“Terms of Non-Communication,” a ficton story by Ani Katz

I. Terms of Non-Communication

1. The parties agree not to attempt communication until the agreed-upon date.

 

2. In the event that either party believes to possess news that is critical to the other party, the newsholder shall seek a mutually trusted liaison to relay the news.

 

3. In the event that either party feels an overwhelming desire to initiate contact, he or she must consult designated professional help (i.e., party’s current therapist). If therapist recommends or does not explicitly prohibit breaking the agreement, party must wait at least one week and have follow-up session with therapist before contacting other party. If contacted under such circumstances, other party may opt to not reciprocate contact.

 

4. There is no restriction on either party seeking to obtain information on each other via secondary sources, but he or she does so at own peril. 

 

5. Parties agree to practice sincere and diligent mutual respect throughout interval of non-communication. Parties agree to avoid making such demonstrations (e.g. via social media) as would be detrimental to the other party’s emotional and/or physical health. 

 

6. In the event that either party violates this agreement by attempting to make contact, other party is not obligated to reciprocate contact before the agreed-upon date.

 

 

II. Working

At seven my phone buzzed loudly to life, skittering and throbbing against the wood floor beside me, the alarm startling me out of a forgotten dream. Whimpering, I struggled into wakefulness, sweaty and nauseous, your bedroom already sultry in the colorless June dawn. I staggered into the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth, blinking at myself with sore red eyes, running handfuls of cool water over my face and the back of my neck. I crept back into your bedroom, the door whining hoarsely as I shut it behind me, and I crossed the room to your closet, where I squinted into the dimness and wrestled a crayon blue summer dress out of the unpacked suitcase I had jammed between your shoes and coats.

Then I lay back down next to you in bed as you stirred slightly in your sleep, my chest crushed in, my face knotted up, thick wet salt caught in my throat, leaning over to smell your skin in the smooth sculpted hollow between your chin and collarbone, wishing I didn’t have to leave, even for a few hours.

Days ago you had taken my hand at breakfast—burnt toast, Tabasco pooled like drops of blood in the hollows of half avocados. You told me.

And then you had followed me into your bedroom, where I’d thrown myself down on your mattress like a punished child, and you began to stroke my legs, running your hand over the tops of my thighs and down to the dip under my knees and back, tracing that rectangle over and over again, hovering over me, breathing.

“You’re mean,” I wept. “You’re selfish and mean.”

But it was okay. We were going to work it out. Eleven years. How could we not?

I had a summer job teaching troubled girls how to set down their experiences in memoir, girls who had lost their homes and parents and siblings and babies, girls with traumatic pasts and difficult futures. Twice a week I would take the train east from the city. I’d buy an iced coffee on the way to the station, my hand wet and aching with cold, all the ice melting the drink into pale mud before I got on the train. At work I listened to girls spin out their fractured narratives and tried to help them write, tried to get them to start their story by seeing inside a significant moment. I was useless.

We were going to work it out, but I knew it wasn’t working.

I held on to my job for a few weeks, until the night I lay pinned to the pillows in my childhood bedroom, holding your face on a hot screen in my hand, your shoulders shaking as you exploded into tears, your image breaking into fuzzy pixels, my frightened face reflected back at me in a tiny rectangle floating above your bowed forehead.

I took the train in to see you for one night, to try to save it, my cheek pressed against the dirty glass window as the island streamed by in blurry streaks of lush summer green. I left the next morning.

And then I couldn’t go to work anymore. At night I lay on my bed crying, my face crushed into the thin and itchy orange blanket, the yellow lamp light too bright, my mother demanding I call in sick to work, because how could I go to work like this?

For the rest of the summer I lived with my parents. I grew thin and tan, lying on the airless beach, reading thick novels for ten or fifteen minutes at a time before closing my eyes and letting the high tide of black nausea wash over me.

My aunt told me I should make some self-portraits. She said I’d never looked better.

 

 

III. The Lot

Near my parents’ house, there is a plot of ocean front land that has stood barren and empty for years. There used to be a house there, a large wooden one, with a huge and beautiful garden sprawling out behind it. But back when I was a teenager, almost a decade ago, something in the wiring had gone bad, and the dry east wind had fed the blaze until the large wooden house with its beautiful garden had burned and crumbled and smoldered and blackened into nothing.

The owner of the house, an older man from the city, was too devastated to rebuild, and too heartbroken to sell. He set one astronomical price after another, only to turn prospective buyers away when they made him an offer. And so the lot stayed barren and empty.

My father fantasized about buying that lot. He dreamed of building another house there, a modest place that he and my mother could share, leaving their current home to their children and eventual grandchildren. He knew we would surely grow into a large family, and that we would all continue spending our lives in the same place, an unbroken line of our blood taking on forms that were new and yet familiar, all those unguessable bodies gathered around the same table and tucked into the same beds, playing in the same surf, as if it were all preordained.

My father brought up the lot nearly every night at dinner, half-joking but mostly not joking as we crowded seven around the table, eating grilled fish and gazing out the sliding glass doors at the sky blushing mauve and fuchsia over the ocean. My father would talk about it as a sure thing—not “if we buy the lot” but “when we buy the lot.”

My mother was not amused. Her mouth would tighten into a hairline fracture and she would lower her eyes to her plate, the elegant bones in her face becoming somehow sharper in that moment. She would say no like she meant it. She would say my father could buy the lot with his next wife.

“Maybe if you have an affair with him he’ll leave it to you when he dies,” my father would say. “Think about it.”

“Forget it.”

My father would sigh and throw open his arms, gesturing around the table as if to embrace us all.

“Don’t you want your children to be happy?” he’d cry.

I thought this was my birthright—not the lot, but happiness. By the time I was in my twenties, I thought I knew what kind of story I was living in. Like my parents, I would marry my high school sweetheart, the young man who’d already been part of the family for over a decade. We would grow older and become parents ourselves, and together we’d be a part of this history I’d been born into, where people fell in love young and stayed in love, and the only tragic separations were deaths.

 

When my father went away to college and my mother was still in high school they were not allowed to see each other for over a year. My mother’s parents refused to allow it. They felt my mother was too young, and my father too unreliable, too unsteady—too much of a corrupting influence.

My father tells a story about the first summer he was finally allowed to see my mother again, describing an evening that he came over to her house while she was sitting at the dining room table, half-heartedly entertaining some neighborhood boy who hoped he had a chance with her.

“I just walked in and gave her a kiss on the cheek, like it was the most natural thing in the world,” my father says. “Like a dog peeing on his territory. The most natural thing in the world.”

I imagine my parents in this moment. I see my mother, her dark hair long and loose on her tanned shoulders, looking up with a startled smile as my father strides in, accepting his kiss with the happy assurance of a girl who was the center of someone’s universe. Did she know? Or was she still too young to see how the rest of her life would unspool?

I see the other boy, gathering his hands to himself, a nervous laugh escaping him as he turns away from the scene. A minor character, swept into the dim background of a story that was not his.

And I see my father walking into the house where he would marry my mother. I see him shaking off the aching weeks of loneliness, the endless months of trying to move on. He is buoyant with relief, a lightness filling the hollow of his chest as he sees that he will win, that he was going to win all along, and that someday he will have everything he had ever wanted, as if it were all preordained.

 

 

IV. Dreams

Your head was covered with scabs. Night after night, you would pick and chip away at them, polishing your skull raw. A bad habit from childhood. You lay alone in bed, absently ripping out long tangled strands of hair, yanking them out by their roots, peeling away the protective layers, sunset-colored flakes scattered over your pillows, dark crystals of blood jammed under your nails.

 

It seemed like you were always running up and down hills and grand staircases, through magnificent mansions and theaters, or vast public parks and forests.

This time you are in a park. It is the park near his apartment, the apartment you had to leave, familiar grassy rises and swooping sidewalks stretched and swelled to a dizzying scale. The other girl is behind you. She touches the back of your neck, where you have scratched away at the flaking plaster of dried, dead skin until you are raw and bleeding. She says lightly that she has a special treatment to help you, something made out of roses, and you are about to tell her that you don’t need her help when she disappears, reappearing on another hill far away in front of you.

From a distance, you take in her scraggly hair and pale skin, her too-big wool overcoat, her leggings bunched at the ankles, her striped orange socks. You are convinced that you are more beautiful than she is, but you know this means she must have some kind of magic that you lack.

You realize that the man you’ve lost must be somewhere nearby, and that if you find him quickly enough, he will leave the park with you, and not with the other girl. You begin to run, scaling and descending simultaneously, nauseous with vertigo, lurching, your shins and lungs burning with your useless effort.

 

Another time, someone has invited her to dinner at your house and you chase her down a narrow hallway, trying to shout, your gummy lips stuck and your voice caught, words tangled in your collarbone.

“Hey! Hey!”

You try to grab at her elegant silk blouse and hair, trying to hurt her, accidentally groping her instead, a soft breast in your palm.

“You’re a bad person,” you stammer.

Everything is gold and orange, glowing evening tones.

“Who invited her?” you demand. “Who?”

 

Or you are in the front row of the orchestra section in a rich blood red velvet seat, watching an opera that is based on the story of your life, and you are at the climax and you want to see what will happen, but instead you look up at the soaring rafters of the opera house and see them laughing together, fluttering in the air like two bright birds, flying back and forth from gilded balcony to gilded balcony, high above you.

“No,” you say. “No. Wait.”

 

And then you get up from where you’ve been sitting alone in a warm restaurant with red lace curtains and colorful glass lamps on the tables. You haven’t eaten anything. You leave through an open doorway and see that the street outside is gray and bleak, tall buildings looming over you in confusing formations. You are lost, dwarfed by an unfamiliar corner of an ornate brick and copper fortress. You think you may have seen this building before, but not this side of it, and you have no idea how to get to familiar streets.

And then a sloping alley opens up in front of you, and you begin to run, so fast, effortless, and easy, and it begins to rain, the sky darkening from midday to night. Beach grass and Russian olive trees spring up all around you, and now you are running down the slim central sidewalk of the island where you have spent every summer since you were born, the road that stretches from one end of the island to the other, but everything is cold blue and dark, threatening and abandoned, and the rain is falling harder, in heavy drapes. And then there are other people, their desperate figures indistinct, like shadows daubed with colored chalk, and they are running towards you from the opposite direction, running away from something, but you keep racing forward, and you close your eyes for a moment and when you open them again there is a churning wall of water rushing towards you, white and fast and silent, and there’s still time to turn around, but you can’t, and the water breaks against your feet.

 

You woke up suddenly, a muffled gasp of terror fat and writhing in your mouth, the curtain exhaling in the nighttime window, its pattern of purple forest boiling in a swollen, breathing bloody face, looming over you.

He held you closer. There were still a few days left, before you had to leave.

 

 

V. Things Said

I wanted to tell you to your face.

 

I actually haven’t thought about her breasts at all tonight.

 

I just want to offer my condolences. I don’t know everything that happened, but I heard it was ugly. I mean, I’ve been burned before, but never this bad.

 

I don’t think we’ve been in love for a long time.

 

We’re almost a hundred percent sure.

 

No men in her life. She’s been in a series of situations.

 

This was what I got for twenty-five years of adoring someone. You never believed that this person you loved so much you could end up hating just as much. I’d been with this man half of my life.

 

Why don’t you just go out and fuck someone?

 

I look old tonight. Some nights I look older than others.

 

I’m just making a few notes.

 

Just because you suffer there doesn’t mean you have to suffer here.

 

Where you come from, you grew up never doubting you were loved.

 

No one needs to know your past. Your history is yours.

 

 

VI. Going Blind

After a week my mother told me I had to stop checking my phone. It tormented me with phantom vibrations, my palm burning with the heat of an active screen. She knew it was only making things worse.

You were always looking at your phone. Always. Now I knew what you were looking at. I had seen my own accidental slideshow of the pixilated memories you’d saved, the seflies you’d sent to someone else.

But those were your photographs, not mine. I won’t describe them here.

               

Summer nights were hazy and indistinguishable, their familiar characters and motifs bleeding together from one evening to the next. Memories and sensations would come back to me in fits and snatches, like stuttering slides on a faulty projector, each dim image gone in a blink, before it could fully register.

One night before we left for the bar my brother’s girlfriend lay down on his bed with one of his best friends. Fully dressed, they were already drunk and tired, and they lounged in post-coital imitation, her thin tan arms draped languidly over the side of the bed. She thought it was strange that I photographed her so much. I knew it made her uncomfortable.

I forced myself to go to out that night, although I did not change out of my loosening jeans and smoke gray sweater. Other girls wore lacy nightgowns or tight white tubes that hugged their bodies like bandages. Moldy breath drifted off the bay. A sudden burst of music, the volume turned up to a pop star singing in mid-sentence, like the last person speaking in a room that had suddenly fallen quiet. A crush of people surrounding the bar, drifting outside clutching cups and bottles.

I looked around me.

A girl I knew from childhood stood awkwardly, holding herself together, a sweating plastic cup in her hand, her arms and legs a rare meat color, darker than her pale belly that peeked out between her loose mesh shirt and her fraying shorts, vulnerable and exposed, like a fish waiting to be gutted. She touched her face, thinking, looking away into the darkness. Her face was growing old and weathered.

A fish waiting to be gutted. I used that line in a short story about a catastrophic love triangle. A boy climbing into bed with someone else’s girlfriend, the way she opened her body to him. Someone died at the end.

The story wasn’t very good. I broke it into pieces, cannibalizing it, using parts for other things.

I was doing okay until my brother cornered me outside the bar. He was drunk and his eyes were pink and watery as he laid his hands on my shoulders and pulled me toward him in an embrace.

“It’s going to be okay,” he slurred. “It takes time.”

It was never anything more than the taste and texture of a different skin, the thrill of freedom from obligations. That’s what it’s always about, or so everyone says.

I watched two girls kiss. Best friends, very drunk, or pretending to be. They smushed their twin faces together, touching and savoring bronzed skin and corn silk hair, soap and celery and lavender, an ostentatious display of wild sisterhood. Their kiss said: These are the kind of friends we are.

I watched another girl, the youngest one at the bar, her painted face still soft and fleshy. I could picture her touching her eyes and lips, blackening them with different shades of bruise. She had borrowed her best friend’s dress, and she hung around laughing with her best friend’s friends. Someone else’s boyfriend stood close, his arm around her. I watched them as their hearts raced with alcohol and amphetamines, sincere joys and lusts coursing through their circulatory systems. She was so young, a child. I imagined her turning the idea over in her mouth, feeling its taste and shape, the idea of someone else’s boyfriend.

 

When my brother was sixteen he fell in love with a girl from Appalachia. He met her at a summer program, and despite her parents’ obvious dislike of my brother and our family, my brother and the girl stayed together, long distance.

He visited her for Thanksgiving that year. They made cute little videos that he showed me later—the two of them sitting in a parked car surrounded by snowy pines, the two of them in a cozy bathroom with a carpeted toilet seat, laughing as she straightens his hair with an iron. The house looked small, and the upstairs hallway was cluttered with a salon-style exhibition of family portraits that covered every inch of the walls.

The girl cheated on him.

“You didn’t know, because you were away at school,” my brother said, “but I would cry in Mom and Dad’s room every night, and it just felt like it was never going to get better.

“And now,” he said, reaching out lazily to his new girl, “I can’t believe I ever cared about that bitch.”

 

When I was thirteen I had my first kiss, in a basement rec room. It was a snow day, and we could feel our friends watching us. All my first kisses were in the snow.

Sometimes, I think I’m going blind, and I turn away from the sight of things.

 

“But I’m never going to feel that way,” I sobbed. “I’ll never feel that way about him.”

My brother looked startled, his face going blank with fear, as if he had done something unforgivable. He froze like that, his face a photograph, the image as sharp and bright as a shattered window at noon.

 

 

VII. The Fight

You reached in and grabbed a hard and jagged fistful of quarters from the laundry Tupperware because you really needed to break something, but it wasn’t your apartment and you were afraid of what would happen if you really wound up and hurled that thick blue glass tumbler into the radiator, what would happen when it shattered into bright blue sand and shards—so instead you grabbed the fistful of quarters and squeezed, breathing fast and heavy, your cardigan slipping from your shoulders, your cheeks flushed and hot, and you squeezed the quarters in your fist, jagged edges cutting into your palm, good, good, wanting it to hurt more than it did, waiting for the right moment, the breaking point, and it came even though now you don’t remember what it was—what exactly he said or did—because it had been a long afternoon and he had been talking and pacing for a long time, muttering and bristling, his neck and shoulders taut with anger, whispering with rage for having lied again, as if it were your fault—desperate pacing and talking in circles, around and around his awful endless meaningless monologue—it wasn’t over, it had never been over, he had never ended it with her—and then the moment came and you knew it, just as surely as if you were playing a part on a stage and it was your line, your cue, your turn to break into song and pick up the melody—and you leapt up from the stiff purple loveseat where you’d been perched with your knees nearly touching his while the day drained out of the window that faced the alley—you leapt up and starting screaming—“I’m not good enough! I’m not good enough!”—and you wound up and hurled all those quarters at the clanging, thunking radiator, and the coins exploded everywhere, spattering through the room, all those quarters pinging and bouncing off the walls and floor, tiny black bullets of exploding debris, and you’d thrown so hard that you lost your balance, your socked heels slipping on the hardwood, your feet flying out from under you, and you fell hard on your ass, a sharp stab in your tailbone, but he wasn’t even looking—he had flown to the other side of the room, where he tore the delicate paper shade off the lamp his parents had given you both when you moved into your first apartment in a leafier part of the city—he punched the shade so that the paper ripped into a jagged mouth hanging lopsided off the lamp, too fast for you to see how he did it, but then his knuckles on one hand were bloody, bright red and beading, and he stood in front of you and grabbed himself by the neck, wrapping both hands around his throat, strangling and choking himself, crying, groaning—sounds you never wanted to hear and never wanted to hear again, and the moment went on for a long time, forever, until you grabbed at his wrists and you both crashed to the floor, and then both of you were weeping softly, spent, and you sat on your knees as he lay on his side, and tears fell straight down from his eye to spatter on the floor.

 

 

VIII. The Kiss

We left the backyard, hiking up over the lush late July lawn, leaving behind the smoke that rose from the grill and dissipated into the purple summer night, leaving the murmured laughter of the other guests of the going-away party who still sat ranged around the picnic tables, their faces and hands lit by yellow citrus candles to keep the bugs away.

We had signaled to each other, had walked away from everyone else, and when we reached the gap in the tall hedges that separated the yard from the dark and empty street, he took my hand.

We walked on down the middle of the road, the air thick with the throb of insects, warm and moist, mist rising from the nearby lake, the streetlights blooming into sallow halos in the heavy forest canopy of trees. The street felt impossibly wide and empty, the pavement still steaming under my sandals, and I asked him if he missed me. We stopped and turned to face each other. It had been three weeks since he’d made me leave.

“Of course I miss you,” he murmured, his mask falling away so that I could see it was really him. “You’re my partner.”

We reached out to one another, finding the familiar arms, lightness and relief rushing into my body as my life returned to what it was supposed to be all along.

“But what about—” I began, already grinning in the darkness, waiting for the words.

“What about—her?”

“Yeah.”

“I mean, she’s cool and all, but she’s not you.”

And as he said it he looked away. Only for a moment, as if he were wincing at an unexpected pain, a wound that hadn’t quite healed. His eyes darted away into the darkness even as he held me, glancing at something I couldn’t see.

I didn’t see it enough. I didn’t see it the way I needed to. And so I linked my arms tighter around his neck and leaned in to him, let him pull my body into his, where it belonged, feeling the contours of his hips and ribs through the thin fabric of my dress, kissing him, telling myself that I could feel his heart pounding, his blood beating in the hollow of his chest, when really it was only my own.

 

 

IX. The Fantasy

We tried. The days grew shorter, and we began to write to one another, exchanging stories and memories, reconstructing our history.

You sent me this:

I know this memory has been mostly about me, but the reason it came to mind was because I remember having a very specific fantasy at one point early on in the ordeal, right after I got my blood test.

The fantasy went like this.

I’m at the beach with you and your family. Everyone knows I’m sick, but you’re clean and everyone is being very understanding and gentle with me. I’m wearing a white linen shirt and looking very handsome and healthy despite my condition. We’re all sitting on the deck watching the sun set and you’ve just brought me a glass of white wine.

You say something very TV, like, “Here we are in paradise!” And we watch the sun set while sipping the wine, and everything is all right.

It wasn’t all right.

In the dull gloaming of winter, when snow piled up in dirty drifts along the ice-slicked sidewalks, the wind cut cold and raw on our faces, and your radiator clanged and thunked as it struggled to warm us, we negotiated our terms, writing down the rules that would govern our formal separation. We typed up the agreement together on your loveseat, my legs slung over yours, your laptop warm against our thighs. We emailed the document to ourselves, each of us saving a copy for reference. You titled it Terms of Non-Communication.

 

 

X. The Castle

My bare thighs stuck to the leather of the front seat—I could peel them away slowly, my skin tingling and damp, cold air blasting into my throat as I lay back, limp and nauseous, eyes fluttering closed as my father drove us home from my therapist’s office.

The second week of the heat wave, the second week of living with my parents after the break-up, and I was exhausted from days of picking at shrimp salad warming on the dinner table, slouching in the rocker with a wet towel around my neck, sleeping laid out on my back in a white slip nightgown speckled with blood around the shoulder blades where I’d once viciously scratched open constellations of mosquito bites, my arms and legs spread out to touch the four corners of my bed.

“You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” my father asked suddenly.

I blinked, then shut my eyes again.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I don’t really want to be alive, but I don’t want to actively kill myself.”

“Good,” my father grunted in reply. The response seemed to satisfy him.

We drove on, and then behind a high picket fence we could see into someone’s backyard, everything golden in the late afternoon light—a quartet of bronzed, half-naked children, their mouths open as they shrieked with silent laughter, scrambling and sliding up and down an enormous inflatable waterslide that was shaped like a storybook castle, cartoonish turrets like stacked rainbows, streams and fountains of water spraying everything in glimmering curtains. We turned to watch as we drove by, startled by the mirage.

At the end of the street my father suddenly signaled right, turning around and circling the block, heading back the way we’d come.

“I just want to see that castle again,” he murmured.

I nodded and looked out the window, waiting for the moment it came into view again.

 

 

***

Ani Katz was born and raised on Long Island. Her books and art have been exhibited nationally and internationally, including at Project Basho in Philadelphia, the Islip Art Museum in New York, the Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago, and the Pingyao International Photography Festival in China.

Image: bmcmath, morguefile.com

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