My therapist gives me a notebook. I stare at the seasonal depression lamp on her desk. She suggests I do body checks when my brain gets going. Have I journaled? Am I hungry? The internet says there's no shame in adult nightlights. I leave my laptop open by the bed and start waking up with headaches. I give up, pull my memory to my ribs. (His belt was brown. It was noticeable because he never usually wore belts, but then you thought, "I guess he really is taking everything" and he was. Do you remember that? I remember. Do you remember her burning all his photos? Yep.)
A back-home friend invites me to a baby shower. As teens we sold phone jewels at a mall kiosk and threw up boxed merlot in creek coves over the forearms of men who bought girls alcohol. On the internet I find a turtle with stars cut into its shell and a multicolor light bulb inside. The rendering a pool of hushed violet. The retranslated description: "For when baby can only cry." I fill out the order form at work, where I scan pruning shears and ferns and bagged soil for twelve dollars an hour. To buy the gift here is to lose my time once instead of twice. I open my notebook to write, Reminder: no double-duty jokes to the pregnant host and see that my therapist has put prompts on sporadic pages: Right now, are you practicing compassion for yourself and others?
I went away in a red summer when sudden storms could bloom time-lapse quick. First my mother and I split a bottle of prosecco at the country club where she taught swing dancing and we got discounts at the poolside dining room. My mother was born in a senator's lake house and loved clarifying at parties that the senator wasn't there at the time. Her cheek down on the patio table's pebbled glass. I wanted to loosen the fist-tight hush. I wanted her to say something like, "You have no more purpose than the birds in the air." Instead the sticky sky blew frothy clouds apart and my hat whipped off my head into a telephone pole. I ate my birthday cake. I was, I think, thirty. Later, I got on a bus leaving the wet valley town. At this moment, I'm carrying a package to my floor under one arm and scrolling my phone in case neighbors are watching, to show I'm not paying attention to this baby gift; this baby gift isn't for me.
My notebook: Everything people do is a reflection of themselves. My notebook: You're allowed to change your mind.
I discover I have no wrapping paper. For now I stick the turtle on my nightstand, where I put anything without a separate home: an old laptop I plan to recycle; a stack of art magazines I bought to make collages in winter; an empty, round vase; a gift box that once held a brutalist chunk of raw quartz but now contains all my laundry tokens.
At times, when I've felt things I couldn't locate, my counter-dependency reacts. I get another stamp-sized tattoo on the hidden skin of my arms. I swap jobs. I look at my walls. I look at my phone and don't answer it. I take my body outside like an older dog I'm watching for a friend: Come on just around the block and then it'll be done come on you know your mother wouldn't like it if you sat inside all day. I go around my neighborhood with scissors snipping carnations off public hedges until I have a bouquet to put in my empty vase.
My mother calls. When she asks about the baby shower I yell at her that I have other interests. Later, a green spine grows in the corner of my eye. I touch, but don't press, the stippled chassis. (His palms were so tough he could scratch them with a fishhook. What's strange is he never did any manual labor in his life. Remember? I remember. Though as the owner of a pool installation company, he had plenty of chances.) I do a body check. Yes, I am hungry.
In the morning I scoop coffee with a porcelain soup spoon I stole from a pho restaurant. My therapist says it's not wrong to feel an impulse for control. I like to tell her things like this to make sure she's really on my side. The sunbeam in my small window doesn't reach the nightstand. In dark, the turtle is a gauze-and-marble shadow of something animal. Grounds clump on the tile sink. "Stop looking at me," I say and don't turn back around.
My boss promises to teach me how to grow plants and make arrangements. I don't know how to tell her I don't mind if she doesn't. I prefer sitting and guessing what people are buying their flowers for: a date, a funeral, an apology.
I guess you could say I "sometimes exhibit hypocritical traits," such as identifying as vegetarian and then buying a leather belt from a multinational online marketplace after not liking the ones at the thrift store. My notebook: Growth is a process.
My father calls while I'm on break. My mother doesn't know we talk now. When he asks about the baby shower we both laugh and he says I'll have my own soon. "Who wouldn't lock you down?" he says. My mouth drips black. I take the pen out of my teeth and clean up behind the mulch bags. My notebook: What you can control is your reaction.<
She's buying red tulips and doesn't pretend not to recognize me, as I thought was required for off-duty therapists. She says she likes red tulips because they keep growing after death, which is why they're cut and sold with the bulb still closed; I know she knows I'd appreciate that and that I don't know anything about flowers despite working at a plant store. I wrap the stems in cellophane and try to stomach the intuition. "Who are you buying them for?" I ask, as a joke because she wouldn't even tell me if her parents were still alive. "Myself," she, puzzled, answers. I imagine her leaving me alone in her office for a few minutes, during which time I find her notes and read everything she's written about me.
When I get home I fold my straw-necked metal desk lamp under my bed and turn the turtle back to face the room on top of the stack of everything like a votive for something, something. What I can control is. In our separate ways, we rub the surfaces of each other's buttons. Some states have turtle-hunting seasons. I want to know who feels powerful catching one. I picture the words hull, husk. A shell being really a fused ribcage, or something like that. Vertebrate death means the body deteriorates and the bones remain. I picture a beach covered in carapaces and shucked plastrons. I remember my shoulder when he left and the reptile of his hand: a layer, a pattern.
My notebook: The most important thing is to get in touch with your inner self.
I do it quick.
Glitter rains up and out of the shell, floods together, piles into a shimmering vortex, flicker-veined, that rolls like a whale breaching the sea and springs pinwheels of light spiraling all around into gold, pink, sapphire, saltwater green. This is not what I expected. A glowing current rotates me into its blood-warm nucleus, and I dream.
In the dream a group of fathers are gathered on a foam fogged coast throwing handfuls of baby turtles into a visible rib of ocean. The fathers say there's no other way to teach them. They say it's okay that the baby turtles are sinking because if they float it means they're dead. I look into the water and see what I see.
I wake in the late and early dark. I open my laptop and decline the invitation to the baby shower and fall back asleep, cradled in stars.
work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, FIVE2ONE Magazine, the Portland Phoenix
and other outlets. She is the creator and editor of the experimental lit & art magazine FEM and is currently obtaining her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast.