In September you’re dating a woman who is too good for you—who is inquisitive, kind, who tells you she loves you and whose heart you break without meaning to or trying. You have a good run of it, Sundays all tangled up, meeting one another’s friends, trying to figure out what kind of gay you each are: activist, sport, art—a list overfilled with categories and subcategories. She wrinkles her nose as she vacillates on you. “Plant,” she decides. “Definitely plant.” More than once in bed she takes your face in her hands and says, “You know how beautiful you are, don’t you?” She asks when you two might get married—you don’t know how to answer this honestly. Death feels omnipresent. You spend your alone time deliciously, savoring the quiet.

Come December you tell her you’re not sure you want a good life; that you can’t promise you’ll get better or even try. “I think I’m a hard person,” you say and her disbelief and exasperation tell you what you knew already but were too afraid to admit: she doesn’t know a single real thing about you. You are not a plant gay; the anthurium she gave you on your first date is dying in its pot. You wait a few days before ending things with her, hoping to make that leaving softer.

Despite yourself you survive winter. The weather warms, and you’re feeling despondent again. You start sleeping with a man who leaves mouth-sized bruises on your thighs, under your collarbone, who calls you good girl, which you didn’t think you’d like (and are surprised to find you do), who tells you he wants to make you happy. He has never once asked you a personal question. You delight in this fact. He keeps a loaded gun next to his bed (you try not to think about this). He is pleased with himself when you tell him you’ve been playing the pronoun game, that you worry they’re going to take your queer card away when they find out your new Sunday slot is, well, him. Him who is defined by being from Florida and who tells stories about sampling research chemicals and fucking other people’s wives and girlfriends and hosting orgies at a place he calls The Compound and being “a dude’s dude,” and occasionally, ironically (he promises), a “bro.” We will never have a life together, you think. There is nothing about any of this that makes sense.

You cry every time you leave his apartment, beat at the steering wheel in time with music too loud, thinking to yourself what am I doing, what am I doing? Alone again in your body, palming every jagged corner, this melodramatic display born from an itch to understand whether the version of yourself you are with him is real or not, true or not, full or not. You hate yourself most for this—not your pliability in his hands, not clocking in late after not sleeping all night, not for forgetting you’re a real person with real failures and dishes in the sink and a dog to get home to—but how you used to have ambition, hunger. How dare he get under your skin? How dare you feel so intensely, when underneath him, that maybe there is goodness to be had; how dare that glimpse of possibility make everything afterwards dimmer.

Halfway home your mind catches up to your body in remembering this ritual, remembering how you’d performed it leaving her, too; the crying, the questioning, the long drive up 25, the self-hatred, the darkening. You’re scared what this says about you, scared of your own weakness, all the places you’ve gone soft.

You’re scared bodies are houses. Sometimes you imagine us all inside them, everything locked from the outside. You think: maybe we can clean the windows with our sleeves, peer out, how maybe if we’re lucky we may catch a neighbor peeking at the same time. We could wave, smile.

Aliceanna Stopher’s fiction and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pank, Split Lip, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Her flash has been featured in The Best Small Fictions 2019 and she was a 2022 Best of the Net finalist. Find her (miraculously still) on Twitter @_itwillbeloud.

Art by Sheila Squillante