The first woman I loved loved me back, but not like that. Fifteen and drunk on my brother’s Absolut, she stuck her tongue in my ear and laughed.

Now I’m touching her on the…she cooed into the cordless.

You’ve got to be fucking with me? The DJ’s voice crackled on speakerphone.

Living in the middle of nowhere, waiting for Y2K to turn the world upside down. She had my shirt off by the time he got her song playing.

Now I’ve unzipped her zipper….For her it was a game, a story to tell someday.

Eddie, you won’t believe these chicks, he panted.

Her fingers inside me were random, too fast, like Derrick’s had been, but my hand in her thick chestnut hair felt solid.

The second woman I loved drew pictures of birds on church bulletins. Ravens, doves, jaunty jays. Any kind of bird you could think of, penguins even, and hummingbirds with delicate wings and long sharp beaks. She used the little pencils in the pews meant for filling out the offering. I saw her two Sundays a month my freshman year of college, sitting stone silent between her brother and father, a poised man with acne scars spoiling his cheeks. She never shared the peace, only looked down at her birds, which she recycled in a bin in the narthex at the end of the service. When I could, without attracting my mother’s attention, I swapped my bulletin for hers. The next fall, I stopped coming home on the weekends.

The third swept through my life like a flash flood. She had an A- in OChem II, a Brazilian, a crazy ex-girlfriend; she was a crazy ex-girlfriend to someone, I’m sure.

The fourth woman I loved was equal parts kindness and resolve. I was twenty-four, and my mother was dying in a bed in the living room of my childhood home. She drove me there, two hours outside the city, down a two-lane road flanked by cornfields, the air heavy with manure. Wearing my favorite Pitt tee, she waited at the car.

            Bonnie, my mother said, her voice wafer thin.

            It’s me, Mom. Clarissa.

            My brother hovered at the window. Who’s your friend? he said. Why’s she out there?

            I took my mother’s hand, limp and soft and burning hot. Mom, I said, I’m here. I’m with you.

            You changed your hair, she said and stretched her fingers toward my chin. Like when we were girls, remember? Mommy made us get those matching bobs? She let out the driest laugh. You cried and cried.

            At the car I made no introductions, only hugged my brother quickly and climbed in. He watched us from the stoop as we backed through the gravel.

I knew she’d leave me, and she did, but not till grass had sprouted over the grave.

***

I can’t remember the name of the fifth. Mercy Hospital ER, six months later. I heard her on the other side of the curtain, telling an old man about the junker her son had wrecked, eastern PA drawling lazily in her voice. His belly was killing him—there, no, down a little, no no, right there, owwwww—and by the time she got to me, around 3 a.m., I’d sobered up.

            Who gets in a fistfight at your age? A reasonable question, but if she wondered, she didn’t let on. She put ice on my knuckles and cleaned my face with cotton swabs, gentle around my mouth and eyes, the crater splitting my cheek. She smelled faintly of oranges. At least you got a punch in before the table took its turn, she said.

            While the doctor stitched, I watched her at the nurse’s station, studying a textbook, dragging a small gold cross back and forth across its chain.

            I didn’t expect her to call, but I left my number on the back of a grocery receipt anyway.

I worked down the hall from the sixth woman I loved, who loved someone else, a generous, soft-spoken woman I met a handful of times. It happened slowly, an accretion of details: the chicken pock scar at her left wrist, her habit of answering a question with a question, the way she cursed when she was embarrassed. One night we stayed late to finish a PowerPoint, and something like nostalgia flattened me when she slipped off her shoes to rub her feet and I noticed the knee-highs stretching over her calves. I hadn’t seen them since I was a girl, my mother dressing for a day of school while I sat on the bathroom counter braiding my pigtails.

The seventh woman was never satisfied. It wasn’t the sex, which was great; it was everything else. I read Woolf and she asked why not Stein? She’d watch me scrambling eggs, and suddenly the whisk felt awkward in my hand; a joke that played well with friends made her lip curl. When I told her, I love you, she said, Yeah, as if I’d asked about ordering pizza or whether the mail had come.

            You don’t love me? I said.

            She looked up from her text message. Sure. She sighed. But that hardly seems the point.

            The day I packed up my Hyundai, she stood at the front door, a glass of wine in her hand. On my third or fourth trip out, she glanced at the graying sky. You should’ve checked the weather first, she said and took a sip.

I’ve loved others, too, each in their own way. The cashier from the Gulf station in town who gave me pennies from the top of her register every time my gas spilled over the dollar; Carrie, because she knew my crying wasn’t really for Jason but never said a word; the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco; Aunt Louisa, for refusing to shave my head till tomorrow: If you’re still p.o.ed at your mom in the morning, she said, come back then; my roommate from freshman year, who never flinched or shied when changing in front of me; Signora Làconi, my Italian professor, who offered the words non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco in a beautiful, deep voice; the waffle-lover Lance Corporal Judy Diego, who deployed in the morning; Sandy, Eve, Johnny, and all the others those late nights at Cattivo; my parents’ nearest neighbor Rosalie, who sold her property and bought a condo in the Carolinas after a dozen years of mourning Grady being in the ground.

And now there is you. You, who want so much a verdict against herself, swearing you are no good, not for me, not for anyone. Let me hold you here and tell you it will be all right. Here, where your arms have ached to clutch another; here, where your lips have cracked and bled, where your breasts have fallen soft and lonely, where the pieces of yourself have scattered like seed. Let me brush these curls from your eyes and tell you about these women I have loved, and let me love you, let me, let me. Let yourself be loved.


Ashley Kunsa’s creative work has appeared in or is forthcoming from more than a dozen places, including Bayou Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and Tahoma Literary Review. She has been awarded the Orlando prize for flash fiction from the A Room of Her Own foundation and tied for first prize for Eastern Iowa Review’s Experimental Essay award. Currently she is completing a PhD in English literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. Find her online at www.ashleykunsa.com