My rapist explained even the water company gets a bill

Destiny O. Birdsong

and I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’d like to believe it, that, somewhere, he’s lying under a new woman, and a memory is unhooking from his brain and traveling loose in his body, like a clot; like the small, white knot of debris we watched spinning in a clarifier while touring the plant. Probably something nasty, he said. Like a tampon. Had to be small enough to clear the first filter. We get a lot of those. Water comes from the river, the sewer goes into the river. And there are homeless people camping near the river. He had an answer for everything he didn’t want to touch and better answers for the things he did. I hope that woman is straddling him like an overpass in winter, and he’s learning concrete can’t keep you warm. Or, maybe her body is the nightstick she jabs into his belly while she’s dumpstering his shit, making room for the gentry. He’s busier now, with all these new condominiums and their waterfalls chlorinating the lobbies; the new fire hydrants and drunk drivers — new disasters. I know he likes this concept of himself: essential and brave for being the ghost in the machine of a city that, in a different century, bought men who looked like him to build sewer lines and protect forts without blankets or latrines. For every narrative, there’s a series of underground pipes and someone willing to pay to have them cleaned. I know what it costs to lay a crime at a black man’s feet. But whenever I turn on the faucet, I’m reminded whose hands first touched the water before it traveled into my macaroni noodles or into my hair. Every night I turn onto my stomach in the bath, I think of it as a ritual of refusal. Years after what happened, something lassoed my breath and dragged it back into me, like a runaway bride kicking her way over the threshold. But her return meant I felt everything intensely, the way water surges through the tap after a freeze or a disconnection. Like how, one morning, at my new address, boxes still bruising the cheap carpet, the walls went silent for no reason. When I flushed, the room was as quiet as an absconded hive. I never realized how the low hum of a phantom current penetrates everything until someone plunges a key below street-level, twists a valve into submission. Minutes later, when the tank started filling again, I thought, wrong house? Maybe someone close by forgot to mail the check. Or, perhaps, so many months behind, was letting it be what it was. I wondered about each neighbor, then my rapist, then thought, maybe I should just take care of myself, stop filling in the finer details for the collection agents, who are always trying to calculate how much he’ll pay, and on whose schedule, almost as if they’re the ones he really owes.

Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, essayist, and fiction writer whose work has either appeared or is forthcoming in the Paris Review Daily, Poets & Writers, Catapult, The Best American Poetry 2021, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published by Tin House Books in October 2020, and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award. Her debut novel, Nobody’s Magic, is forthcoming from Grand Central in February 2022.