Her face after he smacked her on the ass.
— a memory
We know how memory works, how trauma is wired in the brain. We can see anxiety and fear in scans, and measure it in sweat, and in cortisol, and in blood sometimes. Each time Jane travels home, she perceives her surroundings differently. She feels as if there is a psychoactive shimmer swimming in the humid air, leaving a painful ring in her ear. She suspects higher levels of cortisol. She suspects thickening blood. News reports tell her that the city keeps boxes and boxes of these stress levels — enumerated panic and tragedy, evidence in hair, and skin, and nails. Jane doesn’t know all the stories filed away in the city’s boxes, but she carries them. During sleepless nights, she extends her well of pain to other cities where these same legal boxes burn. She is half-resolved, she thinks maybe this time, to come home and confront a story that had been shelved.
Jane is slight and birdlike, with sharp elbows and piercing eyes. She has a river of electricity shaking through her limbs, a nervous energy passed on through blood and memory. She is young but has been Jane is boarding her connecting flight on the final leg home when she suddenly remembers an unfortunate oversight. She left her dirty underwear soaking in galvanized bucket back at her apartment. Admittedly, she had been a bit harried preparing to leave and had struggled with time. Now there would be a bucket of bloody underwear in her bathtub after several days. She thinks to herself reflexively, “What a mess to return to, you dumb cunt.” She imagines the smell of iron, of wet death, and tries to forget her mistake as quickly as possible. She plays disco from her earbuds for courage.
Minutes before she lands, Jane watches the lights in the strip mines. It’s early evening and they’re glowing in dark patches of pine trees. She remembers, briefly, an afternoon in those Appalachian foothills when her friends fired a cache of guns into a hillside. There was a big black tarp in a small clearing. The girls played Annie Oakley and the guys laughed at their skinny arms taking the recoil. She remembers when he told them to leave, the way his voice soured into a warning. Her pretty friend’s face fell. He said he would come and get them when he and the guys were done with the muzzle brakes, the big guns. The girls quickly followed Jane yards and yards into the woods. They tried to giggle as unpredictable blasts shook the ground beneath their feet. They flinched in nervous silence. Jane wrests herself from the memory just as her aisle neighbor nudges her thigh.
At carousel number four, the worn metal blades spin and deliver her baggage in the time it takes Linda Ronstadt to sing “Blue Bayou.”
Saving nickles saving dimes
Working ‘til the sun don't shine
Looking forward to happier times
On Blue Bayou
The generic rental car is an aspirational comfort, barely damaged. The blight along the highway is much the same. The porches and tree-lined boulevards under streetlamps are still seductive, the bricks and patchy pavements are still brown. Visits back of late had frayed Jane’s memory to a degree, even sharply recent ones. Her brain, it seems, cannot keep pace with her body.
She ascends the familiar ridge in the car and feels the smell of wealth and magnolia luring her to easy smiles. “What’s gotten into you?” was often the question when Jane couldn’t conjure an easy smile. She pinches her cheeks and examines her teeth in the dim light of the rearview mirror. Once inside the house, she splays out her naked arms on her mother’s white marble countertops, seeking sweet relief from an aching body. She cannot remember being a girl anymore. She pours a glass of wine. She has the fantasy of returning to that magic myth of girlhood, but despite knowing all the roads, the way has been lost.
Jane’s perceptions track in slow motion. It isn’t that she is panicked, though she does fret. It isn’t that she is self-absorbed, though she is totally that. She misses details. The minutiae of moments fizzle past her like scratched frames in a VHS tape because she cannot stop replaying an old, sad story— all the time—waiting to understand the jump cuts with decreased fidelity. That pain is always playing in the background, and the more she comes back to it, the more the video distorts. She moves through time with dread and takes a night drive like she takes a spoonful of medicine. Jane obsessively drives past that little creek, curving along that certain bend in the road where the trail began. Her tensed neck cannot help but slow and stare at the way the kudzu falls or climbs, framing the stone creek bed like theater curtains.
Back when Jane was a girl, she had the recurring nightmare that Axl Rose was her father. The fact that Axl Rose was her father in and of itself was not the nightmare, not necessarily. The odd horror of that repeated dream came in waves like slowing blood flow during anesthesia. She remembered how warm and sleepy, how natural it felt to have Axl Rose as a father, casually delivering sad news with the empty apologies you might expect from a dream-state Axl Rose. He always sauntered out to the sandbox where she was playing peacefully. He would always plant his puffy, custom Converse sneakers on the wooden sandbox perimeter like the log was an amp.
She cannot remember the words that were exchanged with her dream dad Axl Rose, only that it was always brief and garbled, like the trumpet-voiced adults in a Peanuts cartoon. Dream Jane would look up at Axl’s face, obscured, blonde, and backlit against the setting sun. He would adjust his red bandana on his forehead and sigh. He always asked her to stand up and give him a hug. She always stood awkwardly and agreed. As they embraced, she felt a cold, penetrating sharpness between her shoulder blades before she woke up, every time.
He still lives on a hill apart from everyone else, in a house raised by bricks. He appears at veteran gatherings and is much the same, but sharper. The droning on the news and the sourness in the air makes most stay away from him, she is told. As she broaches long-neglected branches of the family, Jane feels compelled to apologize to everyone for staying away. No one seems to understand. Their voices pitch higher and higher. She doesn’t know who anyone truly is anymore, who to truly trust.
Only a few women she encounters whisper of disgraceful men. How much of a disgrace this man is or that man is, oh but how hard it is to change. Her panic seems to have spread, and no one has firm details. One night, a cousin gets Jane drunk and drives her home to her parents. She is crumpled in the backseat until she feels the same rhythm of curved road and notes the familiar pattern of light through the car window. Jane raises her torso upright. Her glazed eyes affix on a muted orange motion light beneath a passing carport. And then, that’s all she remembers.
We know that brains sometimes rewire themselves after a shocking event. That is science and the making of drama—like confused women in hospital gowns wandering ward halls. We also know that brains sometimes slowly cook wrong, making it harder to regain equilibrium. Jane has once again fled with more questions, and a dull headache has set in. She had forgotten her little laundry mistake, as more mistakes piled on and deadened her weight — making her eyelids slower and her muscles heavier. Jane is grateful that the ginko leaves had fallen. She did see that.
She wheels her suitcase to the bedroom before turning to the neglected horror of her modest bathroom. It smells of death when Jane opens her swollen wood door. She flicks on a light and pulls back her shower curtain to see the torpid bucket of bloody underwear. For the ten days that she was away, Jane’s multi-wear menstrual panties soaked in a metal trough. Blood and horses. Buckets of evidence.
Jane dumps the soiled water and rinses the boy cut, rinses the high waist, rinses the bikini cut, and then rewashes all in a machine. She wipes the rim of the bathtub with a washcloth and bleach. She scrubs desperate, boney circles around the basin and then strips off her clothes and throws them across the room. The only time she feels as if her brain and her body are in sync is when they are both underwater. The relief of a bath is so close, but the smell of rot remains. She brings in candles.
Until she submerges herself in warm water, she feels a tangling knot of flesh within her, buzzing with unresolved tension. It wakes her in the night many nights. Tonight, Jane bathes at two o’clock in the morning and plays Jeff Buckley from a speaker atop her toilet seat.
Jane lowers her shrunken body into rising water steaming with clay, salts, and ginger. She lowers herself again, submerging her forearms and elbows. She notices a small white object floating on the surface of the water, and then another. She lets one settle on her finger and brings it close to her eye. A maggot. A fucking maggot, Jane. A flash of shame radiates from her head, heating the filling bathwater for free. She is done. She briefly frets over whether her ears should submerge, then puts on “Lilac Wine” anyway. She sinks until only her nose is barely above water.