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Hungry Shadows by MK Walsh

I lean against a light pole, sipping watery whiskey. My ex rounds the corner, foraging between the cracks of the sidewalk in stumbles and stomps.

I decorporealize out of habit.

He speaks and he speaks and he speaks and he speaks. He says nothing. I smile, I nod. I had long ago misplaced any interest in his catalogue of sorrows. I do find comfort in he and his sadness’s monogamy after their frequent infidelities throughout our partnership.

He asks of me what he had always asked. I freeze in the nothingness. He fawns over the imaginary, jerry-rigged not-me built during our half decade of proximity. Soon enough he’ll fight her.

The distance I’ve placed between us unravels as he deconstructs me.

I dive into the murk of the bar, follow its pulse. People sway to the side. He lurches into their conjunctions. Stale sweat fills my nose. Heat suffocates the room hours after the sun’s setting.

The bartender holds court, apart from the chaos, in a thrifted baseball jersey and hot pants a size too small. She digests my entire being in a heartbeat. I want to climb over the bar, to huddle behind her disdain.

He interrupts my order to demand his own. Imaginary friends don’t drink.

He offers no apology for the cut line or for the cracks etched into my psyche. The throb of the bar, of his actually’s and his pronouncements, it all chews at my nerves. He simpers before my doppelgänger, worries at her void with his tongue and teeth, jamming consonants and vowels inside both our skulls. Urgency animates him. Need forces him to neglect a tip. Another injustice perpetrated on him by an unfeeling world.

The bartender eyes his bristling wallet as he tucks it in his pocket with a closed fist. Her eyes narrow, her smiles as wasted as mine. My eyes beg her for guidance, salvation, as my mouth croaks for the scorpion tea that will wash my brain clean of him.

Lights twirl on art students’ painfully earnest irony. The punch coats my mouth in syrupy suggestion, hiding its bitter liquor. I surge and subside with bodies thumping to electronic beats. I lose my shadow self and her creator, slithering between coupled youths and lost tourists. I wedge myself into the overstuffed stage. Neon flashes through the haze of liquor to illuminate the wall’s dead end.

Of course he follows. Of course he speaks. Of course he asks nothing of me and everything of his construct. The nag, the whore, the prude, the adventurer, the coward. All wear my face and only a few of them sneer.

Eventually, tiring of all other topics, he wonders how I am, how things are. With barely a pause, he remembers his favorite subject and tells me (once again) how hard edged the world is, how little it served him on his path to well-paid mediocrity.

You always came with me when I asked, stayed when I didn’t. He roars in my ear like this accusation is a sweet nothing. He reminisces fondly of the smallness of my desire. You and I—we had good nights on the road.

Going along meant you stopped complaining. Those were the best nights I could have with you.

I’m not a whiner, not like you.

Clouds scud across his face. His hand twists the scraggly strands at the corners of the lips that refused to twitch or curve for five years. Pity breaks me in half for the version of myself who craved his attention. I dissolve in memories of baiting, soothing, cajoling him to embrace the flesh beneath his imagined friend and foe. My flesh. My heart.

Then I betray myself, gnaw off my arm to escape back into nothingness. His renewed monologue buffets against my lips as they split and rise, an impish rebuke of my own reprimand. I soften, I compress, I feel myself twisting to fit into the image pasted between us.

But I had filled myself with too much to bend. I couldn’t crumble and no monkey’s paw promise of his approval could force me.

Knowing that my rejection will go unseen and unheard, I decide not to waste my breathe. I slip beneath the arms of strangers, through the gaping door into the clammy, burning midnight.

On the street, past the light pole, beyond the churning line, the crowd presses closed between us, insistent as my ragged breath. His eyes watch for the shadow’s coy invitation.

In all our time together, we never met.

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