffed and said, “I knew you were cruel.” Holiday gifts buried deep under snow. I hate him. I loved him. I would be more patient. He would love me with time. I repeated it over in my mind as I got sick. And sick again. I didn’t want to be alone. The hurt made its way into my throat, into the same place I’d learned take him. I vomited the pain, the hurt, the loneliness - cleansing my body of it all. I watched myself from above: my cheek taking the shape of the bathroom floor tiles, vomit caked in my tangled locks, retching in rhythm to the new, small heartbeat deep inside my belly.
The flat champagne mocked me from its glass. January was still.
Sarah Ondriezek is an English professor and writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she earned her Master of Professional Writing from Chatham University. Her poetry and essays have been published in Tobeco, Bridge Literature and Arts Journal, the Pittsburgh City Paper, Litbreak, and The Charles Carter Anthology.