My Close Attention Is My Boyfriend’s Undoing

"Unraveling," a short story by Karen Heuler

roses and thread

My Close Attention Is My Boyfriend’s Undoing


I loved him for a very long time; in fact I love him still. I was happy to be in the same room with him, the same bed; I loved his smell and his small idiocies, all of it. Yet I’ve been feeling, lately, distant. Observant. Watchful. I think something about him has changed.

It’s because of this conviction that I spend time looking at him; just looking. When he reads or watches TV, I’ll sit next to him and touch his cheek, his arm, lift his fingers, touch the skin on his neck. I feel experimental when I do this; scientific.

I spot a little thread in his hair; it is almost exactly the same color as his hair but it is a different weight and consistency. It’s not from the sweater he’s wearing; I can see that. Nor the one I’m wearing.

I pluck it. My fingers are poised to flick it away, the thumb, index finger and third finger all arced and ready. Pinch, lift, examine.

But it’s longer than I thought, very long.

“What is it?” he asks, only glancing sideways while he watches TV.

“Stay still,” I say, and I pull on it a little bit more. He brushes my hand aside briefly, quickly, so I stop and then I wait until he’s absorbed again in his program, and I pull some more.

I don’t let him see it. I pull more and more of it, lifting it to drape behind the sofa. I stop, and I lean over, and I give him the briefest kiss on his neck and then bite the thread off. He doesn’t know. He turns his head and smiles at me, that lazy smile I love.

My hand still holds the thread I just bit off. I pat it to the back of the sofa.

When he falls asleep, I get up and collect the thread, which is continuous and fine. I wind it around my two fingers, around and around, and the last (or first) of the thread I use to wrap it up and tie it. I put it in an empty tin in the kitchen.

The next night I put a pair of cuticle scissors between the cushions to make it easier to cut the thread, which again is very long. He turns to me when I touch his hair to cut the thread, and he smiles again, and I smile back.

“Sweetie?” he says in a puzzled voice when he gets out of the shower the next day. “Look at this. My toe. It looks different. Smaller. Does it to you?”

I study it seriously. “It’s a little smaller. Did you cut the nail or something?”

He brightens. “Oh, the nail! Perhaps the nail fell off! I bet I stubbed my toe or something!”

He is easy to please.

And the next night, and the next, there is always that thread, and I always pull it, saving it, rolling it up. I place it in a second canister, there is so much, and he says, “I think there is something wrong. There is something wrong,” and I remind him, he lost his foot in an accident, he only dreamt that he was whole, there is no reason to fear I will leave him as he is, and one by one, inch by inch, he unravels.

And I save the thread, which gathers in bowls and tins and finally in a heap on the floor. He unravels from his toe up to his head and then down the other side, and I pull the string faster once his grin disappears; he is gone in all but spirit.

I let the threads rest in their heaps for a day or two. He is nowhere now; the seat next to me is empty; his smile is gone.

Which is, in fact, okay. I remember him.

Then I gather the threads together, and a thimble and needle, and I take it all outside into the yard. I thread the needle and begin to sew the thread into the rest of the thread and into irregular grooves, making a trunk. I stick it in the dirt, and go inside and get more thread, from which I sew branches, and then with more thread, I sew leaves and buds.

It’s a young tree. I water it and watch it, and it takes a strong hold in the earth. Which is satisfying, I feel it has something of the presence of my boyfriend, some satisfaction in its form, but maybe that is something a little bit like grief.

I am tender to the earth around its roots. I water it and soothe it.

A month or so later, I snag my arm on a broken twig on that tree; it is almost as sharp as a thorn. It leaves a mark and then a bruise. I rub it occasionally without thinking.

When I look at it in a day or two, I see that the skin is frayed and loosening in the center. It is weeping a little, too. I tell myself I have to stop touching it, or it will spread and worsen.

I go out to the tree I’ve sewn, which is bearing tender flowers. I bend down one of the leaves and snap it off, and separate the fragile veins of the leaf into threads.

There are other trees nearby that stand silently, watchfully.

I let the threads dry slightly, and then I thread a needle with them, and carefully sew together the frayed patch on my arm until it is firm again. It will last, I am sure. This has happened before.

I put the thread and the needle back into the case, and go to the door. The wind is barely rising, but I can hear the leaves out there, rustling and whispering. The trees all stand in their own moods, watching each other and watching me. Sometimes I think they call my name.

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