Z’s name smiled from the capsule of my Motorola RAZR, her contact saved in all caps because even then I must have known: 2009 was a good year.
I found my old cell phone with a list of baby names saved in the drafts. Bullet points full of Connor, Clara, Autumn, Optimus Prime, and Abigail’s. A pleasant ring with each of them remained, had ripened against the test of time and our codependent fantasies. Dearly-Beloved’s from an Elvis preacher, personalized wedding vows we drafted in text messages- we were joking of course, but not really, because can-you-actually-even-imagine-us-as-parents? We could, I think, even if we pretended not to. Love is surrentine but not everything gets better when it settles. Some stuff rots if left unfinished or open ended. It’s all in the ullage, the empty spaces that tempers and separates grapes from wine, the quality of the batch.
“Let’s go to Coney Island,” She says. “I want to get my face painted.”
“That sounds like a stupid reason to go all the way to Coney Island,” I shot, even when I was already Google-mapping our way there.
She was folded across my futon, thumbing the pages of her latest anesthetic on her Kindle. Something Jennifer Campbell or Sophie Divry, I think. Whatever it was, she wanted to read it together but changed her mind when I asked if the author was dead. I could never trust or like a writer that was still breathing. They might change their mind.
I watched her finger turn the page and remembered she always had such pretty hands, the kind that were made for holding. Thin, brittle fingers and fawn knuckles that shifted beneath her skin like a Rorschach. As she drummed her fingers against her chin, a habit she did whenever she was stuck thinking, the slender of her tendons slithered and I saw something waiting to be surfaced, like a kitten hiding under bed covers, or something Oedipal. A work of heart with a breast so full of feeling that she cried every time she had an orgasm.
“Your face sounds fucking stupid,” She harks, not bother to look up.
She’s always had too much imagination. The world inside of her head was so much bigger than the one outside of it. Every day at two she texts to ask what I’m wearing, but she doesn’t settle for a picture. She tells me to describe it, and when I asked her why, she said she loves the way I internalize. That I have a way of seeing things, a perspective she can’t get enough of. Then she sighs and shakes her head, a signature move when she thinks she isn’t making any sense.
It’d been six years since we had been so casual. It all (re)started with a benign butt dial that turned to small talk turned to catcalls, that evolved to morning texts reluctantly leading to dinner and a woo me. The hours snuck through the wine and what we thought would be so hard came easy. Her every word filled me with a hundred more and she couldn’t stop laughing when I kept calling our waitress by her first name. Relearning what we already heard about each other or didn’t know, almost like a first date, except strangers didn’t know each other this well. Caught up in catching up, oh my god look at the time. It’s already late, why pay a cab ride? You should stay over anyway.
“What if I don’t want to go to Coney Island?” I ask.
I leased a pocket in my heart and dresser reserved for her, and she occupied the space with her time and tie dye tops in a sweet but silent resignation. She refused to keep any work clothes in her dresser, not a single earring or piece of jewelry. Only t shirts and pajama bottoms, only things she could leave behind in case of a fire or some act of God.
Naturally, she packed for me the way people pack for disasters, and given my penchant for my love shifting like the sea, I didn’t blame her.
The love that bore me was violent. I grew up, having yet to grow into myself, and the way I wanted Z was constant and addictive. A young, brash, and preoccupying kind of love. The type of enamored that won’t go to bed, that stays up clutching at a pillow and a memory the way cats dig their nails to keep from falling off of a ledge. Desperate and needy affection, a passive addiction. Spending my nights yowling, scratching, pawing at the phrase trying to understand and get to the center of it.
“Then I guess I won’t go.” She says.
We never spoke about what was happening. The shift in our relationship going back to something similar felt about as reliable as a groundhog. Commitment chicken was the name of the game and she was doubtlessly afraid I would pull another Marcus, to leave just as she was getting comfortable and used to needing me. Marcus, her father, took sails when Z was 8 years old after digging the family in debt over horse races, lottery gambling, and drinking. She lived in a shelter for six months until her mother moved in with an uncle and put the family back together.
Prone as I am to habits, I think Marcus may be the reason I’ve picked up drugs the way people pick up hobbies, yet look down on gamblers the way people look down on heroin addicts. There is a difference. At least with (enough) alcohol I got a high – zero risk, high reward, and I’ve always preferred a safe bet.
“Why wouldn’t you want to go alone?” I ask.
In 2010 he came back to her life, full of regret, love, and kidney problems. All those years of the bottle catching up. He was dying but swore he wouldn’t, because he’d changed. But then he did, because he hadn’t. It was a Thursday when it happened and Z spent that whole night staring out the window drinking coffee, and all I could do was sit with her and do the same. She didn’t move an inch, only bit her lip the way she did whenever she was reading, either thinking or waiting to wake up and for it all to be some kind of dream.
We were six months past the honeymoon and the grief that grieved her was quiet, anxious, and sudden. She spent a lot of night crying after that, but it wasn’t over orgasms any more. Her sadness seemed to spring from everywhere. While we talked about the cute kid with a lisp from her job, returning books at the library, when we were watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The world was full of places and smells that shoved Marcus into her heart again, and the poor thing couldn’t take having lost her father twice.
I never knew what to do when it happened, except hold her in my arms until I couldn’t feel her tears or convulsing. Swear I’d never leave her, because I loved her. But then I did, because I didn’t.
“Because I enjoy you,” she says, to summarize.
She enjoys me, she says, but I don’t entirely understand what she might mean. No one’s ever told me anything so simple and disarming, and while I can’t make heads or tails of it, I still like the way hearing her say it makes me stutter, reminds me to feel. Reminds me of the excellence of skin, the great fire that tethers at the thighs. And the smoke oozing from their mouths like entrails. My lust is passive aggressive. I’m hopeless- trying to weigh my options but the scale is broken. It’s all love with me until the day it isn’t.
Women are like French fries in that way: spectacular, but I find very little appetizing about just one.
The distance happened the way it always does- not at all, and all at once. Soon weekend visits turned to afternoons until it didn’t really matter what the color of my tie was that day. Baby please aimed to tease, the affection was forced but her heart was in the right place. I was blooming into May and she was falling into Hunter, and despite my pretending to have absolutely any kind of will power, I had a deep and burning need to look him up. To see the face of my replacement.
Maybe it was envy.
I found his Facebook page. He had a long face and dead eyes- the nose of a philosopher. Notable and tragic. A modern agonist. Poets, always so sad and nostalgic, the boys in blue. Men more afraid of life than dying, whose hearts turn grey long before their beard does. I clicked the red ex and closed the laptop, listened to the lull of traffic from my window, had a glass of wine and went to bed.
The next morning Z was looking out the window with a cup in her hand, thinking…no, waiting. My memory sneaks between her and the hour like a second cup of coffee and that 2 o clock feeling. Something you indulge in behind a laptop and password protected WiFi, when the doors locked and you think nobody else will ever know. The secrecy of it is only to give a false sense of control. Like incognito mode, or the “close door” button on elevators.
I knew I was losing her. Our love had turned to a blank envelope, and before I let it go, I had to address it. Even water, if left to standing still, stales, and goes bad. We must learn to flow.
“Tell me a story,” She said. Women are always asking me to tell them stories.
“Once upon a time…” I said.
“Once upon a time, I forget from where. But there’s this story about a couple. They went to see this wise man. They weren’t sure if they should get married, but the wise man wouldn’t help them. He just kept talking about this treasure. He was blind, I forgot that part. It’s important. He was blind and he knew about this treasure, and it’s all he would go on about. The couple left and they decided, fuck it: let’s go look for that treasure. So they did. From all the shit the old man said they found exactly where to dig. They dug and they dug and they dug and they were crazy excited. Eventually they find something, it was this rock. Tiny little thing, they damn near kept digging when they found it actually. It was the size of like your thumb or something, and on the ground it looked like any other piece of rock. But when they held it up into the light, the thing shined like something they’ve never seen before. It almost looked like a diamond. So the guy says, well, it’s not much but this must be it. This is what the old man was going on about. But the woman, she wouldn’t have it. She kept saying this can’t be it, this can’t be it, it’s so small. There’s got to be more. We’ve got to keep looking. He takes the stone with him every day to help her dig. After years of going back, eventually she snaps. She leaves. So the man goes back to the wise man with the little stone, can’t bear to keep the thing. He tells him here, I brought you the stone you kept talking about. Wise man looks at him and says:
She sat across from me, the lovely lashes of her eyes flapping slowly at her finger dainting the edges of her glass of orange juice. Her mind and heart transfixed on some soft, hurtful thought I couldn’t fathom or nerve myself to pry. All of a sudden she smiled, hummed a routine thank you, dashed her cheek, and the spell was broken.
“The point is…” I began.
“You still don’t want to go to Coney Island,” She said, glooming out the window, and something in her voice made it sound like more of a tragedy than a triumph.
He’ll never love you like I do, Z.