“nervous habits” by Cara Neel

Today, Lise Quintana and Kolleen Hoepfner explore “nervous habits” by Cara Neel, submitted to Zoetic Press for its Viable chapbook series.

I’ll be fine

I call a friend I haven’t seen in a while
and she asks me if the pills are working.
I tell her I’m not happier
but I think I am less inclined
to kill myself, and she says that’s good
in a voice that sounds like hospital lights.
We used to fall asleep so tightly
wound around one another
that our heartbeats matched,
but now we settle for me being alive.

I am not sure which secrets
I’m supposed to take with me to the grave,
if at the end it will matter to weigh
all those whispered words in my palms,
the hot shame of a season spent
kissing a stranger
or the small world I crafted on weekends
and in the summer months
with the woman I thought I would marry
a spectrum of imaginary characters
we voiced and loved and cried for.

There is a cadence to growing older
that I have only just started to learn.
It’s a song we are already half-sick of,
the tune that plays on the radio
of every road trip, windows rolled down,
all of us singing along and off-key
fumbling the time
knowing at the end it doesn’t matter
so long as we move our lips to the notes at all.

Once we were beautiful

in the shallows
where we might have caught our breath
I caught your lips
between my teeth.

underwater we were not quite safe
but not in danger either
we liked our chances better
with our limbs flooded numb
the sea blurry on our skin.

I was given so much
but always empty
the tide pulled away and away
from the shore.

those nights you were sweet-mouthed and drunk
and I slept beside you
dreaming of frost.

Everything I know about warmth
I learned in that season
hiding my hands beneath yours
long after they’d stopped shaking.

Come morning
we could see our breath
our lungs’ work
briefly visible
each of us bemused
at what the cold made manifest

wondering what else was floating
in the atmosphere
veiled and wraithlike,
like laughter, or love.


New Year’s Day and I burn my tongue
as I try with sweet and cream to dull
the morning ache of a train
searing through the countryside

leaving Montreal to mumble with closed eyes

that we are old enough to know better by now
but I can still lose myself against the window

forget my name in a half dream back into the heat wave
when the fan broke and we melted the whole freezer into our mouths
red juice on your navel and sugar on my lips

each night so heavy
our bodies coiled away from the other to escape the heat
and I couldn’t catch you in the nightmare that held me for three summers

white of eyes and voice hoarse
whispered in the dark
the scars on this body are not a dead language
this is a tongue I taught myself

repetition like fever
and when I shake myself free you are gone.

Dead Letters

in springtime
all sweet rot and sunshine
bright days cut with biting wind
and cold sweat slipping down my back

plunge my hands into the soil
like a diver into water
like a knife into a chest
dirt pulling under my fingernails

how I hated spring as a child
how unreliable, how untouchable, how like you.

love with an open hand, I was told
but I even sleep with my fists clenched

the first time I stepped behind the wheel
there was rainfall and the whites of my bones
pressed up through my skin like beacons.

when we made it home safe,
you lay down on the cold tile
of your father’s apartment and wept.

later I buried your words
considered all the ways in which a body can break
crossed myself to forget
we are only ever on lease to one another
from time.

what strange flowers bloomed
behind my eyes that night
what sap-stick sweetness of you
I tried to pull out by its roots.


in my family
to speak was superstition
lips kept dry in the summer months
rooted, as we were, in a phrase—
a lack of syllables would send you away
from the dinner table.

learn fast not to cry
send your tears someplace else
drought is everywhere this season
it is enough to get by
on sharp wit and sarcasm,
if you try.

we die early
all of us
but the children still run barefoot
through long grass and gravestones
giggling at splinters,
their lungs calling uncle
far before their feet are tired

youngest of all
I keep running
away, soles hoping for separation
but I find my face in the face
of a cousin, and I have
my mother’s voice—

it is not easy
to escape your blood.

You can see what we publish in our Viable chapbook series by becoming a Patreon donor.