Nonfiction from Beth Bilderback

Photo: Matthias Heyde

Disaster Lover (June, 2020)

A match lights a spark, the final straw, and blows up centuries of rage. One section of the Sunday New York Times reads simply, “The World is Broken.” My son wanders out into the city late one night and experiences tear gas for the first time, sees the flash of rubber bullets.

At the gym entrance and the door of my doctor’s office, I’m scanned like a grocery item, an instant read thermometer aimed at the center of my forehead.

A wren gets into the house. I take it as a sign of my panicked psyche appearing in tiny bird form, an unsettling explosion of feathers streaking across the kitchen. The wren disappears down the hall. When I call the lover who’s drifted back into my life, he offers to come over, suggests closing off rooms and opening the back and front doors. It’s been eighteen years since we were last together.

His touch still makes me shiver, hands in my hair, warm lips on my neck.

Two small boys ring the doorbell asking to retrieve a ball from my backyard, sweaty and breathless from playing hard. I see the neighbor children all the time now, hear the grinding of scooters in front of my house, see small Alice crouching by the curb trying to lure the white stray cat who sleeps under our cars and mews on our porches.

The lover calls this The Time of Pestilence and yet the house renovation across the street continues its constant sound of hammers, drills, power staplers. Even after the workers have gone, including the competitive belcher on the crew, their noise is replaced by the violent rippling of lawnmowers, leaf blowers, chain saws.

When I’m not staring at the Scrabble app, I stare at my pots of flowers and the hydrangea bush sprouting obscenely beautiful blossoms, a lady giant’s corsage of lavender mixed with pink. By evening my vision has blurred from all the staring. I think of smooth hands caressing my back, a familiar tongue flickering in my mouth. Because the last time spanned the months after 9/11, I call him my Disaster Lover.

A garbage truck lurches down my narrow street. I bake a pie. I fall down the basement steps and sit dazed on the concrete floor. My mother calls to tell me a family friend has died. My next door neighbor says she’s moving across the country. My son tells me he’s “experimenting.”

At sunrise, I pace the neighborhood, only feeling normal when I’m outside, where it’s easier to believe there will be an end to this limbo. The days grow hotter, brighter. I spot a single blood colored rose on the withered stalk of a backyard bush I’d thought long dead. At night, I imagine my Disaster Lover slipping my dress over my head, tossing it gently into the air to float, sigh, land. His solid arms hold me close, keep me from disappearing, pinning me to earth.
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Beth Bilderback’s personal essays have been published in the Lascaux Review, Rappahannock Review, KYSO Flash, Cleaver and Blink Ink Print. She lives in Virginia.

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