The Boiler

Annalise Mabe

LITTLE DEATHS

My parents were ex-pats in 1993, taking my sister and me to Prague where dust came from the bodies of men, old as meshed chain, armor and silver swords. The city, the churches were filled to the brim with bones.

I was three, the air swimming around me, smelling sweet of goulash and knedliky, or pilsners from the pub. My father took a job at an English language newspaper, The Prognosis, while my mother gave guided tours to other ex-pats visiting the city. At night I curled up between my parents, my sister tucked in close on the couch around the small T.V. watching Jonny Quest, a show about a young boy following his scientist-father around on adventures. Sometimes I fell asleep while watching, the static of the T.V. lulling me, a soft sea of voices rushing in and out before my parents carried me to bed, kissing my forehead or tucking my hair behind my ear. I’d like to think this was when they were still in love. This, in Prague, was when we were still together.

                                                                                *

Before my mother was my mother, she was long and thin-limbed in thrift shop clothes, in hand-me-downs, walking across a Florida college campus. Her friends called her Ally, or Ally Cat, short for Allison. Before my father was my father, he was Logan, and more of what you’d call a mod—a 60s term for a young person of a certain subculture who wore skinny ties, rode scooters, and liked all things alt. In freshman composition he got her number.

On hot summer evenings they cracked the windows wide open before falling asleep between the sheets. They called their parents not to ask, but to tell them they were moving in together. Months later, Allison moved to study abroad in France and Logan wrote her every day. Allison tied a string to a coin, dropping it in the slot, saving money to call Logan long distance. I’m sure they said “I miss you” over a hundred times, but in French, I miss you doesn’t translate neatly. It translates to you are missing from me, or, I am not whole without you. Logan told his parents he would sell all of his records for a plane ticket to see her. They flew him over.

On New Year’s Eve, Allison and Logan sat on a Parisian rooftop, swigging down champagne from the green glass bottle before kissing, before throwing it down into the street.

                                                                                *

The first thing I loved was a stuffed animal rabbit.

My parents gave me the rabbit when I was fifteen months old and I named him B. Bunny. I slept on him every night, his fluff rolling soft between my neck and shoulder, absorbing the sheen of my baby sweat. He smelled like the only home I’d ever known.

One winter while we were living in Prague, his white ear fell off somewhere on our walk home. I didn’t know where we lost it. Months passed, the sun melting the snow, when my mother crouched down, picking up the lone ear sticking out of the snow in a parking lot. At home, she took off her coat, stitched him back together, whole and anew.

                                                                                *

I am the second-born daughter to Allison and Logan.

I was small when I was born, conceived in January of 1990, after the New Year. After falling confetti and resolutions, after turmoil and arguments. I imagine I was a last try of sorts, a resolution myself, the consequence of their attempt to pick up the pieces, to put themselves back together again.

Allison was pregnant with me in France at an Opera House, flipping through the program when she saw the name she’d give me, a ballerina’s, a credit in ink: Annalise. The name means graced with God’s bounty, but I don’t think my parents believed in such a thing.

                                                                                *

La petite mort, or the little death, is the brief loss or weakening of consciousness, and sometimes, the sensation of orgasm. It was first used in 1882 to relay a post-orgasmic state of unconsciousness that some people have after sex. When the eyes roll back, when they close and you see bursts of bright light. When you transcend your body, escaping the physical confines of skin, the shrapnel of what feels like war on the field of your sheets. This is what it means when you say I love you to death.

                                                                                *

A few years after Prague, we moved to Florida to be close to family. I was five or six in my parents’ shared apartment when my sister and I climbed out of our bunk beds one night past our bedtime. Like little sleuths, we crept on hands and knees across the carpeted floor of the hallway, following the noise, the shouting.

Throwing words across the table, my parents broke like the glass cup I once dropped on the tile  floor, my mother telling me not to move a muscle. The door swung open while I watched my mother leave the apartment, the rush of cold night air greeting my face.

                                                                                *

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Western title for Tibet’s bardo thos grol, where the word bardo refers to an intermediate state between lives and thos grol refers to liberation, awakening, or nirvana. Some have likened the act of sex and the experience of orgasm to nirvana, which overlaps with sidpa bardo, the bardo of rebirth, said to result in hallucinations of women and men fiercely entangled, of lovers entwined.

Is this what the vow means, till death do us part? Does it mean then that divorce is a death, a rebirth, or something entirely of its own? And what, then, of those born of it, from the in-between?

Sometimes I’ve felt like the product of my parents’ limbo. Of their standing in the middle of reconciliation, or their agreement of another try. My creation, my body, has come from their willingness, their attempt to seal up the cracks. To lacquer the lines of the breaks. Sometimes I wonder what that makes me, then, knowing I wasn’t, knowing I couldn’t be the fix they were looking for.

                                                                                *

I had B. Bunny for a few more years before I lost him for good one day. I was six and sick about it, hot tears rolling down my cheeks into the pillowcase. My mother tried to tell me it was just like The Velveteen Rabbit, that B. Bunny was okay, and wandered off into the woods to be with real rabbits. That he wasn’t dead or trampled on or rained on. But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew that I had dropped him in the parking lot of the grocery store, that he was out there somewhere, collecting dirt.

Losing B. Bunny was not a worthy case for psychoanalytical prodding, but years later while reading The Shell and The Kernel, Karl Abraham’s work rang out and I thought of the stuffed rabbit in reading: “The illness of mourning does not result, as might appear, from the affliction caused by the objectal loss itself, but rather from the feeling of an irreparable crime.” I had known then, at six, that it was my fault.

                                                                                *

A small part of me died. It wasn’t when my parents sat my sister and me down in our shared bedroom to tell us they were separating and it wasn’t when my father moved into his own apartment, reeking of freshly painted walls, a white too clean, too sterile. I don’t know if it was a Tuesday, or if it was early afternoon, or late at night in my bed, when I realized that there was no going back.

There wasn’t one reason for my parents’ divorce. It seemed more like a small grocery list of moments that tumbled together into being too much. I can’t know fully why it happened because the truth is that a myriad of things happened, all too mild, too plain and dull to suffice as a good reason.

                                                                                *

I stood small, sweating in the parking lot, looking up at my mother’s new boyfriend outside her white Volkswagen we called Astrid shortly after losing B. Bunny. He handed me a new stuffed rabbit with green silky ears, a consolation for my lost beloved.

The new rabbit my mother’s boyfriend gave me was neat with his matching green bowtie and small pink nose. In bed at night, I slept with my head on him, smelling his fake fur, looking for the scent of home, only finding what smelled like a department store.

I came to terms with loss, lying in my lower bunk bed. I knew then that the things you carry at your chest, the raggedy and torn, are fleeting, short-lived, or left for dead in gravel parking lots, for the eventual rain, or the melting of the snow.

                                                                                *

I watched my father break silently. It was in the quietness of our breakfasts at the coffee table, watching T.V. It was in the car ride home from school, when he picked us up from after care, when the sun was starting to set and we still had to cook dinner. It was in my neatly folded clothes and the ponytail he helped me tie up tight by himself.

We all broke into tiny pieces and talked little about it, my sister taking to her friends, my mother to her new boyfriend. I waited for it to get better, for things to be fixed, for the glue to set and take hold.

                                                                                *

After college, I found letters from my father to my mother while looking for an old art project in a box at her house. I unfolded the pages of yellow lined paper, his wide, familiar script inked in black.

He wrote pages to her about the times when he loved her most: Was it when you walked into the room at the cocktail party and everyone stopped to look, to hold a second of you? Was it when you slipped out of bed in the night, your silhouette in the doorframe, to nurse our first daughter?

I couldn’t help but cry, holding the aged paper in my hands. I couldn’t help but look around my childhood bedroom and feel like I had been transported, had been somewhere else.

Roland Barthes spoke of petite mort when regarding reading. He said it was a feeling one should get when they experience an exceptional piece of writing. That if the piece is good, you are there with the character, living the words, and when it’s finished, you, in a sense, are finished.

                                                                                *

As I grew up, I liked to pretend that everything was fine, that the divorce was really no big deal. I don’t care, I said.

I believed I didn’t care, but I searched for love, for wholeness, in every boyfriend. I believed that Bryan or David or Paul was “the one,” as if there was a “one.” I believed in promise rings and yearly anniversaries, cards, and lockets and ticket stubs. Boxes of letters, of folded, lined paper scrawled with ink, stuffed animals I took with me on trips, tuckered under my chin before sleep. I counted on these things, these tangible pieces of proof that said I was loved.

                                                                                *

I find myself wanting to believe. I take to yoga as a coping mechanism, an exercise and practice that yields a physical release of energy that leaves me lighter upon leaving the old wooden house, grateful for the warmth of the day settling on my skin.

At the beginning and end of class we share an Om, a resounding vibration that fills the room. I take comfort in the symbol itself that sees death, that sees dying or loss as not so bad, not so scary, but a return to something bigger, where the individual unites with a divine collective. Where the individual is no longer alone.

A part of the Om symbol illustrates the illusion that we are separate, and another part, the diamond sitting at the top, represents nirvana, or a break from the limbos, from feeling like someone, something, is missing.

In class on a Thursday night, the instructor tells us that yoga is preparation for death. I lay on my back in corpse pose with eyes closed, palms face up, open to the sky for what I may receive. My breathing slows, chest unmoving, and for a moment I am cleansed by the wash of cars rushing past outside, rolling in and out like heavy waves. I am wiped free of the day’s dirt, the thoughts that crowd the front of my head, free of my body, weightless like water, like swimming far out. The salt, the sea on my upper lip.

For a moment I unravel. I am simply undone, letting my eyes wet at the edges in a room full of people. We are alone and together all at once, preparing. For a moment, it overcomes me, the release of held energy. The world in the wooden room at a standstill, waking together at the ring of a singing bowl.


Annalise Mabe is a writer from Tampa, Florida. Her nonfiction, poetry, and comics have appeared in Brevity, The Boiler, Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, The Offing, The Rumpus, BOOTH, Word Riot, Hobart, and more. She was a finalist for the december Curt Johnson Prose Award judged by Eula Biss, and currently serves as a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. @AnnaliseMabe annalisemabe.com