You Die in the End

He says, “I just don’t think you’re my type.”

You nod, but you wonder what part of you isn’t compatible with Him. Is it your new haircut? Your now-visible ears? Is it the way you eat sandwiches in layers, starting with the tomatoes, instead of as a unit? Is it because you still use bubble-gum-flavored toothpaste?

You’re at a restaurant eating hoagies, as He calls them. You like that. It sounds husky and rough, like something a boxer would say. You pretend to be okay with the breakup and reassemble your ham and cheese sandwich knowing that later, when He’s had the chance to miss your smell (a vanilla and coconut body mist that you bought after finding a candle of the same scent in His apartment), you’ll make your move.

To call Him later, go to The Bathtub
To key His car, go to His Driveway

The Bathtub

You planned on waiting a few hours before you called Him, but instead you dial His number before He pulls out of your driveway.

“Please don’t go,” you say, making your cute, roleplay voice. “Come watch a movie with me?”

He sighs.

You’re looking out the window. His car is still moving.

“Maybe we can be friends in the future,” He says, “but right now, I need to go home.”

“We can be friends now. Friends watch movies together.”

“Sorry,” He says and hangs up.

You call again fifteen minutes later, which is about how long it takes for Him to get home. He doesn’t pick up. You call again in an hour. He still doesn’t pick up. You take a long bath, a three-hour-long bath, and read an entire issue of Vogue, but the whole time your phone is resting on the flat of your breasts with the volume turned all the way up. You don’t have any bubble bath, so you pour the vanilla coconut body mist in the tub. It smells sour in concentration and burns your skin. You take a shower and then call Him again. It rings twice and goes to voicemail. You watch an entire season of a cancelled soap opera, and then at one a.m., you call once more. It goes straight to voicemail.

In the morning, you google “how to tell if your phone number has been blocked” and realize that He has probably blocked you. You decide to go to His house.

To knock politely, go to His Porch
To break in to His house, go to His Kitchen

His Driveway

You spend the evening on the phone, ranting about Him to your best friend, May. You tell May how He used to leave unwashed dishes in the sink for days and how His friends were always women, the sleek, skinny kind you usually see in cities, like humanoid iPhones. You tell May how He refused to take a shower with you unless you brought your own soap.

May says He was probably cheating on you. Or gay. But she seems to think everyone’s boyfriends are gay, so you ignore that.

You say, “I should have keyed that asshole’s car.” May laughs and says, “Yes, girl. Slash His tires.” You can hear sounds in the background, maybe giggling, or running water, and you hang up. You suspect May had you on speakerphone at a party she didn’t invite you to.

You decide to key His car. You use the house key He returned to you. When you’re done, you feel guilty, or maybe paranoid. You think you should have worn a ski mask. You look at His house. You think the window boxes are sagging like eyes filling with tears. You wish you had a pen to write that down, because it would be a great simile for a breakup poem.

To knock politely, go to His Porch
To get a drink, go to The Bar

His Porch

You have to knock five times before the lights go on in His house. When you first see Him through the windows, He is only wearing boxer briefs, a silky pink pair that looks like something a drugstore would sell in February. He grabs a jacket, slips it on, and then opens the door.

“You’ve been crying,” He says, and His voice sounds concerned. You take that as a good sign.

You nod even though you haven’t been crying.

He smiles, but His eyes stay narrowed, and He motions for you to come inside. You do. His house smells different. Spicy. He must have gotten a new candle.

You want to reach out and feel the boxers. “Was this a Valentine’s gift?” you ask, brushing your finger down His left thigh. You feel Him tense beneath your touch and you smile.

He says he doesn’t remember.

To accuse Him of cheating and leave angrily, go to Coco’s Territory
To have a calm discussion and leave in need of a Bloody Mary, go to The Bar

His Kitchen

It’s not hard to break in because you know where He keeps the extra key. Inside the birdhouse on His porch. You’ve never seen a bird in it, but you imagine He keeps it because He made it with His father on some camping trip or during a Father’s Day barbeque.

The house is dark, but you know He’s there because His car is parked outside. You walk into the kitchen and look at the photos on the fridge. There are about six of His dog, Coco. He never bothered to hang up the photo you took with her, even though you were both wearing adorable, matching hats.

There is only one photo of you in His apartment and it’s a group shot from that hiking trip you agreed to go on with His friends. You look sweaty and short compared to everyone else, and you think your fly might be down. But still, He is standing beside you, smiling down into your hair like it’s the softest thing in the world.

You find the photo on His counter next to His credit card. You assume He had just taken the two out of His wallet, which makes you happy. That means, for a while, He carried a picture of you everywhere He went.

To take the photo and leave in need of a Bloody Mary, go to The Bar
To take the credit card and leave, go to After Some Retail Therapy

Coco’s Territory

You’re angry. Coco yips at your feet as you walk across the yard. He had the dog’s vocal chords removed, so Coco can’t bark. She squeaks instead. It’s redundant, like sound effects in cartoons.

You never liked Coco. She always needs to pee at the most inopportune times, like when you’re having sex or when Project Runway is on. And He tells Coco He loves her every morning and every night despite never saying it to you, not even on your birthday. Not even when you asked Him to.

You turn on your engine, put your car in drive, and jolt forward. Coco is little, so when you hit her it barely makes a sound. And she can’t yelp for help. Part of you wishes that you’d get credit for Coco’s death, but He’ll probably blame it on the traffic from the corner bar. You don’t have a pen, but you have an eyeliner pencil. It’s a cheap brand. You call it your “drinking makeup” because it bleeds in the sunlight and rain, only good in the artificial lighting of clubs and theaters. You don’t mind ruining it.

To leave a note and be struck with a sudden emptiness, go to After Some Retail Therapy
To apply celebratory eyeliner before going to a bar, go to The Bar

The Bar

You made sure you looked real cute, so it doesn’t take long for some guy to buy you a drink. He says his name is Mason. You like that. It reminds you of secret societies and spies. You try to ask him about the Freemasons, but you’re tipsy, and instead you end up talking about his job. He’s a mechanic. You know the shop. You take your car there for oil changes. When you tell him this, he slips you a card and promises you a free appointment.

After another drink, he puts his cell number on the back of the card. You don’t go home with him, but you call him the next day and invite him out for spaghetti. He likes that. He laughs at that. He says no one has ever asked him on such a specific date.

When the bill comes, he pays, and then as you’re walking through the park he puts his hand around your shoulders. He’s so close that his whispers sound more like wind than words. You understand that he likes you. Just as he’s opening the car door for you, your phone rings. It’s Him.

To answer the phone, go to The Romantic Park
To ignore the call, go to The Mechanic’s House

After Some Retail Therapy

“Never leave a paper trail,” your mother’s lawyer tells you. “Don’t leave revenge notes. Don’t keep receipts.” You wonder why your lawyer is giving you crime advice. Does he think you’re planning on committing another? You wonder why your lawyer has a Band-Aid across his nose. He tells you that he has a sunburn, but you ignore that and decide to believe a puppy bit it.

He’s a good lawyer. A hairy, nasally lawyer with breath like boiled onions, but a good lawyer. He gets you back in your own home until the court date. He couldn’t lift the restraining order though, which you hate. You tell your lawyer that if you can talk to Him, you’re sure He’ll drop the charges, but your lawyer shakes his head and says, “Stay 150 yards away from Him.”

To obey the restraining order, go to The Courthouse
To attempt to talk to Him, go to Home, Online

The Romantic Park

“Hello?” you say cheerily.

“Hi,” He sounds unsure, mopey, the way He used to get before sex. “It’s me.”

“Oh.” You fake surprise. You have caller ID. All cell phones do, but you think maybe He’ll believe you anyway.

You point to your phone and mouth “mother” to The Mechanic. You say to The Mechanic, “I need a minute,” and walk back into the park. The Mechanic examines his key and then leans against his car, looking at you.

“How are you?” He asks.

“I’m good,” you say. “You?”

“I miss you.”

You say nothing. You wave to The Mechanic. He waves back.

“I miss you,” He repeats.

“You miss me?” you ask. “Then list five things you miss.”

“Your body. Your…”

“No,” you interrupt. “Too general. List five specific things.”

“Okay,” He pauses to think and you sigh. “I miss the way your lipstick tastes,” He says. “I miss the green bean casserole you made me that one time. I miss showering with you. I miss how you’d bite my ear in elevators.”

You wait and then sigh again. “That was only four.”

“And I miss your beautiful eyes.”

“Too general. Everyone has nice eyes.”

“Well, I haven’t seen you. I’m forgetting what you look like. Want to come over?”

“I’m seeing someone,” you say. “He’s in law school. Right now he’s a paralegal. Works on big corporate cases. They fly him into Chicago and New York on a regular basis.”

“I know you miss me.” His voice is husky now.

“Say hoagie.”


You giggle.

The Mechanic waves at you. You smile at him. When you imagine your wedding with The Mechanic, it’s in a church and there is homemade finger food at the reception. When you imagine your wedding with Him, you’re on a beach and wearing a dress that blows between your legs like you’re some kind of Greek goddess.

“Come over?” He asks.

To ditch The Mechanic and go to His house, go to After a Suggestive Message
To hang up on Him, go to The Mechanic’s House

The Mechanic’s House

Six months later, The Mechanic proposes. You aren’t surprised. He was married once before and is eager to forget her. Before he met you, he tried to lift her from his house, but even with every makeup-fingerprint scrubbed away, she is obvious in the decorating choices. She must have chosen the mauve curtains and the forlorn ocean paintings.

After redecorating, the house feels bigger and breezier. The Mechanic runs after you in the hallways, tickling you when he catches you. You buy a dog with too much hair and for a while you vacuum every day.

The Mechanic surprises you when it comes time to look for a venue. He wants to get married in an aquarium, right in front of the sharks. When he tells you this, you narrow your eyes and say, “I just thought you’d be more interested in an orchard or winery or farm or something cute like that.”

The Mechanic shrugs. “My first wedding was in a winery.”

When The Mechanic goes to work, you rifle through his library. Between his catechism and a copy of Moby Dick you find a flimsy photo album. It only has three photos in it, all from the wedding. Her mouth is red with wine, and he has a sweet but heavy-looking smile on his face. Her hair is red too. Movie-protagonist red.

You run your finger down her face, and a little part of her flakes off. You pull away and then a second later lower your finger again, this time scratching her away on purpose. You ruin two of the three photos before you realize what you’ve done.

Later, when you tell The Mechanic about the photos, he says he’ll forgive you on one condition: you delete Him from your Facebook friends list. You made the mistake of showing The Mechanic His profile when you discovered He had unblocked you. You agree, but you know The Mechanic doesn’t have an account and he’ll never know if you follow through.

To delete Him from your social media, go to The Honeymoons
To keep Him on social media, go to After a Suggestive Message

The Courthouse

Your mother buys you a dress for court. It has a lace collar that ties into a bow around your neck. You like that. It reminds you of wedding dresses and those big bows brides wear across their hips. You imagine Him untying it, unwrapping you like a present.

You smile big. You act confused. You tear up a few times, but don’t cry.

When it’s over, everyone believes it was an accident. Even Him, you think. Your case is dismissed.

Your lawyer is a good lawyer (and he even wore deodorant), but he couldn’t get the restraining order lifted. “That’s another court date for another day,” he says, patting you on the shoulder.

You consider celebrating by going to the bar near His apartment. You’ll have to pass His building to get there, and maybe He’ll see you when you do. You’re sure He will.

Your mother is happy. She cried, and it made her eyes look small and dark. You were going to tell her to go to the bathroom and splash her face, but before you can, she invites you to dinner.

Guilt is sudden. You want to give her something to dry her eyes up.

To go to dinner with your mother, go to The Diner
To get closer to Him, go to The Bar

Home, Online

Your phone number, your Facebook, your Twitter, and your Skype accounts are blocked, but He forgot about your emails.

You email Him a poem you wrote about your first date. You call it “Sharing a Dairy-Free Blackberry Custard with You.” You know He knows Frank O’Hara because you read “Having a Coke with You” to Him. You’re worried He’s forgotten though, so you find the Frank O’Hara Wikipedia page and send that in a second email. You write, “Do you remember that time we ate frozen custard, and then you told me I had the pointiest widow’s peak you ever saw? I knew I loved you then.”

Ten minutes later, your phone vibrates. He’s emailed you back. It says, “Leave me alone, you fucking psycho.”

You hate that word. Psycho. You told Him dozens of times it was one of your triggers, and He would laugh and say it again. You hated that. You never said His trigger word, which was “moist.” Well, not never. You said it once to describe His swimsuit, and His face shriveled. He looked so cute.

You create another email account and email Him again, but this time, you pretend to be Bill, your mutual friend, but more your friend than His. You scold Him for breaking your heart, and somehow you work the word “moist” into the email three times. At the end you say, “You better fix this before someone gets hurt.” You imagine Bill could say that even if you’ve never heard him say anything like that. Bill could do anything.

An hour later, two officers are at your door. You go to the police car calmly, but once you’re inside you say, “Oh my goodness, I thought I was emailing my friend May. We’re poets, you see. Love Frank O’Hara. And that email from Bill? Bill is a character I’m writing. That email was like method acting. I never meant to send those to Him. You see? This was all an accident!”

To plan your defense with your lawyer, go to The Courthouse
To fake insanity on the stand, go to The Trial

After a Suggestive Message

His hands are on you.

“No,” you say, but you don’t bat them away. “I’m in a relationship. We can only be friends.”

“I don’t want to be friends,” He says.

“Me either,” you say.

“Then dump him.”

You think for a moment. You think about The Mechanic and how one of his top teeth pokes out over his bottom lip when he tries to hide a smirk. The Mechanic isn’t obviously attractive like He is, but he has his own attractiveness. The Mechanic reminds you of a vampire and not just because of the tooth.

You say, “But I love him too.”

He doesn’t take his hands off you, but He stops moving them. “How could you love someone you just met?” He asks.
You shrug. “I don’t want to hurt him. He’s had his heart broken before.”

He looks annoyed.

“I don’t want to hurt him,” you repeat.

“Fine,” He says. “Don’t dump him then. I don’t care.” His hands are moving again and you don’t ask Him to stop.

To dump The Mechanic and date Him, go to After Three Years
To date both men, go to The Empty House

The Honeymoons

You break your leg skiing while honeymooning in Lake Placid. “Don’t cry,” The Mechanic says as you leave the resort five days early. “This just means we get a second honeymoon. We’ll go someplace tropical. Some place you can wear a bikini.”

You say you want to go to New Zealand to see the hobbits. He hates fantasy, but he books the trip anyway. You don’t buy a bikini, but you buy a corset and a Renaissance faire dress. The Mechanic pushes you into corners of public buildings to kiss you. He calls you his “little tavern wench.”

As fate would have it, you saw Him while waiting to board the plane out of Buffalo. His hair was thinning and He was wearing clashing shades of blue. He saw you and waved. He walked toward you. He wanted to talk. You turned away into the arms of The Mechanic and pretended you didn’t see anything. On the plane, you ordered champagne from the flight attendant. Many years later, having lived the remainder of your days without so much as a passing thought of Him, you die a happy woman.

The end.

The Diner

Your mother won’t stop crying, so you go to the bar to get a Bloody Mary. Then you get another. And a third for dinner. When you return to the table, your mother is holding a fat manila envelope.

“What’s that?” you ask.

“You know, your father took out life insurance when he found out he was going to die,” your mother says.

You shrug.

“And I’ve been saving for years. For what, I was never sure. But seeing you in this beautiful dress, you look so professional. Like a teacher.”

You smile down at your outfit.

“How would you like to go back to school?” your mother asks. “Give college another shot? This time you won’t have to take out loans.” Her little eyes have widened a bit, and you can see the overhead lights reflecting in them.

You stir your drink. “College is more expensive now, Mom.”

Your mother pushes the envelope toward you. Inside is detailed information about the stocks she bought a decade earlier, right after your father passed. And an application for SUNY Buffalo.

The next day, you drive into the city to speak to an academic advisor. The lounge outside his office is filled with boys, and their eyes dart in your direction. They’re looking at your dress, you’re sure of it. They all think I’m a teacher, you think.

You stand up and clear your throat before saying, “Prospective students, line up here. I’m about to start a tour of the nursing department.” Four people line up in front of you. You’re about to leave, to lead them into hallways you know nothing about, when the academic adviser calls your name. You run into his room and spend the next hour looking through a catalog of courses. You decide to major in psychology.

That night, you receive a text from Him. I miss you, it says, but you can’t imagine Him saying that. You can only hear Him calling you a psycho. You think about the woman you used to be before he killed off so much of you with that word.

To respond, go to After Three Years
To celebrate your upcoming academic success with a Bloody Mary, go to The Bar

The Trial

The psychologist “expert witness” tells the jury that you show signs of borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorder, and maybe even multiple personality disorder. There are little diseases too, like pica, but you can’t remember the whole list.

You cry a lot in court. And you get angry. You hit yourself on the head with a shoe. And for the grand finale, you pull out your hair and eat it. Even He cries a little bit when He sees what He did to you. You hear the tears in His voice.

Your lawyer is a good lawyer. When you’re found guilty, he convinces the judge to send you to a psych ward instead of prison. “It’ll be a vacation,” he says, patting your knee. “There will be arts and crafts. A swimming pool. Movie night. And you can have visitors. You even have field trips.”

“You’ll tell Him he can visit?” you ask.

“Of course,” he says.

Three weeks later, only your mother has visited. The other girls are boring. You’ve taken up smoking and have learned how to blow rings. This amazes the other girls. They call you Dragon and fight over who gets to sit beside you during TV time. They bring you books and squeal when you rip out the pages to make origami fortune tellers. You make them so happy.

By the fourth week, you realize that He isn’t going to visit you.

To fake your suicide, go to The Institution
To give therapy a shot, go to Therapy

After Three Years

He doesn’t trust you, and you don’t trust Him, but the sex is great. It’s not quite death, but it’s just as comfortable.

The end.

The Empty House

You date The Mechanic for two years before he finds out about Him. The Mechanic doesn’t even tell you how he found out. He just packs his bags and leaves. Silently. He won’t say anything. You hug his legs. You spread yourself naked across the bed. You throw his catechism at him and hit his left eyebrow. He starts to bleed. You run to the bathroom and get a Band-Aid, but he won’t let you near him. You sit on the floor and cry.


He doesn’t take any of the vacation albums you’ve made with him. You put one on top of his bag, the one from New England, and he tosses it aside.


You threaten to kill yourself. You rip the Band-Aid into little pieces and swallow them. When he’s left, you feel like you haven’t eaten in days. The bed smells like his sweat and car oil. It’s so big that you’re afraid to sleep in it alone. You hug every pillow in the house, but none of them feel as firm as his shoulders.

You take out your phone.

To call Him, go to After Three Years
To pursue The Mechanic as your new “Him,” go to The Bathtub


Your psychologist asks you to write a list of every lie you’ve told Him, but you can’t because the shame makes you physically hurt. Talking about Him and what you did to Him makes your skin feel tight and rough, like it’s shrinking around your bones, pushing everything inside you out of place.

You write Him an apology note that you’ll never send Him. Your psychologist calls this closure.

Next, she asks you to write a list of ten things that you like. This takes you three weeks. You settle on: Bloody Marys, baths, poetry, J. R. R. Tolkien, scrapbooking, your mother, sex, Valentine’s Day decorations, lavender, and taking walks.
You keep this list in your pocket and add to it every few weeks. When you’re discharged from the institution, you ask your psychologist to sign it, which she does. She even dots the i in her name with a heart. You like that and decide to start doing it too. You add i’s to the list of things you like.

Your mother picks you up in a new car and offers to take you out to dinner. The restaurant she suggests is on the same road as His house, next to the bar you two used to play pool at.

To go to dinner with your mother, go to The Diner
To reward yourself with a Bloody Mary, go to The Bar

The Institution

You’ve been saving your pills and trading your desserts for more. You kept them in the shell of Moby Dick, the pages all removed to make origami animals. You have one of the animals in your hand, a lopsided butterfly, though you don’t remember picking it up.

You took all the pills. You aren’t worried because there are always attendants. You thought someone would have found you by now, fixed you, and then called Him to let Him know what He had done. But it feels like you’ve been on the ground, swimming in slow, lingering swirls, for hours. There’s too much green. It’s giving you a headache. His voice cuts through the colors and envelops you. It feels pure and white. His voice feels like warm milk. And just like when He used to heat milk for you on the stovetop, the whiteness makes you dizzy and sleepy. You start to worry. If you die, will there be nothing? Will He be there? Will you have to start again somewhere far away? Will you ever taste your mother’s blueberry pancakes again?

You don’t get to decide this time.

The end.

Three Poems

love came backto hauntuswith a gunin her handswe sat overa bowl of cold cerealandlaughedat how the worldused to beI never saw her againafter thatbut sometimesI hurt for no reasonat all. dead dreamsno pulse in the citythey murdered themselveslong agothe train to Californiais a sad onethe cotton eyedgirl in A7reads a bookno one knowsandshe hasn’t a…

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The Weird World of Jeff VanderMeer

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Elf Queen

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Still Life: A Ghost Story

After dinner, Mom washes dishes. For the last time in a long time, she hums like she enjoys this. Through the open windows balmy air sifts in, bright with spring smells. Dad carries my baby brother up the stairs, changes his diaper, puts him in spaceship pajamas, and places him in the crib. He arranges…

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The Happiest Place on Earth

The summer after his dad left, Sammy told us he wanted to be the first person to die at Disney World. He just blurted it out as all of us sat in waist-high grass behind his house, like it was something he’d been thinking about for months. He was always saying weird shit like that….

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I joined the Navy for its poetry.

Salt-spray icicles, jousting narwhal, wind-scarred cliffs—my love of lucid imagery led me to the Arctic, where the sea is almost black. I was an ink-stained naval officer, scribbling in journals, collecting images. A sailor on his own watch, with the northern lights overhead.

When I first arrived at the army base in Petawawa for pre-deployment training in the spring of 2010, I’d been at sea so long I got land-sick when I stepped ashore. Mark was my friend, a burly infantry officer, the guy who showed me how those damn buckles on my rucksack worked and slowed to jog beside me on obligatory morning runs. He ran a platoon of soldiers all through his infantry training, conducting night raids on his fellows, glued to his rifle. Before, he was a student, even got his Masters in theology, but joined the Army claiming, “It’s here—in the Army. I can do more good for the world in Afghanistan than I can as a priest.”

But I wasn’t about to fold my hands in prayer. Instead, I scribbled impressions in a battered journal throughout our pre-deployment training: rucksack marches, briefings, inoculations, presentations, and applying tourniquets to slabs of raw meat. I had a weekend to visit my Mom before I left, which we spent drinking tea in her kitchen, a dream catcher dangling overhead. She pretty much lived in that kitchen, meditating each morning at the table and chatting on the phone with her sisters every evening. That weekend, she was a mess of grief and curlers, asking over and over, “Why do you need to do this?” and, “Why can’t it be someone else’s son?”

At the end of the weekend, when I turned to leave, she clutched my arm. By the look on her face, I could tell she thought I wasn’t coming back, or—if I did—I wouldn’t be the same. “Please don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be fine,” I said.

“That’s what all the sons who go to war say.”

Of course, she was right, and I could only pity her powerlessness—there was no backing out of the tour at this point; I already had one foot on the plane. I said, “If I’m ever going to be a great writer, I need to experience as much of the world as I can.” She let go of my arm.

But her words rang in my ears on that midnight flight over the Atlantic—as we passed over Europe, and when we dimmed the lights over Afghanistan, becoming a shadow flitting through clouds. I carried that weather-worn journal with the rest of my gear to the Big Ass Tents, where we stayed for two days in 120-degree heat until vacancies opened in the barracks. The air-conditioning, in the cells that welcomed us, felt like a nirvana of breezes despite their constant drips.

The war played out through drone feeds. During those first months, I didn’t read or write—at least not until the summer’s fighting season blunted to the winter’s lull—but I memorized the map down to the villages and learned the difference between a section, company, and brigade. Mark said, “We are always in a state of transformation. We are always becoming the person we need to be.” I told him he was becoming an asshole. Mark was too much of a monk to feel at home in the ops center, a clash of sleek technology and unpainted plywood, walls bare but for dozens of monitors. Most of the screens were drone feeds. Several scrolled with sanitized anti-poetry—the combat chat, our means of passing info to the troops. The combat chat was not scripture, but it did have miraculous powers. It could transform a person, smeared over a poppy field by a five-hundred-pound bomb, into “1 x KIA.” There was no music; there were no mantras. Only the squelch of radios and the burbling of a coffee pot in one corner.

Our eyes were the drones’ eyes. Depending on the camera, the images were either colored and pristine or black and white, heavily pixelated and gritty. Sometimes the drones with the most missiles were the ones with the worst cameras; it was easier to strike a blob of pixels than a person. Or so we thought, late at night, watching the roads unfurl like spools of barbed wire while jostling the coffee pot. Our team was a ragtag band of soldiers like Mark, one lone sailor (me), and a few Air Force types like my buddy Tictac. Tictac was an air traffic controller by trade and a six foot four, blue-eyed titan by birth. As a team, we had gathered from all across Canada, assembled in Afghanistan, and synced despite our different skills. We wore arid-patterned combats and 9mm pistols, working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, until the reprieve of leave came every few months.

Tictac counted sixty-eight rocket attacks by the end of his tour. Each time, we huddled in the dust as insurgent-fired bombs rained down on the base and burst with shrapnel. Some of the explosions were so close they’d shake the walls of our compound or shower us with gravel. But eventually rocketing became so mundane I’d scribble in my journal while waiting for the camp’s loudspeakers to proclaim, All clear.

Sahar was a defiant boy; he threw stones at coalition tanks as they drove past, skipped prayers to play catch in landmine-strewn fields, and ate all the food in his mother’s mud home. As he grew older he emulated the Taliban warriors who used his village as a haven. He affected their speech patterns, their way of walking, listened to them read passages from the Koran. One evening he booby-trapped the road near the field with homemade explosives: long tubes packed with nails and cutlery. The next day his mother was hoeing a wadi with five other women when someone yelled that something happened to Sahar in the nearby field. She ran south from the village of Zangabad. It had recently rained and the woman—with her retinue of anxious friends—muddied the hems of their black burkas. The women spilled onto a field of blooming grasses and flowers, where an hour earlier we had fired missiles at Sahar; after the smoke cleared, you could still see the blood raining down. We watched the mother search for pieces of her son, collect each fragment in a wicker basket. She was thorough, running her fingers through the new grasses, pausing only to beat her breast and shriek. Sunset painted the field orange by the time the basket was brimming. She labored with it alone all the way back to her village, refusing help from the other women. The flies buzzed around her; when one of the larger pieces shifted in the basket, she adjusted her gait.

Attempts to rewrite the story of Sahar with a happy ending came to dominate my writing. These, as well as records of violence and sterile combat chat, drowned out the once-fanciful images of krakens and mermen in my journal. The only exotic creature I saw was the one that Mark, Tictac, and I had become: a three-headed hydra. We resolved crises, sending troops to caches of homemade explosives, deploying helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers, or recovering a crashed aircraft. These were the feel-good moments, the best times—when what we were doing was just.

But most of the time, the hydra was a predator, hunting roadside-bomb emplacers down the winding Panjwa’i roads. We deployed our best assets—drones, jets, bombers, tanks, artillery—for the task. Almost every day, Mark would say, “Nothing is more important than making sure the people we kill are fighters, not farmers.” After every strike, we would watch the body for an hour to see who came to claim it—whether they were carrying rifles or rakes.

After only a few months of shredding people with shrapnel, we were hard-bitten, cynical, and sarcastic. Beyond the scant hours of non-work we spent at the Kandahar gym just outside the bunker-shaped Canada House complex, our only outlet was gallows humor. A man bleeding to death became a “gusher.” A woman’s face, frozen in the rictus of a scream, was her “o-face.” If a strike did not successfully kill every “target,” the survivors were “squirters.” Mark was the most confident, but I imagined new ways to layer artillery fire on top of missile attacks; this pleased the General, my creativity at work. We were a new species of monster who smoked cigarette upon cigarette after every strike.

We kept score on a little chalkboard: for every successful strike, we added a line. After a hundred days, this calendar was packed, unintelligible, and we abandoned it. By then, they were all blurring together—our victims. I never actually knew their names. I gave them a second life in my journal, or attempted to, at least.

We spotted two young Afghans trudging east from the village of Mushan. They wore loose-fitting, pajama-like garments, bone white and whipping in the wind. One carried a heavy satchel from which the other unloaded red gasoline containers—they spooled out the wire, part of the trigger mechanism for a roadside bomb. Mark ordered the strike, and the Hellfire missile detonated right between them, obscuring them in gouts of black smoke. The smoke was stubborn, only showing glimpses of the two men, their clothing rent in rags. They were lying about six feet apart; the man on the left was clutching his chest, the other’s leg was smashed and twisted. Typically, we would have sent a medical helicopter for anyone, friend or foe, with these types of injuries; but not this time. They were in the middle of no-man’s land, where Taliban had fired rocket-propelled grenades at our recovery craft the week before. So instead we watched them die for forty-five minutes as they reached for each other, one last spark of warmth.

“Maybe they’re brothers,” I said.

“Maybe when you’re dying everyone is,” Mark replied.

After the night shift, Tictac and I would walk back to the barracks together in the early-morning dark; we headed down the camp’s main road, which was broad and rutted from the trampling of tanks. On these streets, the only plants were stunted, more thorn than leaf, often growing from piles of junk metal or shaded by looming concrete barriers. We passed the poo pond, painted eerie and gray by the moon, where the waste of all the soldiers brewed in one massive cauldron. This time, Tictac was quiet; I prodded my friend to say something.

“I don’t want to talk—it doesn’t fucking matter,” he muttered. His pace quickened as we moved in silence toward our plywood barracks.

The next day at work, Mark was sharing gummy bears and hot-spiced peanuts. The guy got a morale box from home every week or so—treats from his pregnant wife. They spoke quietly for two hours every evening over Skype. I said “hello” to her once and waved for the camera. A woman in her mid-twenties, hair long over her swollen middle, returned my wave with a pale wrist and faint smile.

Mark used to say that every sin in the world was his own fault, that each one of us was responsible for the evil around us. One evening he found me watching videos of drone strikes on repeat: predator porn. I turned to him and said, “Mark, come look at this! This is the guy we got last night.”

He shook his head. “The more people I see killed, the less it means. And if killing people doesn’t mean anything, nothing means anything. And at that point you might as well hand in your ticket.”

Have you heard of the tragedy of Nakudak? Coalition forces hired local laborers to assist in the building of a road from Kandahar City, following the snake-like Arghandab River to the southwest, past the villages of Mushan and Zangabad. The purpose of the road was two-fold: first, it would enable villagers in these troubled areas to carry their goods to farther markets, thereby increasing their quality of life; second, to allow the movement of coalition tanks and LAVs to these insurgent outposts. By some coincidence, twelve of the workers we hired for the road were from Nakudak, a village fifteen kilometers to the east. As the laborers trudged home after work one afternoon, ten AK47-carrying Taliban on motorcycles circled the workers, and herded them at gunpoint into the village square. As the women, children, and old men watched from the doors of their huts, the Taliban forced the laborers onto their knees. One of the Taliban warriors—a grizzled veteran with scars on ropey forearms—produced a set of gardener’s shears from the back of his motorcycle. He strolled up the line of laborers, hacked off their ears and noses, and tossed the fragments in a heap.

After six months, I was losing parts of myself too. Journal entries had become clinical descriptions: how many bombs dropped, how many KIA, how many squirters. I was drying up, but the desert became lush when the skies opened during the three weeks the Afghans called the rainy season, when all the roads turned to mud. These torrents revived the opium, bloomed flowers, filled trees with starlings. With boots caked in thick mud and roads useless to Canadian soldiers and Taliban alike, we enjoyed an unspoken truce.

When the mud dried, the heat in the gym rose to 120 degrees; Tictac suggested we take our workouts outside. Sand whipped against the scattered gym equipment and piled against giant tires, stripped from a US Stryker. We flipped those tires back and forth along a ruined wooden boardwalk, dust clouds rising with every rubbery thump, until our hands were blistered and we tasted blood. Sometimes we worked out so hard we couldn’t even dream. When I did dream, I would dream of the mother—the one with the basket. I wanted to believe she could heal from that loss we visited on her. I tried to picture her laughing, restored to prosperity. But I couldn’t. The image always melted away and she was left crippled, unsmiling, gaunt—gnarled fingers clutching a cup of tea.

On September 11th, 2010, a minister in the southern United States declared that the anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy would be known as “Burn a Koran Day.” The event generated serious media attention; President Obama gave a damage-control press release, but I’m sure most people in the US merely dismissed Burn a Koran Day as misguided and ignorant Christian fundamentalism, and so it was. But in Afghanistan, the response was explosive. Riots began in Kandahar City, twenty kilometers north of our base, spreading west into our area of operations and infecting the outlying towns. Bazaar-e-Panjwa’i’s riot was particularly bloody, as thousands of Afghans took to the streets. A fire kindled in the poor section’s squalid tents and spread to the downtown shops. Mosques and bookstores were incinerated in the blaze, gilded Korans reduced to ash, and in the streets several people were trampled by the mob—crushed and suffocated by sandaled feet. The Afghan police arrived and formed in ranks in front of the rioters. As I watched, the policemen fired their AK47s into the crowd in automatic sprays. One man had his knee blasted inside out. He crawled a few feet into an alley, dragging his leg behind him, where he rocked and rocked. I can still see another man’s split face after he took a bullet—his cheek flapped over his beard. He fell out of view and the drone zoomed in on an old woman whose hip was shattered by a round; she spun, as if dancing, before another shot felled her. As the police refused to evacuate the wounded, we sent helicopter after helicopter for eight hours straight.

It was easy for us to feel powerful when we could summon helicopters and save lives. Other times we tried our best and people died anyway. Once Tictac and I watched a marketplace through the drone feed; vendors hawked gaudy glass baubles and carpets. A woman walked through the crowd, obviously pregnant, in her burka. She paused to rest at the far side of the marketplace and leaned against a crumbling stone wall. A flash—for a moment the screen was whited-out. When the camera refocused, I could see the woman had detonated an IED which tore through her body. She was lying on her back in a growing pool of blood, legs severed under the knees. Her blood spurted from stumps. She clutched her belly, wide eyes darting back and forth. She struggled to sit up. I started barking at my guys to get a helicopter in the air, and we managed to deploy one in less than a minute, while men in the marketplace gathered around her. As the woman’s feeble kicks got weaker, the helicopter landed, and two paramedics and a translator emerged. But the crowd didn’t let them get close, no matter how much the translator pleaded. The men just huddled around the woman in a semi-circle, pushing back any attempts from the paramedics to aid. The spurts of blood from her torn limbs grew weaker. As the pool expanded to a pond, we could only watch.

I thought of my mother, the way she clung to my arm in her curlers and tried to stop me from walking out of her kitchen. Staring at the hem of the bloody burka, I felt something tear loose from my chest and fall away. I didn’t know what I had lost, only that it was precious, and it had disappeared.

Tictac was doing no better than I was; his hands were clenched on the edge of the big map. He said, “I can’t believe this. I don’t want to see anymore. I’ve seen enough for one lifetime.”

After work that night, I knocked on Mark’s door in the barracks. I heard a woman crying in his room. He cracked the door to explain that his wife had miscarried. She was home from the hospital and her sobs echoed through Mark’s computer speakers: “You did this to us…all because you had to go on your little army vacation. I can’t believe you left me at home to deal with this by myself.” I had never seen his shoulders so slumped; he was sent home on a plane the next day. We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

The next morning, Tictac didn’t meet me at the gym, and I worked out alone in the heat. Turns out, after we watched that woman die, Tictac had walked back to his room in the barracks and wrote a lengthy note to his father. They found a moist towel in his room, so I guess he’d grabbed a shower before leaning up against the wall and putting his pistol in his mouth. Military police heard the blast of a 9mm and found him slumped over on his bunk, a red spray of blood and brain and bone on the wall behind him.

After my workout, I returned to the barracks where medics were carrying out the body. I should never have looked at Tictac’s face as he was carted past with the jaw gone slack, a new peace in his eyes, his bloody hair. I was afraid he would blur together with all our victims and be lost.

My daily shift expanded to cover the hours of my two friends. I kept working; the war wasn’t going to pause just because Tictac had killed himself, and neither would I. Mark missed the ramp ceremony but I was allowed time off to attend. Hundreds of soldiers gathered in silent ranks. We waited for the bagpipes; we had lost our own voices, buried in dry throats, but the bagpipes keened for us, giving us back our grief. When it fell quiet, the silence was deeper than we remembered.

I helped heft the coffin to the airplane that would carry him home and felt his weight shift inside the casket. It was so surprising that I nearly dropped the handle; I imagined for a second he had come back to life, that we would be killers together again. But he was gone; my memory of his face was already slipping away. He had been my friend, but he proved himself a sentimental idiot who thought people were more than meat—and look at him now. He fought until he broke and left the job undone. I smoked a cigar so quickly after the ceremony that I was sick; I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and trudged straight to work.

Time, in these last few weeks, has dissolved; I no longer track my tour’s remaining days on the calendar, though it must be nearly a year since I left the place that used to be home. I have shed the skin that was my past life: my empathy, my departed friends, that journal with its sad attempts to bring targets back to life. I am wheeling in the sky above my enemies, breathing bolts of lightning. There is only the business of the strike and the clinical study of the aftermath—the General shaking my hand. I have exceeded the zone of competence and now enjoy the pride of flourishing. I may have joined the Navy for the poetry, but it was the Army that made me an artist. My strikes are cunning combinations of Hellfire missiles from drones and supporting fire from aircraft. I haven’t had a squirter in weeks. I have outlasted my peers—I am stronger than them. In the outdoor gym where Tictac and I tossed tires, I work out alone, flipping that heavy, rubbery bastard down the boardwalk, raising clouds of dust.

Spectrum of Voices: A Feature with Lambda Literary

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The Lawn Situation

The week after Grandpa moved in, the lawn started sinking. It gradually descended in front of the house, the grass breaking apart in iceberg chunks that were eventually swallowed by dirt, until there was nothing but a gaping hole. At the end of summer, it rained so hard the entire lawn filled up. I carried…

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“A Tropical Autumn”

Morning begins with a woodpecker, the first I’ve heard here, tapping a powerline pole as if typing the Great American Novel. I’ve no idea what it’s after. Maybe, drumming is enough. The poles are a concrete able to withstand hurricanes. A cicada shell clinging to the screen is all that’s left of last night’s shrill…

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To Get To Sleep

Most nights, I turn off the lights in my apartment solely to avoid the mess. And in bed, where I can feel dirt between the sheets, where I sleep next to my computer or a pile of laundry, I pretend that I can go back to being a new freshman at Central Michigan University and do things over again. As I recall, the utter promise of life was visible in the empty sidewalks, the sleek buildings, the swaying trees, the koi ponds. In this fantasy, I stop wearing cargo shorts and lose my virginity that first semester.

And I manage to put that lonely first semester in perspective. I never plug in my twelve-inch Hitachi television with its rabbit ear antenna, and I am never so scared of everybody that I survive on vending machine snacks for two days. Instead, I make my bed each morning as soon as I wake up. When I eat in the dining commons, I try the curry and chickpeas and every type of panini they make, instead of living off of make-your-own waffles and pre-sliced pizza. I drink plenty of water. I start flossing. When I go out in the sun, I always apply sunscreen. I read all the online articles about how often you’re supposed to wash your hair, and I never wash it more frequently than that. Others interpret my vanity as a certain admirable asceticism, and I tell everybody that for me, it’s less about how I look than about how I feel.

In my classes, I am the student who makes brilliant comments born from hours poring over textbooks, sipping green tea in a comfortable library chair. My professors love the way I write, and a few of my essays get published in peer-reviewed journals—quite a feat for an undergrad, they say. I make an average of seven Facebook friends in every class, and after lectures we socialize off campus in a trendy pub, where my appetizer of choice is something tasty but relatively healthy, like pita chips.

I hit the gym at least four times a week, a frequency that my roommates, all of them good-natured baseball cap-wearing heterosexuals, mock playfully, but which yields broad shoulders, toned arms, and washboard abs. I figure, when else am I going to have a free gym within a mile of my dorm? Once I get into the habit of going, the sessions actually fly by. Sometimes I listen to podcasts, so I leave the gym feeling both physically fit and a little more educated. Because of my outgoing personality, I befriend most of the staff, and during the next university recruitment effort, they ask if I wouldn’t mind being filmed doing some deadlifts for a promotional video. The video clip remains on the university website for four years, and I am occasionally recognized in public as “the weight-lifting guy from the CMU website.” In this fantasy, fashion comes effortlessly because I take the time to iron the clothes that need it, and my shoulders make even the cotton baseball shirts from Target look refined.

And I realize that while I admire K-12 teachers, the field just isn’t for me, so I switch my major to English, knowing it’s an impractical degree but so confident that I have something to say, I never let a day pass without writing at my desk. I realize that the books I’m reading—the Jonathan Kellerman, the high fantasy, and whatever the hell you would call Dean Koontz—are starting to hit a point of diminishing returns, so I invest more time in the classics: I finish Moby Dick while sitting in the Larzelere Hall living area, feeling a chill on the back of my neck as I turn that final page, and a month later in a local coffee shop I finish David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which allows me to discuss with some cute grad students wearing thick glasses how much I admire his sheer passion. I buy Charles Dickens novels because sometimes I find sentences I want to highlight. There’s a month when I plod through Tolstoy while eating toffees. I make a habit of reading a few poems every morning, and throughout my life I find lines surfacing in my memory, winsome words that perfectly contextualize the given moment.

I drive home to visit my parents once a month. I’m the son who walks through the door with a beaming smile, who does his laundry without being asked. My parents are a little worried that I’ve changed too much at college, and I assure them during a whole-family embrace that I’ve been very busy, but I’m okay and, really, everything’s okay—that I’m not religious but the world seems to have some benevolent quality to it, and I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that we should all just feel lucky to be here. My mom tears up. While driving down Highway 127 on my way back to school, I notice that the trees along the freeway are all glistening with frozen dew, the branches adorned with an icy tinsel. In this fantasy, I have a disposable camera in a cup holder for occasions just like this one. I pull to the side of the road to take pictures.

And my soul is a verifiable, almost concrete thing that I consult for guidance. I can practically see it shimmering in my body: a pond into which I can cast questions, concerns. Some of my friends start to embark down bad paths. A few are binge-drinkers. One of the heterosexual roommates cheats on his calculus final, another on his girlfriend. When they rush to me for advice, I manage to find the solutions they had missed, or maybe I convince them of the solutions they had known were correct but were trying to evade. I am never called “honey” or “sweetie” or “buddy” but am instead told by friends how worldly and wise I am, at which I give a little chuckle but never refute.

And amidst the many guys darting through the periphery of my life, one of them stops. But who? Maybe the blonde guy at the GSA booth who handed me a pink Frisbee. Maybe the face-painted guy at the rainy football game who wiped my brow with a towel and laughed. Maybe the Asian guy who, one morning as I was putting dishes on the cafeteria conveyor belt, gave me an unbidden smile that went unreturned. Maybe the pudgy chemistry major whose pudginess I could never overlook.

Things escalate with the guy who stops. We start slow, eating our free meals together in the dining commons. Then we go to a lot of the events that are advertised on flyers around campus. He always smells really nice, and I become enamored with things like the shape of his smile and the way he says “melk” instead of “milk.” The university t-shirt he wears is always the most current version. Thanks to him, the minutiae of life take on a new tint: when I think of my first viewing of 300, I now remember not only the movie but the sensation of our hands mingling in the popcorn bucket. Of course, all the time we spend together means that we have to cut loose a few of our least interesting friends: maybe the girl who is always blathering on about changing her major, maybe one of the roommates who never got past his drinking, about whom I whisper to my boyfriend in my small dormitory bed, “It’s so sad what happened to him.”

I mark days on a calendar until graduation. I know I won’t miss the collegiate brand of socializing or the collegiate version of work or, least of all, the strip-mall aesthetic of the town. I can envision more beautiful and interesting places, and I’m anxious to reach them. We graduate, though we don’t have much time to revel in it because he has gotten a job on the East Coast doing whatever he does—something brainy that I hardly understand—which gives him a huge salary but which requires me to move thirteen hours away from my family. I bid farewell to Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to that whirlwind of people and books and commerce that managed to form something meaningful in the middle of nowhere, and I vow to call my family as soon as we arrive. In this fantasy, I can’t wait for us to get on the road.

And the courtship and the engagement and even the wedding are always a little hazy, the one important detail being that during the reception we dance in perfect time to the first song that plays—something fun but deep, something nobody in the audience has heard but which everyone loves. The much more important part is the honeymoon, which we take in Sicily, meaning that for the rest of our lives we will tell people “we honeymooned in Sicily.” I know nothing about Sicily, but in this fantasy it is about the size of Mackinaw Island. There are stuccoed buildings and cobbled streets and balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. My new husband and I gorge ourselves on bruschetta and drink too much grappa, and we get to know the local residents: a woman who in a gesture of goodwill gives us the shawl around her shoulders, which we later hang in our house, and an old man in a suit and fedora who gives us love advice in Italian we can barely understand.

Sicily is full of scenic trails on which we hear nothing but ambient nature sounds, and during one excursion, strolling and eating our granola bars, we discover some weird natural phenomenon that nobody else in the world has ever seen—maybe some omnicolored bubbling quicksand, maybe a majestic rainbow-feathered bird, maybe, simply, a perfect sunset. My husband and I stare at it, and as we’re walking back to the hotel he promises to never tell anybody about what we saw as long as I will not tell anybody either. I agree to the promise, a beautiful little fragment of the world that belongs only to us, and in this fantasy I never consider breaking it.

Then a relative of his dies—a homophobic aunt who everybody always thought was too simplistic in her tastes. This causes him to cry in bed for three or four days while I sit in the living room drinking cans of Coke and watching Netflix, knowing that he needs his space. He eventually emerges to recount some fond memory of her—something that seemed ordinary at the time but which he has retrospectively deemed formative. We throw all of the Kleenexes he has used into the trash. The next day, as we stand at the viewing over her powdered corpse, I whisper into his ear, “Those condemned to death and those condemned to life watched how smooth and sweet a white cloud glides.” A line from a Sandra Cisneros poem.

The years after that moment are never vivid, because I know in my heart what they must constitute: thousands of days doing menial tasks at work, thousands of evenings when we simply don’t have the energy to treat each other the way we thought we always would, thousands of random temptations and errant thoughts and feelings of doubt. For a few years, our lives are so hectic that in order to remember all the things we need to do, we write reminders on a chalkboard in our kitchen. But we use our love to wring something out—something that endures and sustains us. We perform all sorts of loving gestures that don’t take too much time from our own schedules: lots of encouraging notes and meals delivered to work. Retirement funds slowly accumulate in the Roth IRA we open, and I sometimes imagine the account as a coffeepot with money dripping into it. We spend days at our laptops discussing finances, and in this fantasy they culminate in a trip to the bank to take out a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

And after purchasing a house that is a little bit above our means, we tell our less affluent friends that home ownership is not all it’s cracked up to be, that we just had to pay a thousand dollars to replace a water heater. But secretly, it’s an expense we can more than afford, and, more importantly, we get to paint all the rooms in our house. And there’s one room in particular where one day I stand, a little light-headed with a roller in my hand, and my husband walks in and says, “This is the perfect color.”

When we get invited to weddings, we are always the first to RSVP “yes,” and in the rare event that our schedules don’t allow us to attend, we send a hundred dollars and a handwritten card with a heartfelt message. Our jobs allow us to splurge on things like a coffee grinder and a pizza stone, and we spend most weekends relaxing around the house. We have this neighbor, a widow in her sixties who drinks lots of dry Riesling and invites herself over more often than we would like, and one day as we are having drinks on the patio, she says, “You two boys just live right.” I can distantly hear the dishwasher going, and we have taken all the chair cushions inside because it is beginning to rain, and I tell her that everything worth having takes a lot of work.

Later, I lie in bed next to my husband, who is snoring, but tolerably. I look at him with his crow’s feet and receding hairline and realize that for the rest of my life I will be able to look at that face and see the college kid I fell in love with. I think about all the pictures on the walls and above the fireplace, think about how each picture chronicles an event we lived through—that because of the sheer volume of all that has happened, we need mementos to remind us of that year we coordinated outfits for Halloween and the week we took a little getaway to Portland.

That first semester of college is faint in my mind, but I can dimly remember impulses to hide in my dorm room instead of venturing outside, to busy myself by replaying Final Fantasy VII and doing all the assigned readings until my eyes glazed over. I shudder to imagine where those wasted hours would have led me over the years. To a cheap, dirty apartment in a boring town? To endless carryout pizzas and video rentals? To nights spent lying in an unkempt bed, longing for another person?

I am thankful that I was smart enough to shape the clay of my life before it began to harden, that if the rest of my life looks exactly like this—my beautiful husband, our beautiful home—it will be just fine. I burrow into our fresh sheets. In this fantasy, there is an alarm clock on our nightstand with electric blue numbers that read 11:48 p.m., and I have to get to sleep because I have so much to do the next day.