She was still sick from the Lortab they had given her in the emergency room, but at least she was finally sitting up, finally drinking a Met-Rx shake through a silly straw, her jaw wired shut. All of this beneath the camper shell of her boyfriend Kenny’s Tacoma, all of this somewhere in East Texas. Uvalde or maybe Utopia. Some place where the wind was howling at dawn and Kenny was out stalking whitetail.
She drank as much as possible—just a sip, really—and laid back against the inflatable mattress slowly bleeding air so that she could feel the truck’s ribbed bed beneath her. They had put two stitches in her tongue, dissolvable things but she could feel them scratching around the soft of her mouth, doing whatever damage they were doing.
She’d been in the truck since Vegas, their having decided to drive. Eighteen hours and in hindsight what a stupid decision. But no one had thought she would end the night in the ER at Sunrise Medical. Certainly no one had thought she would lose the fight, least of all her. She was a 10 to 1 favorite but caught a left hook not thirty seconds in and her mouth started bleeding and there was something about that blood. Not the coppery taste of it, exactly—she knew the taste of blood—but the simple fact of it being there, pumping into her mouth with an arterial glee. It unsettled her. Her feet never felt set. She kept drifting closer, and closer was the one thing she knew not to do. You keep your distance from a counter-puncher, you go to the mat, do the ground work. She was a grappler, after all.
And then the roundhouse popped in her head, a little flashbulb of surprise, a little afterthought of regret … stupid, stupid … and they were helping her up off the mat. Or not helping her, lifting her, and she could hear the crowd somewhere out there through the grainy darkness of concussion, the crowd totally losing its shit, cheering, booing. Someone asked could she wiggle her fingers. Simona? Can you wiggle your fingers for me, Simona? Her neck felt warm and it occurred to her that was her warm blood, spilling from the cave of her warm mouth.
Can you squeeze my hand?
They walked her after that, to the locker room and to the waiting ambulance and on to the hospital. She didn’t shower until she got back to The Sands but by then the blood had dried and she came out of the shower thinking, Clean, thinking, Sleep, until Kenny saw her and started crying and she was all, What?, and then Kenny taking the washcloth and making to wipe away the dried blood but then not. Kenny just sort of collapsing against her, crying right there in the master suite with its minibar and zebra curtains. Something about it hurt her more than losing, the way he crumpled. As if she wasn’t herself anymore, no longer the person she had been, and Kenny crying like he was mourning her. Kenny crying like he was grieving the future. But then soon enough she was crying too.
They sat up all night, her head pounding, eyes dilated, adrenaline lingering. Then the Lortab settled over her like ground fog and it was, I’m so tired, Kenny. And Kenny was all, Stay awake, babe. Hey, hun, look at me, okay? Her trainer came the next morning with a doctor from the Nevada State Athletic Commission who looked in her eyes with a tiny light. She signed something, some sort of release, and they made their solemn nods and left.
She slept after that, she and Kenny both, slept the day away while outside the hotel the paparazzi had gathered, not that she wanted to know. She’d turned her phone off just before the fight and left it off. No Twitter, no Instagram. No reassurances to her fans or calls for the inevitable rematch. They slept and at dusk crept out to the parking garage. The paparazzi with their Vespas and telephoto lenses were gone. Everyone was gone. Fuck them, Kenny said, screamed, into the concrete cavern with its elevator and pale cancer light. Fuck all them. They left around seven and drove all night and part of the next day. Nevada to Texas. Stupid but who could have seen it coming, the future, the left that opened her mouth, the roundhouse that shut it?
Now, alone in the camper shell, she arched her spine, feeling it open.
Above her was a generalized light she saw as much through her eyelids as the pain medication. November. The truck parked in a field of blue grama on the edge of the pines. Kenny was out there. She could yell for him if she needed to, she could bang one foot against the glass. But she wasn’t going to do that. She was flat on her back, half-covered by the nylon of her sleeping bag, socked feet up on the cold metal of the tire well. One of the windows was propped open and despite the wind she smelled something. Despite the pain medicine she had a sneaking suspicion she might have shit her pants. Also—oh Jesus—she was about to vomit again, which was its own manner of suffering what with the broken jaw.
She pulled herself onto hands and knees, began the long crawl to the back of the truck just as it came through her clenched teeth, stringy heartburn bile. On all fours, head hanging over the tailgate, eyes tearing, while a part of herself—maybe the realest self she had—began to wonder if this hadn’t been what she’d wanted all along.
That realest self asking if just maybe she had let herself get kicked on purpose?
The thought was on the verge of articulating itself when another spasm pushed through her and—Oh shit oh shit oh shit …
As if that had become her name.
And in a way, it had.
○ ○ ○
Her name before that, her real name, was Simona Kin, and until she lost that night in Vegas she was the girl who could not lose. 27 and 0 here in her 27th year, which felt magical until it didn’t. Not that she hadn’t suffered before. She’d been to the Olympics—a fuck up of colossal proportions, but had rebounded, recovered, spiraled but pulled out of said spiral to reinvent herself as a mixed martial artist. To become relatively famous and moderately rich.
Yet, mostly, she hated herself.
Still, hate or no hate, she had risen.
By twenty-five, she had endorsements with an energy drink and a manufacturer of headgear. By twenty-six, she had her own protein bar, had fought in nine countries, flown in a hot air balloon, and been wooed by a Serbian count obsessed with Systema. Yet it felt like nothing. It felt, in its way, like shit. She had a trainer and a manager and a boyfriend but she still felt alone. She had almost $600K in the bank but she still felt poor. By twenty-seven she knew she always would.
She’d grown up working-class poor in East Tennessee until her daddy stroked out one night sitting in the cab of his F-250 outside the gym he owned and operated in dying heart of Elizabethton, Tennessee, his central nervous system preloaded with enough Dianobol and cocaine to float him through twenty sets of heavy squats. Thereafter, her mother took her to Florida where they exchanged their working-class poverty for poverty of the unadulterated kind. The ketchup sandwiches and I-4 motorcourts. The good-hearted shoplifting at the Orange City K-Mart.
Her daddy was junkyard mean and wide as a table. He would strut his 6’3” 255 pound frame down East Elk from where it crossed the Doe River all the way past the pizza shop to Iron Mayhem, Walkman clipped to the running shorts into which he tucked a pressed wifebeater out of which flowed two giant hairless arms. Attached to the right one was an eight-year-old girl smacking her gum.
She loved him, her daddy.
He might have been a bastard—even at eight she understood this—but he was her bastard and she didn’t care. The world was like that back then. Then being in the days of Blockbuster Video and spray-on tans. Then around the time Bill Clinton was not having sexual relations with that woman.
More often than she wished, she thought of those days.
Her daddy’s side of the family were Scots-Irish, his own father part of the original SAS and said to have murdered Germans in North Africa with his bare hands. In France, he made a practice of defenestration—snipers, prisoners of war, rumored collaborators, it didn’t matter. Though eventually it did, and when charges quietly materialized they were just as quietly dropped when he demonstrated a willingness to immigrate to the United States.
Her mother was a Soviet Jew of spiritualist bent, then, later, a newly saved washed-in-the-blood Baptist turned Jehovah’s Witness refugee with a Seventh-day Adventist fetish currently studying A Course in Miracles and opening her chakras. Her parents, the nameless grandparents Simona would never meet, were refuseniks who had brought their young daughter to New York during Brezhnev’s thaw.
You lived a life to be rid of it—that was the moral of the story.
Still, Simona did the best she could.
She was a good child. Trusting and honest, if always moving. Bold. Sometimes too defiant her mother would think, though it was an authentic defiance, a curiosity. She was ingenuous, and people recognized such, people were drawn to her. Her kindergarten teacher such a kind heart, the woman giving out Kool-Aid and Big Sixty cookies at Vacation Bible School such a pure little thing. Children too. They played detective on the case of her father’s missing ring last seen in a change dish by the exhausted hand soap dispenser. Sang songs from Matilda because sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty. But mostly she went with her father to the gym and her mother to church or temple or circle or gathering. So it was all God and the hundred pound concrete sphere her father hauled over his shoulder before racing the length of mirrors. It was the Universal Intelligence and the pull-up bars she began first hanging and then swinging from until the local gymnastics teacher saw her and offered free tuition.
Her daddy’s world: Everyone in a circle, cheering on the rubberized flooring, while Big Pete attempted to deadlift twelve plates. On the walls a sign that read DON’T BE A LITTLE BITCH beneath a muscular woman in lime green Lycra.
Her mama’s: Everyone in a circle, kneeling on the carpet, jeans shiny at the knees. On the walls the Ten Commandants and a great cartoon rising, people pulled from a stadium into the clouds, Do not lay up your treasures on Earth, a hand-drawn Moses (white beard, bulbous eyes) parting the Red Sea as if the waters were a televangelist’s pompadour.
How she had wound up at the confluence of the Doe and Watauga Rivers was never made plain to Simona. What was clear was how it ended.
Her daddy in his truck, skin the color of pork, body slumped like a side of beef.
That was when they left. In the wake of her husband’s death, in wake of his abandonment (as she came to call it), in the wake of the disaster that was probate (there was no will, but there were back taxes and two outstanding liens against Iron Mayhem), after the yard sale and the drive south, the I-95 traffic barrels and construction mesh and thirty-nine-dollars-a-night no-tell motels, Sim’s mother experienced a sort of vision and who should stand before this once-perfectly American woman now reduced to widowhood and the ash of the once great Soviet state, but Jesus Himself, so blue-eyed and clear skinned he appeared to have emerged from swimming in a Norwegian fjord so recently he had yet to take up the sword or the flame or the serpents that surely laid in wait out back in the swamp of live oaks and retaining ponds behind their new stucco efficiency somewhere in the mire of Central Florida.
That was when her mother began to live on her knees. Every moment save those she wasn’t cleaning toilets or whisking the carpet at the Knight’s Inn on LPGA Boulevard or plating strawberry crepes at the IHOP she was at church, dopesick for some sort, any sort of love.
It was a pull that wasn’t lost on her daughter.
○ ○ ○
Kenny came back what time—eight, maybe. Nine if she was guessing.
He opened the back glass and instantly, despite the sleeping bag and blankets and Polar fleece, she was freezing. It was November and the sun was an area of light, white and heatless in the overcast sky. The wind gusting. He hadn’t seen fuck all. Plenty of sign but he’d been all morning in a stand on the edge of a field of red clover and there’d been nothing but a big tom turkey easing through the sedge like he owned the goddamn place which, he told her, he reckoned it did.
He mixed her another Met-Rx in the shaker cup even though she hadn’t finished the first.
There was dried vomit on her chin and on the collar of her North Face jacket, clotted blood on one cheek.
The hell, girl. You all right?
He was sipping a RockStar, he was going back. There was a blind about a half mile away and maybe he’d just give it another hour.
That all right, babe?
That was all right, sure, that was fine. Everything was fine because what else could she say? She nodded and for a moment he gently brushed the puff of her lower lip, purple and split, but then he looked like he might start crying again and she turned away, pulled the blankets back over her and he nodded, finished his RockStar, and was gone.
Nine, maybe ten o’clock in the morning now but it all felt so indeterminate.
Herself, she meant. About the others, she knew what they were saying. 10 to 1 odds which meant how much money had changed hands? Which meant how many pay-per-view subscribers in how many bars had stood there, drinks in hand, saying, Oh, shit. Bitch just got knocked the fuck out? A $900K purse which right about now—less the take for her agent and trainer and all the rest—was shifting into her account. They would be talking about that on sports radio (“I guess I’d let them break my jaw for that, Tom.”). On ESPN they would earnestly discuss her refusal to touch gloves (“It’s hard not to see this as her comeuppance.”). Every man everywhere—it would be all men, or mostly men—would be holding forth on whether or not that uppity bitch got what was coming.
She took her phone out, held it, but then put it away.
Her face hurt in a way that made her aware of its shape.
Which was a strange thing to be.
She lay back on the mattress and slept.
○ ○ ○
On the second day it occurred to her she had four more days to get through and then it occurred to her that probably she could, that probably she deserved it: the cold truck, the stinging face, the diarrhea in the freezing woods.
They had planned it different.
The trip was meant to be celebratory, a sort of carnal asceticism, just the two of them and a Yeti full of good food and good Jack Daniels. They’d done the same a year ago. She was coming off a big year, five fights, a string of endorsements. The first intimations of celebrity. Lunch at the Chateau Marmont. Her own line of t-shirts. They spent six days alone, laughing and drinking, hunting in the morning and then driving into town in the afternoon to loaf around, have an early dinner of ribeyes and Shiner on draft. Back to the truck where the sex was mind-boggling, some sort of ongoing wonderfuck, sometimes vigorous and exhausting. Sometimes slow and delicate, and sometimes—impossible as it seemed—both at once. They had been together over a year by then, properly together, and it felt right, it had begun to feel permanent. He had a Halon 32 compound bow and they both got a buck and rode into town with them tied to the front bumper, laughing and honking the horn. She put a shot on Instagram holding her deer tag like a prize, everybody’s sweetheart, the grinning girl-next-door with her blue ribbon like she’d just won the spelling bee.
At the end of the week, they drove over to San Antonio and spent Thanksgiving with his parents, all piled into the living room with their turkey and stuffing and the Cowboys on the TV the way God intended.
The next morning they had gotten up early, the house still sleeping, and ran together through the warm pre-dawn streets, sprinklers flashing, streetlights flickering out. Three miles that turned into four and then five and then something happened—it was hard not to think of it like some rom-com moment turned into a cheesy gif, but okay, whatever—but something happened and running along past a brake-and-tire place and then a McDonald’s and then the turn lane to the Costco, they made eye contact and tacitly agreed to just keep going, to keep running, but also—she felt later—to keep going in some larger way. They realized—she felt this later too—they were in love.
She had met Kenny at the MMA Masters Gym in Miami. He was a light-heavy and she was new in town, straight off the nineteen dollar GoTo bus from Orlando which was its own form of sad, but again, whatever. She’d been a judoka growing up in Daytona Beach, a dojo kid taking the dojo bus from school to practice where her mother would pick her up, check her homework, check her lunchbox. The vocabulary words and the sevens table. The apple the yogurt the whole wheat bread.
When she was eighteen she started at a gym in Daytona. Two hours of Jiu Jitsu and another hour of sparring after. Mats closed with duct tape and mopped with Clorox and still you got the ring worm, the burst capillaries where the skin pinched, the—what was the word?—the contusions.
The coach was a middle-aged guy named Rolly and Rolly had trouble taking her seriously. Woman, female, what the fuck was she doing in his fight gym? He put her to hitting twenty rounds on the heavy bag, a shits and giggles thing for the boys gassed after open mat. Then she went and did it. That night, next night, every night—twenty rounds. It was limitless, what she could endure. Broken fingers and floating ribs. The nail flipped off each big toe like the cap off a bottle. Burst capillaries appeared as red starbursts.
She was working three jobs. Bartending at Booth’s Bowery. Dressing like a pirate at the shrimp place near Ormond. Something else Rolly couldn’t remember. Putt-putt maybe, only it wasn’t putt-putt. Go-cart attendant at the place you got the coupons for? It didn’t matter. Twenty rounds and he wonders one night, when does she eat? Where does she eat? So he gets takeout from Golden Wok, orders extra everything. Thinks she’ll refuse and he can tell she’s going to, can tell, too, that she’s starving so he preemptively insists. This after twenty rounds after sparring after rolling after how many jobs behind her and how many jobs to go?
A year later she’s at the Olympic Training Center in Boulder.
United States National Judo Team.
There’s a word for that sort of rise if he could just remember it.
○ ○ ○
On the third day, they drove into town, or Kenny drove and she sat in the passenger seat with her still-swollen face pressed into her balled coat. She wanted just being out of the camper bed to feel like something but it didn’t. She wanted a few other basic things as well. She wanted to shower and they got a room at the Best Western off Highway 90. She wanted to shit on a toilet except, by now, there seemed nothing left to pass. The Lortab made her skin itch. Her jaw ached. She kept swallowing blood. She wanted Kenny to unwire her jaw and he sat on the corner of the bed staring at her, not quite believing.
Are you serious?
She made clear that she was and he had her sit on the lowered toilet seat in the overlit bathroom, head tipped back. There were horizontal arch bars, impressive spidery things, but only a single vertical wire connecting them. He unwound it slowly, meticulously, and then she sat there, rubbing her jaw but not yet sure if she should open it, or even how.
I don’t think you should, he started to say, but then she did, as wide as possible, and the pain, even through the Lortab, was like the greater part of her, like it was this corporeal thing to which her body was just another appendage. Her eyes watered. She thought she would vomit. She sat on the toilet seat with Kenny telling her to breathe through her nose, breathe through your nose, babe. Slow, slow.
She showered a second time and they drove to a bar on Getty where she drank a pitcher of Coors. The beer so cold and her body so empty that for the first time since before the fight she felt nothing, and it was such a welcome thing, this nothingness.
We could drive on to my parents, Kenny said.
Three of her teeth were loose, one of them a molar.
Hey, hun? You hear me?
She did, but she didn’t want to go to his parents. She didn’t want to go anywhere.
She was beginning to wonder again if she had let herself get kicked on purpose.
○ ○ ○
Kenny had come into her life a year after the Olympics, twelve full months after having flamed out in the Rio semi-finals, an inexplicable and unforgiveable fuck up that was no more and no less than having purely and simply choked. You see Bob Costas over there by the NBC cameras, hear the national anthem, finger the expensive tracksuits they let you keep and you realize it’s bigger than you, the expectations, the consequences.
You get dizzy and lose on points to an Israeli, weep in the locker room.
It’s not a joke.
She’d gone back to Daytona after that, back to her mama’s prayer, back to her own small dreams. Locked herself in the bedroom and gorged on hard candy. Her mama talked her out and whatever shit she carried against her mama she would always owe her for that. The prayers, the nagging, the anointed prayer cloth her mama brought home from church, a handkerchief sopped in olive oil she dropped across Simona’s sleeping face.
What the hell is this?
That’s the hand of the Lord, child. I ain’t gonna let you die on me like your daddy did.
Two weeks of cajoling and pleading and threatening and finally she puked Jolly Rancher and went online. Turns out the best fight gym in the eastern US was in Miami.
Her mama bought the ticket.
She met Kenny on her third day though he told her later he had noticed her on her first. Been watching you, girl. It hadn’t seemed so creepy at the time. Had my eye on you. The gym was full of pros and would-be pros and there was a family-vibe, cookouts and surfing and trips down to Largo where they all snorkeled off somebody’s boat. She thought it would take her a year to be ready to fight, but three months later she stepped into the ring. A warehouse up in Liberty City. Ten-dollar admission and five-dollar Bud Lights. She knocked out a big Seminole woman in something like fourteen seconds and for it took home two hundred bucks which was nothing but also very much something. By the end of her first year she was undefeated, seven fights, seven knockouts.
She started fighting thousand dollar undercards in Vegas. 10 and 0. 11 and 0. For a while she fought every Saturday night because when you can win in less than a minute why not? Training was harder. Rolling, sparring. The whisk-whisk of the jump rope. The battle ropes. The weight circuits. The burpees with head colds. Pull-ups with raw palms.
Kenny was still in Miami, but she was making enough to fly him out every other weekend. He wasn’t really fighting anymore, but neither of them seemed to notice. She went to 18 and 0 and got an endorsement deal with a third-rate energy drink and a spot on the undercard of a UFC event. She won with a sudden overhand right to the temple of a red-haired Oklahoman, a woman who looked built from the scraps of oil derricks, and went down like a felled tree.
By her second UFC card she was a name, she was somebody.
There’s a word for it.
That word is meteoric.
○ ○ ○
She didn’t want to go to his parents, but the next day that was exactly where they went. Spent the night in the Best Western wondering if her teeth would fall out and maybe she’d just choke to death on a molar and how would that be any worse, any more humiliating than what had already happened?
They’re worried about you. Kenny saying this, Kenny driving. Lots of folks are.
But lots of folks didn’t get it. It scared them. You weren’t well-rounded. You didn’t know when to quit. Enough was never enough—which was maybe why she’d let herself get kicked?
She thought of that on the barren ride to San Antonio.
She put her forehead against the glass.
Hey, Kenny was saying, hey, babe?
She didn’t mean on purpose like intentional, like, Yes, please kick me in the face. More like this subconscious wandering, this desire to know how fragile it really was. You survived the building of this world but could you survive the taking apart?
It was the thing you were holding, but it was also the thing holding you.
Was that ridiculous to think? Was that the Lortab talking?
Maybe it was just another form of pain management.
She watched the trees and the billboards and pasture giving way to tract houses.
Hey, hun? Kenny kept saying.
○ ○ ○
His parents gave her space. They’d seen the fight. His mother had cried. Two days, three days. I was just scared so bad, you laying there like that, not moving. Sim was cooling out on the Lortab, and there were moments of honest lucidity, or at least the possibility of such. Unwiring her jaw had been the right thing. It was still all Met-Rx and a Dairy Queen Blizzard but it felt like the right thing. On the fifth day after the fight she was supposed to visit a neurologist out near the Air Force Base, but blew it off. She was starting to think about going home. Not even Miami but Daytona. Getting back to training. Maybe getting back to training. Cardio, she guessed. The recumbent bike. In another week she could probably swim at the Y.
She’d been like this after the Olympics, but actually she had never been like this.
○ ○ ○
Thanksgiving came and it was a small house. A two-bedroom rancher with a garden gnome and busted stoop. Her phone had remained off, but Kenny’s wasn’t. Kenny was in touch, talking to her trainer, her agent, the press. She wondered who the fuck he thought he was, speaking for her. But she was grateful, too. At times she was wildly grateful.
We need to talk to the media, babe.
But she didn’t want to talk to the media.
This dude from Rolling Stone keeps texting. Then there’s this other motherfucker from FOX Sports.
She didn’t want to talk to anyone.
She lay on Kenny’s childhood bed beneath his poster of Troy Aikman, Roku remote balanced on her stomach.
I reckon y’all will be in a hurry to head back, his mother said that evening from her glider, now that the holiday’s passed.
What’s that, mama?
She thought of the way the roundhouse had seemed to appear, to materialize out of the noise and light. Like she never could have seen it. But also like she had seen it so long she had grown bored with it. When she first started fighting, she would sometimes take a single intentional blow. Something to clear her head, to make plain the stakes. But it wasn’t like that. Or maybe it was.
His mother was smoking Kools and watching Dancing with the Stars.
Y’all are probably getting restless, I reckon, she said. I know I would be.
○ ○ ○
It was a solid twenty hours back to Vegas.
Kenny was on the phone with the guy from Rolling Stone. The stitches in her tongue had dissolved. The paparazzi were long gone. Otherwise, they could have gotten a pic of her entering The Sands, the great purple slug of her lower lip, the crescent moon of bruise that mapped the left side of her face. They could have gotten Kenny on the phone with the guy from FOX Sports. She didn’t know what to think of it all, but suspected if she could get kicked just one more time she would. There would be sudden clarity. It would solve something. But she wasn’t going to get kicked again, not now and not ever. She was finished fighting.
There was a scene in the room, inevitable, but not as bad as she’d feared.
I can’t believe this bullshit. Kenny saying this. After all we’ve goddamn been through, to have come this far.
Kenny irate, screaming, but then recalibrating: Kenny all conciliatory.
Look, I get it, babe. Take some time off, collect yourself. You relax, get your shit together, come back when you’re ready.
But there would be no coming back. There would be no ready.
Her mama picked her up at Orlando International and they said mostly nothing. Take-out from the Pollo Tropical off I-4. Her old room, her old dreams, all of it sitting on plastic Judo trophies like dust. She tried to eat the chicken but couldn’t. She did manage to gum the rice, her teeth a little more stable, a little more secure.
She considered this.
She looked for signs.
She thought about going to see her old coach Rolly but then didn’t.
She turned her phone back on, but there was nothing from Kenny or anyone else. It made her a little sad. A little angry too, though she knew it was a matter of giving her space, as Kenny had put it. That was fine. It all felt behind her. It felt over. It felt—
The word was meteoric.
Rapid, dazzling, swift.
○ ○ ○
Christmas came and somehow she got herself interested in Dilaudid, found herself dabbling in it, though it wasn’t really something to dabble in. It was, in fact, a gratuitous fucker of a drug, almost like it was personal, almost like it was the part of her she’d spent her life going without, the missing piece that would see her dead. The same thing her daddy had been chasing out in his pickup with his roids and his blow. This was intriguing, this theory, and back there in her childhood bedroom she told herself her interest was philosophical, though in truth she had simply run out of Lortab and Dilaudid was easier to come by.
Whatever it was, it got her out of the house.
In February, she went to South Beach. She met a guy named Logan and they wound up buying benzodiazepines at a Lincoln Drive teahouse from a green-haired girl and her shaved-head boyfriend, swallowed two pills each with their verbena, and walked back to the hotel. She didn’t want to touch him but then, when she finally did, realized it was exactly what she wanted. Human warmth, the tensile friction of his hands beneath her clothes. His slim body howling above the fork of her legs. She woke sometime later to the dim awareness of someone else in the room, some flare of confusion that steadied into recognition. Logan was in the corner with the green-haired girl and the man from the teahouse, shooting up.
When she woke again he was crying, both hands wrapped around his lower leg.
“I don’t love you,” he said.
There was no one else in the room.
“What happened to your leg?”
“I don’t love you. I don’t love him.”
He had heated a coat hanger and burned a three-inch curve into the meat of his right calf.
“Let me see.”
“I don’t love anyone, you bitch.”
The flesh was white and puffy and hot to the touch.
He put his face in his hands and wept.
“It’s supposed to be an S,” he said.
“For Simona, for you.”
She was disgusted with herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It was all, for lack of a better word, stupid. The small joys, the pleasures—all unfathomably stupid. She found a tube of expired antibacterial cream and wrapped the whole thing in a Maxi-pad, regular
A week later she bought ten 2 mg Klonopins and something happened to them. She took them, she supposed, over the course of some number of days, though after the fact had no direct memory. Just the smell of her unwashed body, the whatever that had
dried in her hair.
Her phone had died.
Someone had left the refrigerator door open.
Her mama prayed for her daily.
Kenny texted occasionally.
She was becoming narrow.
She was losing herself. This much was clear. But wasn’t losing herself maybe the point?
○ ○ ○
It was March when she started swimming at an outdoor pool in Oak Hill. The air too cold but that just meant she had the water to herself. A campground on the edge of Mosquito Lagoon, the St. John’s River marking the rear of the property. The pool itself
was shaped like the state of Florida, shaped like a gun. Which meant she followed the curve of the Gulf to get her twenty-five meters, and then a quick flip-kick, and she was headed south again. Pensacola to Tallahassee to Tampa to Miami to the Keys. A mile, two miles. She’d quit taking anything when she realized she couldn’t disappear into it, her nascent habit simply altering her context so that she was a different version of herself, but still very much herself.
Instead, she swam, her muscle elongating, leaning out.
After, she would stand by the giant ice cooler—ten-pound bags for two bucks—towel over her shoulders, and shiver. Around her RVs and their Rust Belt retirees. Brown sawgrass in hummocks. Time was passing, life organizing itself in disappearing increments.
Kenny had started leaving voicemails.
She didn’t know what she was doing.
Only that she’d turn twenty-eight in a few weeks.
Only that her teeth felt stable.
She listened to the voicemails at night, shoulders trembling from her laps.
The messages kept arriving, signals from another planet.
Are you out there?
Hey, hun, he would say. Hun, are you out there?
She liked the way he seemed to be addressing someone she couldn’t quite remember. There were days, standing in front of the mirror she’d tacked to the wall, she hardly recognized herself.
○ ○ ○
A man arrived, a doctor who had done time in the penitentiary upstate. Seven years for buying 100 Oxys from a narc outside the Hungry Howie’s in DeLand. He sat shirtless in a chaise longue and watched her swim. Drank Mountain Dews. Told her she
needed to eat.
“Look at you,” he’d say. “How skinny you’re getting.”
And it was true, how skinny she was getting. Narrow, lean. Girl, you turn sideways and you disappear. But that, maybe, had become the point. How far could she swim? If she were an eel, she meant. That thin. Thin enough to disappear through the cracks. The night Kenny had unwired her jaw she had realized that her body, this body, was just an appendage, something that hung on her, weighed her with sorrow, and if she could do without it she could … She realized that was what Logan had been doing with his heated coat hanger and heroin rig. She realized it was what she had been doing all along. The way she had waited for that roundhouse. Knowing it was coming and then letting it come all the same.
You live a life to be rid of it.
Stupid, sure, but what was she supposed to do with her stupid?
Live with it—that was what you could do.
She went with the doctor back to his trailer only a few times, three or four, she counted. But why count? she wondered. One day he said, “Holy shit. You’re the girl that got knocked out. I didn’t realize that.” Only it wasn’t true, or was no longer true, whatever difference that made. Hey, Sim, he called, you hear me? She did and didn’t. She made her flip turn. She had found something in the water, moving along with the current, and when it crawled from the pool she followed it down to the banks of the St. Johns. The next day she began to swim in the river behind the RV park. The largest north-flowing river in the Northern Hemisphere, and she fl owed with it, every day farther north. Day after day after day. And then one day she found herself passing beneath the bridges of Jacksonville out of the mouth of the river and into the Atlantic. It was a glorious thing—her entire life was down here and how had she not known? Along the seafloor she found her old Judo trophies. She swam through her old room at the Sands, past Kenny’s mother on the couch. Her own mother in prayer. Her father smiling at her before dropping into another set of squats.
She swam a thousand miles, let the current carry her. Folks didn’t get it. The kind of focus, the kind of single-mindedness that was necessary to do anything important. You staked everything on it. People like to admire perseverance but not really. Perseverance, the real unadulterated thing, scared people. You weren’t well-rounded. You didn’t know when to quit. Enough was never enough. But it was different out here. Everything was diff erent.
She was so narrow now, out among the fi sh and tortoises, the giant container ships on the horizon. She realized she could keep going and one day began to follow a family of eels. They told her of the darker places, the places without light, introduced her to the beaked whales diving to seven thousand feet. They could take her with them if she wanted. She could go with them forever, and why shouldn’t she? Her teeth were stable. Her body was lean. She could just keep going.
She made her flip turn, put her face beneath the water.
Wasn’t that the reason she had allowed herself to get kicked in the first place, so she could just keep going?
From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.
Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.
Mark Powell is the author of five novels, most recently SMALL TREASONS from Gallery/Simon and Schuster. His novel Firebird will be published in 2020. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and in 2014, he was a Fulbright fellow to Slovakia. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina where he directs the Creative Writing program at Appalachian State University.