Little Deaths by Anne Doten

Little Deaths

Why am I alive?

The dishes are white. They clink when she sets one on top of the other. They are still a little damp, but dry enough to be cupboarded.

Why am I alive?

She goes into the bedroom and unplugs her laptop. The flame from the wick of a cinnamon apple candle illuminates a necklace made of quartz. The light makes tiny rainbows in the crystal. She blows out the candle and the spectrum goes out.

I am alive for the simple things. To feel the warmth of the water on my hands as I wash, and the texture of the rag when I dry.

She likes to air-dry the glasses. Seeing bits of cloth from the dish-drying rag floating in her water makes her drink differently and less. As if sipping instead of gulping will prevent the bits of cloth from getting in her mouth. Her lips are not an effective sieve.

Memories of dishwashing incidents that occurred throughout her life resurface. These are the same memories that return to her always.

The way she stood on the creaky wooden chair in the kitchen, donning her R2-D2 Underoos and size 4 t-shirt, dipping the dishes in the soapy water, running over them with a sponge, rinsing them, stacking them neatly on the drying rack.

Her second year in college when she lived alone except for the palmetto bugs that clung to the walls at night, their cockroach cousins scurrying across the gray carpet floor at all hours. Handwashing her set of green-and-cream dishes from Wal-Mart. A plate slipping out of her hands as she washed it. Hearing the distant cackle of the dorm’s cleaning lady who sat in the storage room all day reading the Bible, singing and laughing under her breath instead of scrubbing bath tiles.

The sizzle of something in her brother-in-law’s Coke that wasn’t carbonation. Perhaps a bit of soap that had clouded the sides of the Mason jar-cum-drinking glass bubbling to the surface. It was a mild Alka-Seltzer simmer. She and her brother-in-law both saw it at the same time. Their eyes met.

“I’m not feeling well,” her brother-in-law said to her sister. “I want to go home.”

Why am I alive?

She rents the second floor of a three-story house on a street adjoining the bad and trendy sides of town. She is 37; it is her first time living alone since college. She can skip work and smoke pot and masturbate to lesbian porn all day long and there’s no one there to judge her. Sometimes she’s too stoned to have the capacity to judge herself, but most of the time her level of stoned is the kind where nothing makes sense and she feels fractured, a Picasso made out of shards of stained glass.

But she can only achieve orgasm when she’s stoned. She recently realized that she is a nymphomaniac — a diagnosis her then-husband had made years before and that she had taken as an insult in the most damaging of ways — and that not experiencing la petite mort, as the French like to call it, which literally translates to “the little death”, is a kind of Hell. In that way it is a death, a little one because it is not complete. It is the death of pleasure. This was something she could not afford to lose, as it had always been her only consistent, reliable pleasure.

Orgasms — when one has them the way she used to have them — are never a letdown. Even the smallest ones. They are a pulse of paradise. A small heaven. Un petit ciel.

The flowers on the antique mahogany table are made of beads. They are cold; they droop with the weight of their glamour. Even artificial things can’t fight gravity, that devilish force of attraction toward the center of the earth. Is that why we bury ourselves? Are we finally giving ourselves up to gravity, digging ourselves in only six feet deep because it’s not possible to be buried inside the zero-gravity core of the earth?

The air is chilly. She stands up and puts on her coat. There is a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

Why am I alive?

She and her boyfriend go out for sushi.


Little Deaths


Anne Doten’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Pinch literary journal, and her novel was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. She is a native of South Florida — the land of road rage and alligators — but currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio. An online quiz once told her: “You’re so Florida, you could eat a man’s face”.


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Image: Gustav Klimt