by Adrianna Sanchez-Lopez
Explorations in Clay by Hannah Krehbiel
She kept the poem—torn right out of a book from her mother’s bookshelf—in her pocket. It was the only thing she took before leaving. Not her clothes, nor her photo albums. Just a single poem: Pain has an element of blank. Blankness, for her, could act as a balm for pitch-black murkiness. Tears, like thoughts, fought to usurp her. She craved a remedy.
All she ever strived for was blankness. She would caress the poem in her pocket, attempting to swallow tugging emotions. She craved an ambiguous abyss: blank(ness). What he offered her was the only thing she had ever found remotely close—it acted as a softness that first filled her lungs. Then her stomach. Her veins. It wound itself around around her wounds–cocooned her into a state of flimsy, cotton-thin nothingness. She felt like she did when she was a small child, penguin-diving into her mother’s freshly folded laundry. She would always search for the satin lilac slip, caressing her cheek with muted purple, marveling at how the fabric became malleable to her touch; embracing its slightness and laughing at how her splayed fingers looked like webbed feet hidden beneath the material. She would imagine herself to be a queen
leading her troops into battle. As she maneuvered the dangerous terrain that was her mother’s closet, soldiers fought alongside her. When she partied with him, she could almost smell the dryer sheets; see the denim trenches. She could almost feel her mother. When she partied with him, words became porous and buoyant: weightless. What she said mattered, yet it didn’t at the same time.
This is how it started: her crossed-legged on his living room floor, watching him as he delicately licked the white seam, bringing the flame of his lighter to the tip. It was a reverential act: sacred, intimately tame. She coughed the first time, trying to stifle it so he wouldn’t laugh. Then the smoke seeped into her panicked lungs: weakness, so full. A rhapsody of burning and damp rushed from fingertips to heart—hands seeking exposed lungs. Stomach catapulting—unhinged, unease. Then. Her body altered its shape to accommodate the foreignness—soldered to a body she normally resented. Resisted. Soon she would find herself staring at the artificial glow from the lamp, saturated in the laughter of his friends and feeling warmth within the clutches of endless night. They no longer scared her as they crushed pills into mounds of powder on the kitchen table. Some nights they would form lines of white like raised earth—a foreign creature beneath, teasing her until she brought her nose to the powder ridges, inhaling the stinging rush that made her feel as if her heart beat beyond the limitations of her body. Beyond her. She could run limitlessly, do military pushups like his friends—ascend and her gargantuan heart would navigate her to the caverns of secrets held by those who smiled without hesitance; those whose laughter emerged without shadows. Standing. Swaying. Dancing to the pulsations within in her. Her mother’s slip caressing bare skin. Listening to a rallying cry from within. Every sliver of her body: fight, for she is alive.
Her weekends became collaged by these moments. Friday nights filled with nebulous blotches that clung to the periphery of her memory; Saturdays often spent at clubs or private parties within the walls of his spacious, expensively designed apartment. Sundays spent in regret.
They were never alone on the weekends. Occasionally they would do a pizza and movie on a Wednesday night or she would read over his proposals for grammatical errors during the week, but they were never alone on the weekends. She anticipated these weekends with something close to excitement. In this alternate reality, she was safe. He never made her feel vulnerable in spite of the rigid lines of his body—the ripples and sinew that she so readily had learned to fear—did not frighten her. He never touched her—never brushed her hair out of her eyes; never tried to caress or kiss. She knew the shadows of his face. They did not frighten her because they somehow reflected something of herself that she saw in her own mirrored glimpse. She watched girls slip in and out of his life as one might watch a young boy trying to catch a fish with his bare hands, and he witnessed her thumb hover over her mother’s contact information, choosing instead to succumb to the promise of warmth through a stranger’s touch. He witnessed her disintegration into self-loathing for days and weeks after. They never spoke of any of this—of the blemishes and scars that they witnessed disfigure one another: disfigure themselves. Instead he introduced her to the only numbness that he knew, and she dissolved into his world of numbness without resistance. How their lives converged and how they spent their time together did not matter; she was seduced not by him, but by what he could offer her: the semblance of remedy. He became her family.
On the Friday night that ripped through the sutures of their relationship, she left work and came straight to his apartment. She would usually shower and eat first, but the urgency to avoid being alone after a day in which her boss told her to quit wasting her time trying to read new manuscripts and fetch his coffee if she knew what was good for her led her to his apartment instead. He wasn’t home yet. She texted him to let him know that she was there: Letting myself in—taking shower. K? She knew that he would say yes; he always encouraged her to walk straight to his apartment instead of spending extra money to go home and then Uber her way back. She was just stepping out of the shower when she heard his keys grind against the metal of his lock and she heard him shout that he was there. Despite their silence, he knew that she liked to know when she wasn’t alone. She lingered in the steaminess of his bathroom, sliding on the same jeans and heels that she wore to work; wearing her camisole without the blazer. She put on tinted moisturizer, mascara, and lip gloss. She twisted her hair out of her face. Let me braid your hair, mi hija—her mother, whispering Spanglish stories of elves and gnomes and milkmaids—fractured tales that followed their own rules. Mi nina hermosa. She contemplated clawing new ridges down her face.
She sat at his breakfast bar with him, hiding beneath the stories of his day, sipping dry Riesling and eating the Chinese takeout that he brought with him. Soon he showered while she cleaned up after their meal. New rituals in the making. Refilling her glass, she studied the paintings and photographs on his walls. She paused before a sepia photograph of a collapsed building—its wide columns crumbled and severed, defeated into rubble. Behind the building was the wide mouth of an ocean. Cruel waves continued to devour the shore. Beauty corroded. How could she have missed it all this time?
She felt his presence without seeing him, and spoke her words directly at the painting: “Aren’t you supposed to have pictures of shiny new buildings with contemporary angles or something? Not ones that are falling apart?”
He smiled and walked up beside her to gaze at the same photograph. “There’s something special about what’s not whole too, you know. We work so hard to plan and piece together masterpieces, but there’s something poetic about what parts remain intact. And…what’s forced to fall. It’s like all our hard work really doesn’t matter in the end?”
He shrugged, but he didn’t look away.
His words made her uncomfortable. She often underestimated him. She found herself wondering how this man could be the same man that bought her drugs and hosted weekend parties. She worshipped these weekends, but also recognized the ugliness sheathed beneath. She suddenly feared duplicity within him. She stepped back.
“Do you even know what the fuck you’re talking about? Sometimes I swear you just say shit to say shit.”
Stillness, silence. He offered no response.
She laughed. An attempt to fill the silence.
He looked at her sideways without moving his body or changing his stance. He didn’t smile. His face remained the same save his glance at her. Why did she say it? She didn’t know. Was it meant to hurt him? To reduce the weight of his words—to hide her fears? Her secrets? He didn’t respond, so she walked across the room to his sofa.
“Joking.” Flat, corroded beauty.
“I know.” His words like overused cushions. Hovering words. She regretted her existence.
Soon she’d forgotten their conversation. Instead she thought of softness. She did, in all truth, want soft men. Men who wouldn’t hurt her. Her experiences had taught her that soft men hurt too, yet she continuously tried to establish safety within the appearance. It was something she told herself she could control.
She watched him from across the room. He was not a soft man. He had a muscular exterior; a rugged soul. But he had soft eyes—she trusted his eyes.
She danced. Jay Z rapped about being Forever Young. The bass of the music felt like boulders sliding down the undulations of her body, rolling away from her. She took shots of Crown and Patron with him. She snorted lines with him. Until she felt her entire existence blur and slant. She felt like italicized print. Suddenly she felt free—now that her existence was allowed to slant rather than be upright. She felt herself slant away from her body, stepping away to watch it move without her. For a moment, she thought she saw her mother.
Before she could find her way back into her body, it was already placing her arms on his biceps. Laughing into his shoulder. His hands on her low back, drawing her to him in a way that he had never done before. Deep male voices laughing and high-pitched women shouting at the buzz of the TV billowed at her periphery. She watched herself fall into him as if they were alone—as if this would not shatter the gossamer sheet of safety keeping them apart. The white noise within her veins and the rush of energy from deep within her belly drew her back to her body. She was no longer witnessing, but partaking. She let his lips take hers. His gentle kiss angered her. She wanted to hammer away at him until he crumbled like the building in the photograph—until he felt the ruins of pain so deeply that he could only stare at his remains from the shore.
She found herself in his bed, undressing him. Hunger and desperation heightened. Teeth grazed her skin; his hands traversed the curves and arches of her body. Her heart drummed life into the room. She opened herself to him, pulling him harder and deeper into her, clawing at his back as he accompanied her rhythm—lifting and arching herself into his body. She bit his neck, his chest, his shoulders. Like daggers, her nails traced his scapula, leaving red welts down to his waist. She thought of muscles and strength. Then he pushed himself into her again and again, kissing her chin and her neck and finally finding her lips until she thought of nothing but the sweet fullness of him. She was a meteor shattering against the surface of the earth. Over and over again.
He was still with her the next morning, facedown. The night before teased her with only a fleeting sliver of memory—all that happened trapped somewhere in the deepest node of thoughts that she could not make whole. She knew one thing. She knew that their relationship had shifted on its axis. She stared at the welts on his back, focusing on the ugliness of the lines so long that they transformed into ancient ruins of a world that no longer existed: trenches from a battle that will never be won.
Bare knees drawn to her chin, she willed tears that she could not make fall. Weakness and nausea stormed through her, and every inch of her flesh itched incurably. She hated this feeling—as if everything within her rejected her. Her skin buzzed; her muscles ached. She wanted to tear and slash at her skin until she could no longer feel. She wanted to rip herself out of this bed and this room. And her body. Instead she stood and dressed herself. As she forced her camisole over her head, she heard him shift, and she could feel that his back was facing her back.
“Morning,” he murmured. She did not turn to him, but she knew him well enough to know that he was smirking. The bed shifted again, and she knew that he was making his way towards her—filling the space between their bodies. He wrapped his left arm around her waist and kissed her neck as he pulled her to him. She suddenly knew that he wanted this. Perhaps he did not expect it, but he has wanted it. He has wanted her. The realization made the acid in her stomach somersault through her. She thought of how stupid she had been to think that he was not like every other man who stared at her like uncolonized earth.
“Hey. You ok?” The words were whispered into her ear and she shivered, hating her body even more for responding to his touch in the daylight.
“I’m fine.” Aftermath. She turned to face him, pulling away from him as she turned. “I have to go. I don’t even know what time it is.”
He reached out and ran his thumb over her hipbone.
“Are you coming tonight?”
The nausea became an aching valley within her, radiating from her spine. She became a hallow silhouette that could only witness from a distance: only to be studied voicelessly. He would, she knew, touch her freely now. The delicacy of their friendship fissured, he now knew her body, and something within her feared that he already knew it better than she did.
“Ok.” She didn’t know what else to say. This is what she was supposed to say.
She didn’t shower when she entered her own apartment. The night had penetrated something within her that could not be cleansed. She dropped her keys on the floor and collapsed onto her couch, panting and crying without sound. Her body scrunched into a tight ball; her hands scrunched into fists. She wanted to throw punches at herself—to hurt this body that she could not escape. So she did—striking her own fists against her own flesh. Finally, she paused to absorb the pain and she compacted herself into the smallest form possible. She could not breathe. Whatever shelter of self-control that remained within her now collapsed her lungs. Her body craved nourishment—chemical intervention—anything to fill its blankness. Blankness. She realized that it is not what it seems.
Pulling the poem from her pocket, she stared at the words. And then she shred them apart, tearing and dissevering, until nothing but pain in the shape of confetti remained. She felt herself become a separate entity from her body—a body that needs. She thought of a black and white photograph of her when she was little. Her mother accidentally had the entire roll of film developed in black and white. In the photo, she smiled wide enough to reveal nearly all of her teeth, including the blank spots that awaited adult teeth. She was about eight or nine in the photo, her limbs long and lanky; ears and nose a bit too large for for her face. She stood in a shallow part of a creek, her arms stretched out beside her and her chin subtly lifted to the sky. The monochromatic quality of the photo made a simple picture of her as a child resemble something artistic, as if her mother purposefully captured her in this moment of time and sealed it with antique veneration. Her mother loved the photograph. She hung it above her vanity mirror. Every time that she would enter her mother’s bedroom, she would steal a glance at herself etched into a time period before she truly existed. She wished that she could see that photograph now, for the image in her mind had become worn with recollection and the passage of time. Her choices—like humidity and dust—caused the glossiness of the memory to oxidize and fade. For a fleeting glint of time, she thought of calling her mother, but she knew that she couldn’t—she had nothing to say that would authentically be hers. She had nothing to say that would make her mother understand.
She let the day pass: a small, chipped marble provoked by gravity, rolling; mourning its lost pieces. Her body gradually recovered a singular shape. She thought of elasticity—of resilience—and hated her body for maintaining its shape while she felt irrevocably misshapen. When she could see nothing left of the day but the honeyed light that pretended to warm her apartment, she stood. She showered. She dressed herself in a tight black dress, refusing to check her appearance in the mirror. It fit this body; this body that was not hers. She stood in front of the small mirror on her medicine cabinet, applying four different colors of eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara. What she saw was the person that everyone else believed to be beautiful. Sexy. That’s what she was supposed to be, after all. She put on lipstick—a deep red Urban Decay that drew all attention away from every other feature, every other emotion that this face revealed. She sprayed on perfume. She slid on heels that made her five inches taller. And she picked up her keys from the floor and walked out of the door.
He was waiting for her outside of the club, standing under the dim lights of the entrance wearing loosely fitted jeans and a cashmere sweater. Sophisticated and handsome. He smiled when he saw her, and all she could feel was the pounding beat of music beneath her feet.
“Hey. I didn’t think you were coming. You haven’t answered my texts.”
It occurred to her that she had no idea where her phone was. It occurred to her that she had not eaten since last night. She shrugged. “I don’t know what I did with my phone. Did I leave it?” She meant to say, Did I leave it at your place? But she couldn’t. His place felt like a museum displaying her histories.
They entered the club, him sauntering away to get drinks. She wanted food. She hated her stomach for churning and cramping with hunger. She accepted the drink, filling herself with the cool burn of vodka. She finished the drink and stood. He tried to draw her to him; she realized that he assumed a new familiarity to their relationship; he assumed intimacy. She hated him.
She refused to look into his face. The weight of his gaze lingered as she fought to keep her eyes from looking into his. She stared at her toes instead—polished bright pink and peeking out of peep-toed stilettos.
“Hey. Are—are we okay?”
What could she say? He assumed a we. Who was we—did he mean him and her? Him and her body? She couldn’t even define okay. Okay. So she lifted her shoulders into a shrug—still have control of the shoulders.
She stepped away from him and onto the dance floor, ignoring the intensity that she felt in his gaze, as if he felt some sense of ownership over her. She began to sway, falling into the music and ignoring the resistance from the muscles in her body. She thought of her torn-up poem: It cannot recollect/ When it began, or if there were/ a day when when it was not. She closed her eyes, feeling the hands of someone who was not him on her hips. Behind her, a man whom she didn’t know gripped her waist too tightly—too suggestively. And she let him. She let him pull her into him, feeling that his body was firm and muscular; his erection pressing into her. The music thudded its way into her, replacing the beating of her own heart and she moved with this unknown man. Gaining the courage to look at the him that knew her body better than she knew it herself, she lifted her eyes and saw his scowl—a mixture of hurt and disappointment. So she looked past him, at his shoulders in the perfect cashmere sweater and into the distance of faces and bodies blurring into a vast lake of color and shape—still water just out of her reach. Her body continued to move without her will—its existence drifting away from hers. She closed her eyes and absorbed the nothingness of this moment. She felt a void between herself and reality—herself and her body. She felt dead.
Adrianna Sanchez-Lopez resides in the San Luis Valley in Colorado with her husband, daughters, and overindulged cats. A mother, reader, teacher, writer, and a self-proclaimed keen observer, Adrianna loves to interpret the world with her words. She has published her work in local journals and can be found dabbling in exercise and photographing nature.
Hannah Krehbiel studied Philosophy and English Literature in Mainz, Germany, and after finishing her master’s degree in 2016, moved to New Orleans where she started taking ceramics and sculpting classes. She had her first group exhibition at Studio Appaix, New Orleans, in 2020, and since then, her work has been exhibited online in Wild Roof Journal, and received special recognition in Light Space & Time Online Art Gallery, for the 10th Annual Figurative Art Competition. You can find her on Instagram @little_shed_gallery.