About the bloody pair of shoes on her fireplace mantle, she said, “Those are the shoes I lived through the plane crash in.”
I was picking her up for our first date — blind, determined by a sophisticated algorithm on Match.com — and had been waiting in her living room, sipping ice water out of a white-and-yellow plastic cup from Culver’s. She must have seen the way I was staring at the white suede flats and sensed my confusion at the speckled blood pattern, the burned blotches, and the single tear by the right heel. She picked them up off the mantle and held them out, as though I would take them into my own hands. I shook my head, clung to that child’s cup.
“It was American Flight 1420,” she said. “I was going to visit my sister in Little Rock. When we landed, we didn’t stop. It was like we were flying across the ground. And then we nearly came to rest in the river. The blood, it’s from the man who was sitting next to me. I had to crawl over him to get out. He didn’t make it.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
“What’s more awful is that my sister moved to Little Rock,” she said with a smile. Her Match.com profile said she was spontaneous, which proved true. It also said she was thirty-two, which was most definitely a lie. She put the shoes back and came to sit down next to me on the sofa. “I try to joke about it now, because I heard that’s a good way to heal.”
I said, “That’s okay. I don’t even remember it, but you’re right — I probably saw it on the news.” God, what a mistake. Not just contacting her, and not even agreeing to pick her up instead of meeting on neutral territory. I mean, going back to the moment I had hit “Enter” and injected my hopes in a lover and my own half-truth traits into some collated and redundant hard drive in a server farm along with millions of others.
“They say the hardest part is accepting that it’s okay you lived when someone else didn’t. They call it survivor’s guilt,” she said. “For me, the hardest part was thinking I had to carry on everything that man might have wanted to do or see once the plane landed in Little Rock. I never could figure out what that was supposed to be.”
I tried to imagine what it must have felt like, to feel the plane’s wheels touch the runway, to believe that they had landed safety, only to sense the bubbling tension that something was not right, that they were not, in fact, safe. Maybe there were screams, passengers gripping the seats in front of them, someone praying to God. I found a small thrill in that.
She asked, “Do you really want to go out to dinner? I mean, really?”
“No.” I lied.
“Tell me about yourself, then,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. I had made a list of date-friendly topics earlier in the day — politics-free current events, hobbies, the few pride-worthy aspects of my job as a librarian — but they disappeared when I reached out for them. The only one that remained was the one that I could never say: That I spent much of my day not in the mind of my work, but rather dreaming about scorching my one little compendium of flammable paper until it throbbed like a red dwarf. I couldn’t tell her that most nights, upon closing the library, I often picked a book off the stacks at random, and I burned it in the janitor’s closet, watched its pages bend and pirouette, laced by marches of lava-orange smolders. “I spend most of my day trying to be as invisible as possible. The less of a trace I leave, the less I’m likely to want to burn it.”
“Your profile said you’re a librarian.”
“You got me.”
“So, wouldn’t you be kind of like me, then?” she asked.
“How’s that?” She had survived certain death. The inevitable. Even though our Match.com profiles had showed a statistically high match — 90 percent on the most important trivialities of a possible relationship — I hadn’t known danger or death. The deepest threat levied against me was the way my heart would ache after eating my nightly frozen dinner while catching up on TV shows about people far more alive than me. My last encounter with harm was the woman who explained how she would gouge out my eyes because I wouldn’t let her watch pornography on a library computer. With the volume down, it was one thing, but she insisted otherwise. I burned five books that night, hovering around my puny pyre with the thoughts of her old wrinkled face and her fat body squirming through my mind.
“I just mean that, well, you have all those books, and I guess as part of your job, you have to know them in and out, and you have to protect them,” she said. “I was just saying that I understand that.”
My stomach groaned. “Are you sure you don’t want to go out to dinner? We could still make our reservation.” I checked my watch. “Well, we won’t be too late.”
“No. Come upstairs. I want to show you something.”
She took my hand and led me up the staircase, toward a long hallway. From the smell of it — dust and a hint of wine-like acridity — we passed by her bedroom, but we weren’t stopping there. Instead, we kept moving, and at the end, to the left, there was a door that sagged on its hinges, letting light peek through. She put her hand up against the wood grain. She waited there for a while, letting her head slowly fall toward the door, until it landed atop her hand. She sighed. She was beautiful, even though she was not the woman I had fabricated out of a self-framed picture and some Match.com bullet points.
“I wouldn’t do this unless I thought you would understand,” she said. She opened the door, stood in the threshold for a moment, blocking my view. I thought she was going to back out and send me home, but she stepped inside. I followed. Within was a six-by-ten foot space — nothing more than a generous walk-in closet — filled with an innumerable amount of trinkets lining the floor and resting on shelves bolted to the wall. There were stuffed animals, pieces of fabric, jewelry, those green plastic soldiers, napkins or matchbooks from restaurants, an empty fountain soda cup, little metal ornaments, marbles, a deflated balloon, a pair of chopsticks still banded together by glue, candles with no more wick, newspaper clippings of seemingly random events, food wrappers, pictures toned in rough black-and-white through a laser printer. Esoteric things, beautiful things. Memory things.
“What is all of this?” I asked.
“I keep something from every day I’ve lived since the crash,” she said.
“How long has it been?” I asked.
“Four thousand, three hundred and seventy-two days.”
I took some time to work my way around the room, which sparkled like it was adorned in diamonds. My head began to feel as though it was trapped in a zoetrope world, where I could see everything but never long enough to understand it completely. From my work, I knew every instance of mourning took a certain amount of accumulation to then spark a recovery — around me was the wingspan and berth needed to understand three facts: a plane crashed, a man just to her right died, and that man bled on her shoes. I ran my hands across a shelf of photographs, from random points in her life, sometimes of her and most often of hardly anything at all — the corner of a doorway, a gravel road. Every now and then, another man’s smiling face appeared, and I found myself profoundly jealous over a woman I barely knew. I didn’t even know her last name, but I knew about the blood on her shoes. And I knew about here.
“You look like you know what you’re looking for,” she said. “Like you’ve seen this before.”
“These things are familiar to me.”
She breathed out hard, like she had been holding back from the moment I’d walked in. “What happened to you?”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” She looked confused. She took a step back, put out an arm to balance herself against the wall, as though she wanted to protect it from me. She knocked a worn action figure off the shelf, and it dropped to the ground, collided with the hard wood floor, the arm cracking off and skittering away from the body. I took a step toward the figure, took it and passed it between my palms. She handed me the arm, but they wouldn’t go back together. “I grew up in a nice household. No tragedy. Everything was perfect, and somehow that wasn’t enough. So I burn up pieces of the past. I watch the pages burn.”
She moved toward me, wrapping her arms around a body that had gone untouched for a while. She pressed her lips into mine and reached behind my belt. I groped around to her back, and then to her front, unsure of her, me. I dropped the action figure and its dismemberment. When we separated, she was smiling like she did not have bloody shoes on her mantle. Like this room didn’t exist. And that, I think, is what we tried to believe when stripped naked in the midst of her memories, collided our bodies top of three blankets and a pillow that we scavenged from the room, and which she said were from days 234, 875, 2,183, and 3,182, respectively.
When I was on top of her, the room sparkled in our motion, and it seemed to whisper in a language that I had little hope of understanding. When she came, straddling me, she shuddered like I had appeared into her world to perform miracles. When I came, it was like a financial trade laced with titillation. We quivered alongside each other and pulled the blankets over our naked bodies, and I rested my head on a stuffed giraffe with a faded fur on its neck, a ring of wear.
“That’s day four thousand, one hundred and two,” she said, teasing at the tuft of orange giraffe hair. “Not too long ago. I found it at my mom’s place when I went to see her. She’s sick, but that’s not important. I used to hold it by its neck, right there.” She demonstrated on me, thumb notching between two of my trachea’s cartilage rings.“What are you going to use to remember today?” I asked.
“I had this crazy idea,” she said. She stood up and rummaged around on the other side of the room for some time where I couldn’t see, because her memories had been stacked so high and deep. She stood up with something held behind her back and a smile on her face. She knelt down at my feet and I couldn’t help thinking what, by God, she might have in mind for us now. What wonderful happenstance.
“Day nine hundred ninety,” she said. She brandished an eight-inch hunting knife. She straddled me around the hips again, and began by testing the blade against her thumb. I could see the ridges of her fingerprint spreading apart and raising like faultlines. And then she thrust the point at my throat. “Can I? I want to take a piece of you.”
“I’ll take that as a yes?”
I nodded and she touched the knife to the various parts of my nearly-naked body, as though she were trying to find the best place for this kind of work. Where it might hurt the least, or where I could most easily get away without a piece of skin. My shoulder, bicep, stomach, lovehandles, thigh. In the end, she picked my chest, a place two inches above my right nipple. She cleared my chest of its hair by scraping the blade like a razor, and then she worked the curved point into a square’s four edges. I felt pain squirm through my body, but it was probably nowhere near the suffering of the man who bled all over her shoes. She ran naked to the bathroom, returned with a Band-Aid, which I stuck to the wound. I held my left hand there, on my chest, as she placed my contribution into a mason jar. She held it out above me, so that I could see up through the bottom of the jar to the small jelly-like hunk of flesh, the errant blood. She retreated, held the jar to her bare chest before setting me down on the shelf.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I felt nauseous, like I had donated an organ and several liters of blood. “Maybe we could just go downstairs. I’m not sure if I can look at myself anymore.”
She reached down with her hand, helped me upright. She handed me my boxers, which I slipped on quickly to cover up my defused cock. “You know what it’s like to be part of something right now.”
I nodded, which made the room catapult. She kept a grip on my hand and led me downstairs, back into the living room, where we had first met, exchanged that awkward embrace, and I had started to realize she was not the woman Match.com said she would be. We sat on the couch for a while in silence. I had lost my list of safe subjects to talk about, and all that was left was shit, the truths no one wanted to know.
“You aren’t thinking about burning everything, are you?” she asked. She had caught me: I had been dreaming of taking all of her memories out into the backyard, where I would douse them in whatever accelerant I could find — her hairspray or the neglected bottle of camping fuel — and slowly lower my lighter through the waves of vapor distortion rising from the would-be pyre. But to her question, I shook my head.
“That wouldn’t seem fair,” she said. “That’s why I asked.” Her eyes were black, the iris and pupil welded together. And then she got up, crossed the room to the mantle again, took down the bloody shoes. She balanced herself against the mantle with a hand as she worked her toes into the darkness, locked in the heel.
I wanted to help prove to her that lines could be drawn, that old ones could be erased and gouged anew. I did the one thing I’d always wanted to do. She came to me and kissed me, her eyes closed, and this time, what she didn’t know was that was holding the flame open, touching it to the fabric on which I sat. I held her so that her arms could do no flailing and I carried her with one arm around the room, holding the lighter to anything that would burn, using my eyes to guide her to the flames, as though to say, see, see? I pulled her outside, where we could wait for rescue. As the roof collapsed, I thought about my piece of flesh crackling in the flame — I was erasing myself, sailing down, never stopping, burning alive, headed back to an empty room, day one. When her wails were matched and then outmatched by those of the fire trucks, and when the time the house crumbled into a mass, she was nodding along to my breathing, so slowly peeling the bloody shoes from her feet.