A is for Adam, the stiff peaks of his hair like whisked egg whites. A is for the acid tab he placed on your tongue. “This will open your mind.” You thought it wasn’t working until the street lifted and crashed over you, a tsunami, and he squeezed your hand. A is for Abby Englander, the grammarian for whom he left you.
B is for Bobby, your first kiss. Together you sat in the corner of the giant hammock in the oak tree at Sky Lake summer camp: the Couples Hammock, everyone called it. His mouth tasted of lifesavers. Three months later his mother drove him all the way from Sacramento so he could give you a birthday present: a ceramic plaque that said “Sarah’s room,” blue lilies erect in the corners. You stuck that plaque to your bedroom door where it stayed for years. Even at the time, you suspected you wouldn’t see devotion like that again.
C is for Chuck. C is for cunnilingus.
D is for Dan—either Dan or Don—in Greece. Santorini, the island with the black sand, as if a giant took a blowtorch to the beach and burnt it. D is for the disco. Of that night, you remember only shrapnel: dancing to 80’s music; Dan’s neck that made you think of those African giraffe women who put gold hoops around their throats; leaning on him, as he walked you to the beach; the coffee ground sand scratching your knees.
E is for Emmy, lips so soft. E is for “Eureka!” and her other dorky exclamations. E for the most common Scrabble tile, for all those games you played together, the summer after eleventh grade. E is for her cousin Eduardo, who had Emmy’s glossy eyes but also a dick. E, the last letter of cowardice. E for every different way your life could have spun.
F is for fuck, as in “I want to fuck you.” F for the freckles on the bridge of Samuel’s nose when he said that. F is for flummoxed: it was a statement, not a question. F for assuming you’d agree. F because you did, even though your heart, loose bird, was elsewhere.
G is for Greg, who stayed up on the deck all night holding your hand, during that shower of shooting stars. They looked like sperm. G is for ghosting you.
H is for hot. When you were walking by that knot of basketball boys, Isaac Vasky put his finger on your shoulder: “Girl, you look…” He made a sizzle sound, “Sssss,” and snapped his finger away like your skin burned him. When they were out of the dryer, you folded those clothes you’d been wearing so carefully—your white cut-offs, your butter-colored tank top with the lace edging.
I is for yourself, who keeps getting lost. Or not lost so much as assimilated: a lighter paint absorbed by darker paint; a recessive gene, like your mother’s blue eyes that hide inside your hybrid brown ones. “Where do you want to go for dinner?” Michael asks, Joe asks, Ryan asks. “What do you want to do?” Trained bird, you repeat, “What do you want to do?”
J is for joy. You’ve felt its voltage crackle: when you got into U Michigan. When your mother had her last PET scan and was officially pronounced cancer free. When Emmy said, “Je t’aime,” French making it safe.
K is for “This is my girlfriend Kimberly,” when you ran into Emmy after freshman year in college, at the food court in the mall. K for the Kung Pao chicken they were eating with the same splintery chopsticks. “Order the poke bowl instead. The chicken is gross,” Kimberly said. K for kind, which was all she was being. Though at the time you suspected she didn’t want you to share, even something as insignificant as chicken.
L is for love, elusive target. Velvet roped, the most exclusive of clubs.
M is for Matthew, who said about monogamy, “It’s like Communism. It makes sense only in theory.”
N is for No, which you said to Nate and kept saying, but you might as well have been saying “Nougat,” for all the effect it had. N is for numb, N is for nobody, N is for the nub that is you, used eraser.
O is for Oceanography, the easy way to fill the science requirement. O is for Oliver, the TA you went to for extra help. You imagined Oliver resting his head in your lap while you stroked his black, soft hair. Sadie Carpenter told you he had a girlfriend; she may have been lying. On the end-of-the-semester card you got him you wrote, “Thanks for all your help,” and not your phone number after all.
P is for pati, a Latin verb that only appears in passive voice, the root of passive, patient, and passion.
Q is for strange, clingy Quentin. Q, the most co-dependent of letters, needing to be paired. That summer you played Scrabble with Emmy, you learned all the Q words that don’t require a U. You told Quentin, “You act like a girl.”
R is for the dozen pink roses Ryan got you when you had an abortion. The flowers would have meant more, if you hadn’t known that he did the same thing when his ex-girlfriend Lulu had one. It’s the gesture he makes for that occasion, like liqueur-filled truffles on Valentine’s Day.
S is for S & M. S for Sean, who liked to tie you up and gag you. S for “Sandpaper,” the safe word that (he claimed) he didn’t hear you say.
T is for too much, T is for tired. Twenty, already you feel ancient, an hourglass that keeps getting tipped over.
U is for you, as in, “So good 2 see U,” the text Emmy sent after you ran into her in the mall. U is for Useless.
V is for victim, a term retired. Now they prefer “survivor.” But you can’t get over the suspicion that “survivor” is purely aspirational. V is for Vienna, where you went junior year. You sat on the patio of the Hotel Sacher Wien, eating their famous chocolate cake with the raspberry jam and a side of whipped cream, and decided you were fine being single.
W is for wedding, your father’s third. His wife Eva comes up to his collarbone. W for his friend Will Dang, who in his toast calls your father “The world’s greatest romantic.” Will reddens when he drinks; he looks like he’s wearing blush. “The world’s greatest idiot,” you whisper to your sister Sylvie, hooking by one fingertip her pointy bridesmaid heels. She says, “Same difference.”
X is for all of them, a string of beads. It’s the reverse of your gold add-a-bead necklace. These exes are take-away beads, each new addition clicking onto the string more evidence of loneliness.
Y is for Yet.
Z is for Zoe, on your same study-abroad program, majoring in film studies at NYU. Z is for her skin, pocked like an orange with zit scars. Z for how beautiful she was, nonetheless. Z for the zipper of her jeans. Z for the baked ziti she made you, the parmesan on top so bubbly-hot it burned the roof of your mouth. But nothing heals faster, she told you, than the inside of one’s mouth. No part of the body is more equipped to handle damage.
Kim Magowan (www.kimmagowan.com) lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.