Bread

It was the first day of April when I took from a man of about my age (though, I noted, not as hot as my boyfriend at the time) the light burden of his left eye. It was an accident, or at least as much of an accident as it could have been.

By that April, all my friends had reached their senior years of college and I was still living at home in Tucker, being what my mother in a bad mood called a “waste of space.” I worked at a grocery store in Atlanta and took (stole, really) upscale breads for my boyfriend. I’d spent the winter realizing in increments how much I needed to get my life moving in some good direction.

My life had been wandering for three years, ever since I didn’t get into the college I thought I wanted, Davidson, a college my boyfriend in a bad mood called “pretty enough.” It shouldn’t have been so bad, not getting into the right college, but that angry envelope unleashed gales that whirled my unhinged life into confusion. I mean, it really did—two days after the letter came in the mail some pre-thunderstorm weather devolved into a thrashing windstorm, which threw a rotten tree onto our garage.

In response, I retreated into my own body. I began to skip school, to ignore assignments. I fell into an easily-sustainable pattern of squalor. I was never a drinker, and couldn’t stand the taste of my throat scorching with weed, but nonetheless (and how could this be more easily forgivable?) I got almost nothing done. I would come home from school and lie down in my unmade bed and take naps punctuated by naps, and I let myself grow filthy. I would wear a shirt for days until it grew soft and tempered with skin cells. I bathed in my own odor and kept the lights so dim my eyes stung. I lay around pantsless, putting black sharpie dots over every reddened follicle on my thighs. When I did have pants on, I could not keep my hands out of them. I was furious every day, outraged with failure. Sometimes my boyfriend would come over, my river-god, to slip himself like cool gelatin into my nest. At the time he shared my fascination with unscented products: he used unscented soap, unscented lotion, unscented detergent, and I would close my eyes and breathe in his unscent.

I went to Georgia Southern for a semester, failed to complete a single assignment—hard drive failure, I’d told every professor every time, angrily like they were to blame—and came back home, thinking I’d try again the next year. But I liked being close to my boyfriend, who went to Georgia State.

I stagnated. I remember one early summer walking down to the creek that ran in the woods of a neighbor’s land. The center of the creek ran slick and green, but the edges, snagged with branches and rocks, were sluggish from the mosquitoes that laid their eggs in the water, clotted white with foamy arterial plaque. The image personally disgusted me. I had to run back to my house.

But really things weren’t all that bad, those three years. I was making money; my coworkers couldn’t smell me through the smell of the bread. My boyfriend and I were compatible in a spiritually gratifying way. I helped my mother cook dinner almost every night and I went on walks when I wanted to feel sweaty and purged.

So along came this April of my mock-senior year. That morning at my grocery store, Fowler’s, the four women who came every morning to bake the bread unexpectedly made pumpkin-seed cheese bread, which was supposed to be seasonal. I took three loaves and texted my boyfriend, who didn’t respond. He loved seasonal breads mainly because he found the idea satisfyingly non-modern, and he’d always liked pumpkin-seed cheese bread. Pumpkin-seed cheese bread has these cubes of bright-orange artisanal cheddar baked into the center. It’s a bread that refines itself. I was driving home, wondering if it would be as good in the moist springtime as in the fall. I was looking at my phone to start calling my boyfriend when my side mirror lightly hit the bicyclist.

On the first of April, this is what I became. I became a girl who could clip a bicyclist with the right side mirror of her parent’s car, causing the bicyclist to swerve, hit a rock, flip off his bicycle like a plume of water sideways from a swiveling hose, land on the ground seemingly safe from damage, and then, after skittering forward a foot, plunge his left eye into the point of a broken sign pole by the roadside.

He was lucky—how easily, sighed the doctors, the pole could have perforated his head, piercing its metallic trail deep into the lax oxbows of his brain. Lucky! Yet I removed his eye, destroyed it. I could have just as well laid my lips on his soft socket-skin and sucked the eye from his skull, wet globe with fire-red contrail, mine to round out my cheek and keep smooth in my saliva.

As it was, I didn’t actually see the accident. I barely felt the bicyclist’s contact with the side mirror. He made less of a jolt than a squirrel. But I looked out the side window as I passed to see if I’d hit anything and I saw him lying on the ground, blood on his face, hideous. I remember my body trying to swallow itself. I pulled over to the shoulder. The pole, stolidly erect, was topped with gore like a gruesome candlestick. The man moved a hand to his forehead, to his eye, screamed. He had long curly hair and work boots with orange laces. I couldn’t stand the orange laces. I called 911, of course, which was not romantic at all. I called my mother. (My father, living his separate life in northern Florida, was left in the dark most of the time.) Along came an ambulance, and my mother, who said “Oh my god, god, god,” when she arrived at the crash, if that’s what it should be called. I told her to cut it out.

It was an act easier than pulling on a hat, and more enduring. I pulled his dead eye onto my conscience, immense and bleak and spherule, like an astronaut’s globe helmet.

 

I avoided people beyond the grocery store for a week, as my mother made phone calls. (This wasn’t actually much of a change for either of us.) After a week my boyfriend came over. “It’s all right,” said my boyfriend, stroking his thumb down my back. “He still has the other eye.”

“Fuck that,” I said, crying. “He doesn’t have any depth perception.”

“Who needs depth perception?” said my boyfriend. “I read that Rembrandt didn’t have depth perception, and it made him better at painting. And think how easy microscopes and telescopes will be for him now.”

My boyfriend used to be celestially obsessed, but astronomy had proved too hard in college so he became a psych major. And right now he was missing the point. Why an eye, of all things? It was so wasteful—after the bicyclist had spent his entire life keeping it clean. I could as well have crept to my victim’s bedside each dawn for the rest of his life and, as he slept, applied a pirate patch to his left eye. He will never again watch the goofy dissolve of a magic eye puzzle into its quilted window, the vibrating sparkle of glitter, the springing three-dimensionality of a stereoscope. Fuck me, that stupid bicycle, my fucking boyfriend.

 “Fuck Rembrandt,” I said.

“Did you take any bread today?” said my boyfriend. “Let’s put it in the oven.” He started to kiss my neck.

We had a mostly physical relationship. We didn’t make bread, of course—that’s what my boyfriend would call “too much”—but sometimes we’d heat a loaf up in the oven and then eat it in bed, in handfuls, hot. My boyfriend liked watching me get butter on my hands. I never knew why he liked me, and I used to think it was because no matter how messy he was, I was messier—how I didn’t use soap or warm water to wash my face, how I wore dirty underpants then no underpants at all, how I kept my room so chaotic that the bed was the only refuge. My boyfriend liked that I was always losing things, forgetting about things, scattering bits of myself (bitten fingernails, clipped hair). It turned him on. Anyway, he was not a “sweetie pie,” nor did he wish to “educate” me. I was the slut long before he was.

I wish I could say he was much too good for me, but really it was just that we had very little in common. “Bread,” I said. I tried to remember.

 “You can’t let this drag you down,” said my boyfriend. “You can get through this. You should keep making the effort to go back to school and stuff.”

“How can I,” I said. On this point I was acting more miserable than I felt. I thought that the bicyclist and his stray eye were bound to cause some change in my life. Just what I needed, I thought.

He kissed both my eyelids. He was so large and graceful. He had large hands and feet, hands he could cover his whole face with, a rangy body that would say “big cock” to people who listened for that kind of thing. I have never loved anyone more—just the sight of his hands made me pant. We heated up the day’s airy batard, tore it into pieces, and ate the fluffy center out together before we ate the crust. This was how he sympathized with me, and I felt it. Then we fucked with violence and generosity. Sex is what we had.

 

My mother did all she could do to deal with the crash. She spent so much time on the phone, holding the phone cocked under her ear while she washed dishes. I wondered if she was enjoying herself, wearing rubber gloves, rubbing the sponge hard enough to cast soap bubbles into the air against bowls that she could have just put in the dishwasher. It was unlikely she even noticed. I wondered what the insurance people thought of the clinking dishes as they talked to her.

It fell out like this: a misdemeanor, reckless driving. Four points on my license, which meant six months of no driving, because I wasn’t 21 yet when it happened. I got fined five hundred dollars, which seemed so slight it was ridiculous. But the car insurance rates flew so high that I wouldn’t even be able to cover it with the money I made at the grocery store. And because my mom had to go to her secretary job she wouldn’t be able to drive me to work. My boyfriend could drive me during the summer, but when the fall came, I would have to find a new job and public transportation to it—that was the hardest thing about it, from one angle.

My mother punished me by hugging me lightly and sighing.  Then I fried myself in the pan of my guilt.

 

I had been working at a nice grocery called Fowler’s for those two and a half years since I decided not to go back to college. I worked at the bread counter, and in the bread cooler. Four women came each morning at four in the morning to bake the bread as the sun rose. Customers liked to ask for bread recommendations, and I’d recommend whatever seasonal bread we had around that day. “Is it good?” they liked to ask after.

In the days after the crash I spent so much time hiding in the bread cooler, a square room behind the bread counter, that I’m surprised I didn’t get fired. The bread cooler was meant to keep bread cool and dry and maintain the internal lattice of yeast bubbles and the texture of the crust. The air of the bread cooler was scientific, modulated, carefully purified and locked. I liked sitting in there, picturing myself a seeded loaf in its most perfect atmosphere.

If I had gone to college, I would have studied something old, like Classics, I thought. The bakery and bread cooler were the most old-feeling places in Atlanta, so they didn’t taunt me with thoughts about how after that floppy collision the bicyclist’s world flattened out permanently. The Greeks ate barley bread and wine every morning and ate leavened bread at festivals.he Romans baked their bread in ovens with domes like temples and sweetened it with cheese or honey, and back then when no one bathed the world was flat for everyone. (I was lying to myself, of course, but it helped.)

Then dark-age monks and feudal lords would have had places like this. And the serfs at least had their bread to punch down when it rose high and soft. As a kid I called baguette crust “bark,” but raw bread, breathing and sighing, suedey and semisolid like buttocks, is so much more like bodies than trees. It is small bodies kneaded from edible clay. I’d sit in the bread cooler picturing sailors and warriors and smallpox-doomed girls passing ovals of edible clay through their digestion and building themselves up in its gradual disintegration and I’d think, me too. This sort of bread is built into our ancestral memory.

The air in the bread cooler was yeasty, fresh and lofty. Oldness pressed against me, and my eyes filled up with tears.

The bicyclist decided not to press charges. My mother called him “a darling” when she heard that. It’s possible he thought it was too much his fault for being so far into the road. It pained me that he should feel guilty.

 

During the May after the crash, my boyfriend and I saw each other much less often than usual. He didn’t tell me, but he was disgusted by the blood, or really the vitreous humour jelly, that I had on my hands. I could see his disgust in the way he refused to eat grapes around me. We used to love grapes. It occurred to me that we had a dirt-based relationship: I was the gorgon, he the hapless knight. Perhaps.

Despite the fact that I had ruined someone’s eye, life seemed to move on as usual.

In the shower I ran my fingernails down my legs and sloughed soft gray wads of skin cells into my fingernails. I caught a spring cold, collected my snot in napkins. I picked lint cream from my toenails. At night, I lay on my right side first, because my father had told me all the biggest organs are on the left, and if you lay on your left every night they will mash together and fuse in a heap. He told me sheep’s insides always do this. At night I imagined my organs hanging down in the emptiness of my right side, like Christmas tree ornaments pinned to my abdominal ceiling. The white clots drifted their tired way through my fingernails.

All that May, where was my boyfriend? My body asked me for him. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have trusted him with so much. (I never should have trusted him with so much.)

The fact of the crash seeped into my nonconscious body as well and I started to notice changes. I was having trouble sleeping. I couldn’t deal with the foggy noise of the air conditioner, switching on and off irregularly, so I wore earplugs. For a while I put an earplug in just one ear and slept with my unblocked ear on the pillow so I could hear my cell phone, which I put underneath the pillow. The faint sound of the air conditioning and my mother and the road leaked through the pillow like sounds underwater, like one of my ears was dead and the other one overfull with blood. But after a few weeks I tossed around too much to deal with just one earplug in, and I started using both. The wavering electric buzzing that my ears invented for themselves in the absence of sound would get to be too much and I’d pull the earplugs out most of the way, hoping for a little sound but not too much. I imagined myself floating through outer space in an astronaut suit—I’ve heard astronaut suits called the littlest spaceships—this is what outer space would sound like if something went wrong. It would be this body-deep plug right before all organs pop open and unravel in the absence of pressure, tongue unscrolling, eyes wetly bursting, body unfurling into globs of blood and muscle fiber, then disintegrating. In my two-earplug stage, I’d miss my boyfriend’s texts, which was just as well because they only told me he was busy with school. My tote bag filled up with dirty earplugs, orange-foam bullets.

My mother, after spending an hour each day driving me to work and then picking me up, decided that it might be best for me to go stay with my father in Tallahassee for a while. She hated driving after my crash, something I failed to notice, of course. Going to Florida was one of those drastic moves that had been nothing more than a bad idea since he separated from my mom during my sophomore fall and moved to go work on combat systems for General Dynamics. I’d never been down to visit him, though he came to Georgia occasionally. I gathered he spent a lot of time shooting and fishing with his equally masculine friends. I did not want to go live with him for the rest of the summer and the fall and the winter, which is what my mother told me I should do. I refused.

 

Finally at the end of May my boyfriend was available. My heart surged when he called. “Let’s do something special,” he said. Should we go to a movie? Go downtown? He suggested a picnic, which is why he ruled. He came to get me. Oh, smiling was so easy, and there was no need to mention all the times he’d ignored me.

We made up a picnic and put it in a canvas bag. We brought pain de campagne, a bastone, and challah. Among other things, we brought goat cheese, black olive tapenade, chicken liver pâté, apricot preserves, and gruyère, all from my grocery store. For dessert we brought crème fraîche and maple syrup. These seemed the only appropriate foods for a picnic. I miss myself, thinking about how I used to think. No wonder he had found sexiness in my messiness. I was messy as a body is messy, the mess of sweat and hair and the inevitable drift into uncleanliness. Looking back, I admire myself for my frankness, the frankness of eating chicken legs with my fingers, the rawness of cream-topped coffee yogurt, the foul richness of veiny cheese—these things I would eat in front of him, without a thought! I only realized as he was leaving me that it had always been him accepting me for who I am; it could never have been the other way.

We decided to drive up to Grant Park, which was a wooded wedge in a hilly neighborhood. We parked on the road, which followed the low creek, and hiked up a steep grassy hill. The white day sagged on the grass, straining red through its green. The top of the hill was clear and offered a view through the rumpled summer hills all the way to Atlanta. The sky hung low, dark and dense as pith, and against it the birds stirred up their usual racket. Their polysymphonic chirping, running through this liquid day like wire thread, spoke to me only of inevitability. It had taken me a while to realize that dimness, not brightness, makes coziness. Once I worked that out, bright light affronted me. I liked these threatening days, when the sky leans so low a spongiform musk covers all objects. My boyfriend and I sat on the grass and got our pants dirty, talking about school and the weather, but in the best way.

“Tell me about stuff,” he liked to say. As usual I felt the sweetness that came with being able to talk about whatever I wanted. My boyfriend, bewitchingly handsome on this viscid day, faked looking off distractedly into the distance. He was too smart or calculating to be ever actually distracted by the horizon while I was talking. (Thank goodness I was still worth listening to.) I told him about when I was little, how I used to draw landscapes where the sky was a blue strip at the top of the page, the sun a hairy quarter-circle in the corner, the ground a green strip at the bottom. Objects were always firmly attached to the green ground. What did I think all that white space was? I wish I had left that blue strip out—I wonder if I could have dealt with that idea, with no marked sky, while emptiness settles solid and heavy on each low form and crushes it onto the green edge.

Meanwhile, we glowed. Our skin was perfect and pellucid. I was a dirty, scattered person, and this weather was indispensible to me. My boyfriend knew it. It makes me irrationally sad that already then I was secondary in his life.

He breathed hot and buzzy in my ear. “You look so hot,” he said. He rubbed his hands down my arms and licked my neck. “You have the softest skin,” he whispered. It felt like he was hitting on me. I felt uncomfortable. Then his mouth tasted rotted-out, after he smoked. I could not get enough of that taste. I could never have gotten enough of that taste. I had not realized until then how utterly unimportant we were. An hour in, the sky licked down hot and thick and vitreoid, and we were devoured. It rained all over the bacon bits, the bread, the brie.

 

I didn’t hear from my boyfriend again for a week. My mother was getting fed up with driving, and she didn’t understand why my boyfriend couldn’t drive me, as he was done with school. She wrung her hands. I had to call in sick a few days in a row.

Then, as she had never done, she forced change upon me.

“I’m sorry,” she said one evening. “I think a change would be good for you.”

I knew immediately what she was talking about. “I’m changing!” I said.

“You’ll enjoy the warm winter. The wildlife is beautiful,” she said.

“I’ll get a bike and find a job in Tucker,” I said.

“Your father really misses you. And you can come back in December, I’d say. Just take a little break,” she said.

“I’ll get out of bed, if that’s your problem. I just don’t want to move.” As I said it, I realized how silly it sounded.

“That’s not my problem,” she said. “You’re a mess, that’s the problem.”

I was so surprised she’d noticed I almost didn’t feel hurt. Then I felt hurt. “I could,” I started. I could wear sleek leggings. I could cut my hair short as a boy’s. I could run my head, over and over, into a wall. I could cultivate a terrarium. I could tear pieces of bark from trees.

“No. I cannot tolerate you here any more,” she said. That was the forcing. I knew she’d feel bad about it someday.

The next week my boyfriend called me (he was right to call; it wasn’t really worth meeting up) and told me we should probably stop seeing each other. That didn’t matter, I knew—he would still be just as present in my life whether he actually was or not.

I ate the sand from my eyes, the scabs from my skin. I peeled flesh from the soles of my feet like skin off a fruit. The bicyclist’s single eye glittered at me. It was your fault, you eye, for changing things, I thought. The eye had added an unpleasant thought into our relationship—not a thought of the doom we’ll all face, my boyfriend didn’t think that way. More that the eye had set a palpable breach into our formerly sort-of-equal relationship. I had become a hero, not a good one of course, but at least a force of damage, a producer of real enduring consequences. My boyfriend enjoyed taking other girls’ virginities but it wasn’t the same. He was unmoored and would have loved to find himself in a situation as ends-of-the-earth as mine. Where before we could deal, when I had simply been attractive because I had lived in a puddle of my own making, a model of self-containment, the god that kneels in disguise at his own altar. Beyond the heliopause, I had been a place so empty it can only be itself.

 

Now I had no driver at all, so I had to sail away from my bread counter. I said goodbye to the four bakers on my last morning. Only one of them smiled at me. I stole four loaves of pain paysan, then my mother drove me home. There was not nearly enough ado, I thought, not even a dead tree falling onto our house.

Alas, I had been searching for human connection, and this is what I found; I connected with an eye. Guilt blew across my face and settled like snow.

And so I entered the slack zone of my life. When in high school or middle school I would get nervous for a test, this was what, unconsciously, I had been nervous for. When I was encouraged to study, to get up out of bed, to clean myself—this was the end everyone had been hoping I would avoid. It was only the bleakest comfort knowing that this state right here was the seeping center of my life, a black hole like my boyfriend had described to me once, which dilates time with gravity so objects seem to take an infinite time to fall in.

Six days before I left for Florida I made my mother drop me off at Wal-Mart so I could buy some toiletries. She didn’t ask (not out of delicacy; she wasn’t paying attention) why I wanted Wal-Mart, which was farther into town, instead of Target, which I usually prefer. I wanted the Wal-Mart because it was right near the stretch of road where I’d hit the bicyclist.

My mother dropped me off. I hastily bought a soap dish and three tubes of toothpaste—of course, I didn’t know how to buy toiletries—and then went out into the vast rainstained parking lot and down to the road. I walked along the grassy shoulder for ten minutes. The frank pale sky fixed itself in a glare. My mind hummed blankly. I could not connect this space (too little space, that had always been the problem with the bicyclist) to the ruin it had wrought. Walking, I reached a rhythm and became sweaty and came to another section of shops and parking lots—nail salon, pet supply store, shoe store, gym. In the vacant lot next to the gym there was a kids’ jungle gym and swingset, swings twisting above the tall gray grass in a foreboding attitude that stung my eyes. I was daring myself to go over to them when I saw a man coming out of the pet supply store. I don’t know why I looked at him. He was carrying two big sacks of dry dog food and a leash. He had short curly hair and walked weirdly with a kind of lope. As he got closer I could see his brown work boots, his orange laces—I already felt like screaming and then he turned towards me and his left eye was just gone, erased, blanked over with flat flesh.

My heart fell down but I didn’t scream. His blank socket looked dough-filled. It was a flesh-colored eyepatch, I realized. He kept staring at me. He furrowed his brow. I wondered why he was walking so weirdly, sort of stumbling, tottering like a giant avoiding stepping on the things far beneath him. He wasn’t looking at me because he recognized me (he never saw me properly during the crash, and never saw me again after). He was looking at me because I looked so afraid.

He reached his car. He unlocked the door and put the food in the back and I saw he had two huge fluffy dogs, those white ones with the hair matted over their eyes. They wagged their tails. He straightened up and closed the door to get into the front and looked up at me and smiled—the smile did not make him look any better. He smiled and I smiled (mine was the kind of smile I couldn’t have stopped if I had tried) and he got into his car. Then he drove away and the wind blew over me clean, clean, clean and I sat down on the curb without realizing I was sitting down and sat there for twenty minutes listening to the chains of the swings kill themselves in the wind.

 

My mother picked me up eventually. She drove me home. Then in my final five days in Georgia that June I did not go outside. (I could not go outside, my body binding me the best it could.) All my circadian rhythms messed up. I got a fever. I had ecstatic night pleasures that became cramps so severe they woke me up. I drank so much water, and peed it all out. It was sad to me, when I had learned that the feedback cycles in our bodies never rest. There is never equilibrium. Living is always a kind of pain, whether you have both eyes or not. A game for the restless: notice the itchiest place on your body and then scratch it. Immediately another itch will fill its place.

I lay in all sorts of positions on the bed but none of them felt any different. The bed heaved its weight against me. I imagined getting bedsores, their crawling progression, large mucilaginous scabs that crust over silkily, I imagined, like floured bread dough. Oh yes, I was soft. Soft as a medieval maiden, afraid to bathe to let the demons in. Soft as the fallen bird feathers I would find on the ground as a kid, that my mother would never allow me to pick up. Soft as the white pit of a pockmark. Beautiful as the lacy mold that creeps on moist leaves, plating them with ivory, coating them with tendrils. Harmless as the night sky wrapped in its dismal skyglow.

I missed my boyfriend. I pictured us: how we used to lie down and feed each other spit.

The sun would rise, then set abruptly, upset. My love for my mother churned me up, my mother who sat at the kitchen table under fluorescent lights, furrowed brow, reading glasses low, reading the local paper, frying herself an egg. These actions were not sad but they made me sadder than anything. She belonged to me only as much as an empty envelope, a pack of printer paper, a sheet of added-ounce stamps. Oh, I longed to hold her, almost as a lover would—at that time I did not know any other way. But I was perpetually bound to disappoint her, as the bread will never deign its sublime cooler air.

There was only the hope of spending the summer, fall and winter in north Florida, with my fishing father and his uncouth, beery bachelor friends—a prospect I faced with as much enthusiasm as I would face sewing myself into a pillowcase.

This is what I bear now, the jewelish ghost of some guy’s most beautiful organ.

I am left alone, holding this eye, opalescent jelloid sphere, swiveling itself to madness in my palm. Oh my ovoid child, my seeing stone, be still. You won’t get to see or scorch off the face of your son, and you won’t get to star an ancient person’s face, a solace in a shriveled moue. Unpaired, the exploded sun to a loose earth, no Greek trickster has ravaged you. My side mirror and the road’s pole—undignified end! At least we are each other’s complements, I try to think to myself. I am as fit, soft and beautiful as I will ever be. And you are rent through with iron.