Pain Test

fiction by Luisa Nöllke

Pain Test

          I know your hair was curly.

          Is curly. You’re not dead of course. Maybe to Izzie, if she tells the truth.

          It doesn’t matter. To me, you’re very alive. I can see your body with my eyes closed: long and slim, small wrists, pointy shoulders and knees. That’s easy. It’s your face that I’m still trying to piece together.  

          The first time I hear your name, I’m 18. The memories I make will make me look back with an urge to hug my past self,

          to stroke her hair,

          to rock her in my arms like a child.

          I’m at a party. I’m at many parties. A string of nights, faded into one memory. I push myself past the same heated bodies into different kitchens. I dole out bad relationship advice. I try to keep up in discussions about literature. I drink red wine. I retouch my lipstick in bathroom mirrors. We dance to the same five songs. We fall asleep on couches and mattresses, stacked like fish on ice. We hug goodbye. All night I wait for something to happen. I don’t know what that is.

 

          Tonight, Izzie makes me a drink when I arrive. What do you want, she asks. Gin and tonic?

          She thinks I’m joking when I tell her I’ve never had one.

          Why would I lie? I ask. To make myself look cool?

          She shakes her head in disbelief as she splashes liquor into my glass.

          Maddie’s never had gin before, she calls out to everyone and no one in particular, like it’s an announcement of actual interest.

          When she passes me the drink, she’s smiling. She says: I keep forgetting you’re so young.

          I don’t. I’m so painfully aware of it: my innocence, my lack of experience.

          When do you become too old to be undamaged?

          Cheers, I say.

          We clink glasses. Izzie chugs down her drink in one gulp before the first drop reaches my tongue.

 

          Tonight is someone’s birthday. We sing Happy Birthday at 12 and gather around a cake tray.

          It reminds me of a renaissance painting: a crowd clustering around a table to feast. I’m trying to remember its painter when Izzie’s voice sidles up to me.

          Really not, I hear her say.

          Without turning my head, I know she’s sitting behind me, on the couch, with someone else.

          I don’t mind, she continues. I’m seeing other women, too.

          A second voice replies something I can’t hear. I reach across the table to grab another piece of cake. I lick the vanilla frosting off my fingers and let it into my head: the image of Izzie having sex with other girls.

          It’s a test. I observe myself like a scientist a patient: I monitor my brainwaves, hold the stethoscope to my own chest. Does this hurt?

          Yes, my body responds. It hurts.

          It was more emotional blackmail than a relationship, anyway, Izzie continues.

          I keep my back turned to her.

          What was her name? the other voice asks.

          Izzie doesn’t answer right away, as if having to think really hard to remember it. My face flushes when I realize I’m straining my ears.

          Cara.

          She spits out your name with such disgust, for a moment I don’t notice how much I like it.

          Do you have a photo? the other voice asks bluntly.

          I slightly turn my head. From the corner of my eye, I see Izzie scroll through her phone. It takes a while. I wonder if she’ll pick out a picture where you look especially nice, like I do when my sister asks ‘do you have a picture of her?’, or if she doesn’t care anymore if other people find you pretty.

          Just before your face fills the screen, I know I don’t want to see it.

          Still, I turn around and look.

          You’re very pretty, Cara.

 

          Tonight, Izzie and I hold hands. At 4am no one asks questions anymore. I stare at our fingers, already turning them into a memory while they’re still intertwined.

          Something to remember when I’m sober. Something to remember when I get home, lie on my bed, and play her favorite album to fall asleep to. It’s a great soundtrack for when you’re in love, she told me. She must’ve found that out when she was in love with you.

          You have to stop this, she says to me now.

          We’re sitting on his balcony, a bottle of red wine between us. I’ve had two glasses, and I know I’m going to cry if I drink a third.

          I drink a third.

          It’s been six months, she continues, staring straight ahead. I said that six months ago.

          I know, I say.

          Izzie frowns. She opens her mouth and closes it again. It hurts me, she says, to be reminded all the time. Can’t you feel how much I care about you?

          Yes, I say.

          Tears prickle my eyes. I stare at her for a long time, waiting for her to look at me, look at me, please. Her eyes keep helplessly shifting around me.

          Then what do you want me to do?

          Silence stretches out between us.

          I want to tell her to cut open my head and scrape her ugly words out. I want her to bury them somewhere, I don’t care, just get them off me.

          Do you even remember what you said? I ask.

          Izzie squinches her eyes shut. Don’t, please.

          With the person before, I was hopelessly in love, I repeat, hurting both of us with each word, and with you, it just doesn’t feel the same.

          The person before was you, of course, Cara.

          You don’t know this, but I used to lie awake a lot, thinking about you, building your face in my mind with all the pictures I’d seen of you. If I looked a little more like you, would Izzie fall in love with me? If I grew a little taller? Got a little thinner?

          I still see you walking down the street. Standing in front of me in the grocery line. Sitting a few seats away from me on the bus. There are so many tall girls with curly blonde hair that kind of look like you from behind, you wouldn’t believe it.

          Somewhere among them is the real you. Studying at the library, listening to your favorite song, getting a cup of coffee with friends. All the while, not knowing that some girl you’ve never met thinks about you every day.

          If we ever actually met, would you recognize me?

          Maybe you’ve thought about me, too. Maybe you’ve looked at every picture I’ve posted and compared yourself to me, too.

          Maybe you’ve wondered what I’m like.

          Or maybe you didn’t. Maybe you don’t care who your ex is with now.

 

          I vomit red wine into the bathroom sink later that night.

          Did you just throw up? Izzie asks when I walk back into her room.

          No, I say.

          As soon as I sit down on her bed, she pulls me into her lap. We remain like this for a while, cheeks touching, arms wrapped around each other.

          I know I shouldn’t think about you anymore.

          But the test keeps running. Like a broken machine, it plays the same memories over and over —  does this hurt, does this hurt, does this hurt?

          Yes, my body screams. It still hurts.

          Izzie rubs my back and strokes my hair. She listens. I whisper into her ear, let my thoughts grow into a pile at her feet. When I’m done and she still doesn’t say anything, the silence feels cruel.

          Why did you change your mind? I croak out. What happened?

          I didn’t grow taller. I didn’t get thinner.

          Izzie swallows hard. Her pulse thumps against my chest.

          Because I fell in love with you, she breathes. That’s what happened.

          I draw back to face her, but her eyes are shut, the lashes sticky with tears. Very softly, I wipe them dry. She opens her eyes and looks at me, defeated.

          I’m sorry, I whisper, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

          As I kiss her face and dig myself into her neck, I wonder. When you and Izzie were together, was she like me? Desperate to figure you out? Did she write down everything you said, trying to unravel you? Did she want to understand you so badly, she made your pain her own?

          Turned your heartbreak into hers?

          I never knew you were not mine.

Luisa Nöllke (1999) studies scriptwriting at the University of Television and Film in Munich, Germany. She hopes to bring more bisexual characters onto movie screens. If stories about girlhood and nostalgia are your thing, her writing is for you. You can talk to her on instagram @luisanoell.

Luisa Nöllke

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