Liana Cusmano – Four Poems
Sometimes when you search up photos of her on social media, even though you know you shouldn’t, you still get this feeling of “I just want to hold you.”
You met her on the tail end of a relapse, three months after you stopped thinking of bridges and high rises as very specific architectural opportunities, you meet her at a party you hadn’t wanted to be at anyway and after talking to her for a couple of hours you start to realize that, probably, in a few months you will search up photos of her on social media even though you know you shouldn’t, and you’ll get that feeling of “I just want to hold you.” You hold her when the two of you are lying in her bed together after your first date, and she is holding on to you so tightly, and the feeling is so foreign and fragile and familiar that you almost don’t think you can do this again but you decide to try it anyway. And you try it and you do it and every day you work really hard to scatter and scramble that conviction that of course she is just going to leave you, of course she’s just going to pick up and disappear. You don’t have too much time before she decides to do that, so you love her and hold her and care for her as best you can, you don’t even tell yourself that you won’t fall in love this time, because one day you realize that she has a voice like smooth jazz and not long after that you kiss her shoulder blade in the dark for the first time and then one morning she looks at you just so, she looks at you like she cares about you, and she asks you whether you’re okay and you know that you are lost. And when she tells you a few months later that she doesn’t want to be with you anymore, it isn’t as bad as it was with him that other time, and it obviously doesn’t surprise you, but it’s like someone has poured knives into all of your major organs and for eight weeks after that you feel like you can’t breathe. Eventually you stop searching up photos of the two of them on social media and you try to open yourself up to someone new, but even as you do that you start to think that maybe you’re going about this all wrong, maybe there’s another way, there has to be some other way to stay warm besides lighting yourself on fire. But you can’t think of one, and so when you meet a third person who gives you that feeling of “I just want to hold you,” you take a deep breath and you allow them to see you and to be with you as you are, because you’ve done it before and you know you can do it again.
You can ride a skateboard but you’ve never fallen off and that’s probably why you aren’t very good. There is something liberating and orgasmic about gliding over the ruined pavement in the suburbs at 11 pm, screaming, and you feel like you’re there, but not there. You are not allowed to fall off your skateboard, because you’re not sure that you’ll be able to make yourself get back up if you do. You are not a worthless, awful, miserable piece of garbage. You know this, but you don’t believe it.
High school English teacher is touching you again. She’s squeezing your shoulder, she’s drawing her fingers along your forearm, she’s placing her palm between your shoulder blades, this is six or seven years ago now. Having her touch you feels warm and calm and yellow, like breakfast on a Sunday morning when there was still someone around to take care of you. You want her to touch you. You wait for it and hope for it and everything inside you clamours for it to happen, the moment you walk into her classroom, at age thirteen, fifteen, seventeen. But you know that this is wrong. Not the fact that she’s touching you. But the fact that you enjoy it so much. The fact that you feel good and safe and cared for when she says that you are a classic beauty, that she thinks about you before she falls asleep, that she stares at you in class. You start to feel like you’re stepping near landmines whose presence you can’t justify or explain, and shame begins to fester and rot deep inside you, cutting you off from your friends and your family and the air you need to breathe. You are becoming a colossal conglomeration of cognitive distortions, and it never occurs to you that if high school English teacher had been a man, her behaviour would be considered inappropriate, reprehensible and exploitative. It’s only later, when you hear those words from your psychiatrist, that you realize how much damage has been done to you that you don’t even know about.
You are in university now. Your mom keeps suggesting yoga because she’s actually a Buzzfeed article in disguise, so you try yoga exactly eleven times and all eleven times you want to kill yourself so eventually you quit. You still dream about high school English teacher, and sometimes you wake up in the night in a cold sweat with aching veins. You remind yourself of how impossible it is to love someone who constantly threatens to explode. The landmines begin to explode. Your family, your friends, your psychiatrist are all affected. You are a decent, valuable and meaningful individual. You know this. But you don’t believe it.
And then one night, you fall off your skateboard. You fall off your skateboard and suddenly there is a stake carving zigzag lines into your fifth metatarsal and twelve hours later an orthopaedist tells you that you’ve broken your fifth metatarsal. Your mind is a whirling mess of school and your family and the friends who still care about you and your psychiatrist suggesting medication and always, constantly, high school English teacher touching you, touching you, touching you.
And then the orthopaedist looks from the X-ray to your petrified face and he says, “You’re going to be fine.” You know this. And somehow, for the first time, you start to think that maybe, eventually, you’ll believe it.
She’s a smoker, I know that when I meet her in the bar and kiss her cheek and try to pretend that my hands aren’t shaking. The bartender offers us beer and I don’t ask him whether they’ve got anything stronger – like shoe polish, or bleach. Later, in the small, dimly lit room that smells of cigarettes and sadness, I know that when I lie down on the bed and stretch out my limbs, I’ll be able to touch the desk on my left with my hand, and poke the bathroom door on my right with my foot. I let the fine strands of her dark hair slide through my fingers and I undo her bra with one hand, which is a lot less impressive when you’ve been wearing one your whole life. I dimly register that her kisses are soft and gentle and shallow. We fall onto the bed like a wall coming down in a ruined city and I am relieved that this is shallow, that I will survive this, that I am not going to drown in this fetid, airless room. We make love with a strange intimacy that is wordless and unhurried, and the seamless transition from sex to slumber is devoid of any traditional markers of care, words like, are you comfortable, are you cold, can you fall asleep if someone is holding you. We never hold one another. Instead, I have one arm around her in a way that is warm but also careless, a way that, if done to me, would have felt haphazard and inauthentic. We don’t know one another well enough to say or do anything that will really hurt, or really matter. This, our physical interpretation of what it means to be affectionate, is comforting to me not because it’s unconditional but because it’s indiscriminate, as we share this bed and fall asleep side by side. This girl will never tell me that she doesn’t want to be with me anymore, this girl will never leave and not come back. That was somebody else, she used to lie beside me in another bed at another time and I would watch her while she slept because I wanted to remember what she looked like before she disappeared. I still remember what she looks like, even after she dropped me like a burden on a mountain top, like a rock in a river, like a stone you leave behind so that you won’t drown. I still remember what she looks like. I’m still afraid that I’m going to drown again, I’m still afraid that I’m drowning, even when I wake up in the morning in that tiny room I’m afraid that I’m drowning, even though I’m with somebody else, even though I’m in another bed with another girl. Her dark hair is fanned over the pillow case, her chest is moving up and down, her left hand is on my thigh. I am fevered and breathless and afraid of drowning even after all this time but I know that I’m not going to rub her back or wander naked in her apartment or feel her eyes on me as the sunlight filters through the windows. I feel a steely reassurance, like cold iron, when I remember that I’m not going to ask for more than she can give. There is not enough depth here to allow for that, and I feel an empty, desiccated relief for this place that I have come to with nothing to offer and nothing to lose. I get up. I get dressed. I leave. I never watched her as she slept. I don’t remember what she looks like.
The Two of Them
The two of them have been talking for three and a half hours at a dive bar strung with Christmas lights in July, and after their fourth round of Hemingway daiquiris served to them in mason jars he asks her whether she wants to go back to his place. And she tells him, look, she doesn’t have time to play any sexual games, because she did that last summer with a Tunisian guy who didn’t take it very well, and she already likes him too much to just fool around with him once and then probably never see him again, so how about they go on a date next Saturday? He blinks at her, and says okay.
It takes them eight days to realize that being together feels free and effortless and organic. She learns that he likes extreme sports and water colour painting and sad Spanish language films. He realizes that she possesses four dozen poetry collections and a catastrophist imagination and mild synaesthesia. She likes to spend the night at his place because he is so much more at ease using his own shower. But he would rather stay over at her tiny apartment, in her tiny bed, because the space is clean and neat, and it smells good. He explains to her that this gives him a soft, solid feeling, like brunch on a lazy Sunday morning after a long sleep, like slowly counting each of her bobby pins as she takes them out of her curls one by one. When she chops off her hair, when she gets a tattoo, when she pays for a piercing, their friends ask him what he thinks of these things and he tells them that even if she wore a plastic bag, and he didn’t like it, he would still say that it matched her eyes. When she opens the door for him one morning, to accept the soup he thinks will cure her common cold, he tells her that she’s beautiful, in her underwear and tattered tourist T-shirt, because she is silent and still and not struggling to satisfy anyone’s expectations. The two of them ride longboards down to the 711 to buy doughnuts and condoms. They go for supper in small Italian restaurants that play mash-ups of The Police and The Gipsy Kings. They walk down silent sullen streets at 2 am and over the sleepy sound of buses and busted beer bottles they challenge one another to tell their life story as if it were a hero’s journey. They talk to one another about parents and siblings and former lovers, and instead of being jealous each of them feels reassured that the other has been capable of such bravery, and affection, and tenderness.
He begins to sleep on his side because he knows that if he doesn’t he’ll probably snore and wake her. She begins to fall asleep to the sound of his heartbeat against her spine. He covers her feet when he leaves the bed before she does, she traces the scar he inherited from an appendectomy when he was ten. She realizes that she has a soft spot for him one evening when he looks at her and asks whether she wants to make love for supper, and she doesn’t even roll her eyes. She realizes that she cares deeply for him when one night he cries out in the darkness for her to hold him, and she wishes she could have known what he needed before he did, so that she could have offered it without him having to ask. Eventually they each realize that for him, this has been a gentle homeostasis, a body of still water that offers in its elegant and comfortable simplicity no promise of evolution over time. For her, it has become something perfect and wholesome and unexpected, and the fact that he can not reflect back to her what she feels for him does not change the reality that they both know is singing sadly in her bones. So she tells him that she loves him, one night in an IMAX theatre during the end credits of a Marvel movie, for no particular reason other than a spontaneity she can’t explain, on no basis other than the principle that there is never a wrong or right time or place to tell the truth. She has accepted that he is the beat that her heart skipped, he realizes that he is the leap of faith that will betray her. They know this. And so they each feel no surprise when she tells him that she loves him, and he blinks at her, and says okay.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
My love brushing her hair out of her eyes and looking at me like she cares about me. My father cooking me breakfast on a yellow Sunday morning. My friend putting his arms around me, and the tenderness that I feel for him blossoming somewhere behind my navel. That, to me, is a small part of what beauty can be. A person, or a place, or an experience, that helps me to believe – just for a moment – that everything will be alright.
Liana Cusmano is a writer, filmmaker and spoken word artist who has been published in short story collections, anthologies and literary magazines. She has performed her writing on the radio and at literary events in English, French and Italian, and she is also the screenwriter of the short film “La femme finale”, which was screened at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. In 2017, she completed a B.A. in English Cultural Studies and World Cinema from McGill University. She lives in Montreal and is currently working on a short film titled “Matters of Great Unimportance”.