When you walk in, I will myself to wrap my arms around you. I’m unfamiliar with your shoulders. I can faintly recall the way they first felt under my fingers when I was seventeen, and I often thought of them when I was in Colorado and Australia. When you called me from Boston this year and last year and the year before, I imagined what you were doing with your hands.
“Whoa,” you say, looking around. “Something is different.”
I knocked down a wall last year.
“I wanted more space,” I say, shrugging.
My grandfather owns the building, so I could do such things without consequences. It meant one less bedroom but way more room for me to pace and think about things. I invited friends over to drink wine, eat crackers, and knock down drywall and plaster. I invited my neighbors, too, but I am related to their landlord, and people are scared of me. I don’t think I’m very scary, but my neighbors don’t acknowledge me in elevators or in the laundry room. Once I even tried striking up a conversation at the mailboxes but the woman stuck her headphones in and walked away. I tried to fill the you-shaped void but perhaps they knew this, perhaps they knew I didn’t really see them the way they deserved to be seen? I’ve realized they wouldn’t have nice things to say if we were ever to speak. I don’t pay rent and I think they can read it all over my face. I am ashamed of this and so I always comforted myself with the idea of you and I, a writer and a jazz musician, holed up under blankets in January because we couldn’t afford heating, cutting coupons and eating pretzels and then having lots of sex to keep warm. They were childish naïve fantasies but I still have them.
It is summer in New York, and you are here now, visiting from Boston for the night. I don’t know what you told your fiancée about where you were going, but it doesn’t matter, because in these hours, we belong to each other. The last time you were here, I was wearing rain boots and carrying a box full of clothes that no longer fit, and you were on the couch eating cereal in boxer shorts and green socks, and I was yelling at you, asking why you wouldn’t touch me the way I expected and desired to be touched, and you chewed your way to the bottom of the bowl. Then you gathered all your things from the corners of the apartment and dragged your cymbals and your drum kit down to the sidewalk and packed them into your car and left for your gig in the West Village and I had this horrible taste in my mouth because you were using me as a free place to stay in New York. I convinced myself of this because it made it easier for me to hate you, to let go. I never knew how or when to ask you if it was true because a no would scare me and a yes would break me.
The timing was never right with us. When you wanted me, I ran to Colorado for college, and then to Australia for grad school, which was the farthest possible place I could have gone. When I wanted you, you were in a serious relationship with a girl who looked nothing like me. A girl with a long thick dark braid and big lips and eyes, a girl who pretended not to care if you were gone until three in the morning, a girl who pretended not to care that you slipped into her bed each night with a secret that smelled of me.
I was a seventeen-year old girl when we met, a girl with a crush, and you were a twenty-five year old man who made music. I told myself we weren’t good together, that we didn’t make sense, that I knew nothing about love. On the day I knocked down the wall in my apartment, my best friend handed me a hammer and looked at me and said, “Give him hell, from all of us,” and I smashed it, and you, as hard as I could. I didn’t think about you for three whole days, at least not consciously, but then you called and rebuilt yourself in my eyes and I remembered the first time we looked at each other from across a room. It’s been seven years. I am twenty-four and you are thirty-three and shouldn’t we have moved on by now, cut ties, broken each other’s hearts, or at the very least mine?
“The apartment looks good like this,” you say, turning in a slow circle. You inspect all the once-hidden spaces of my home, and of me. “Wanna help me park?”
I nod because it is part of the routine. We descend to the street, which smells of rain freshly fallen, and we get into your car. I have to move the heavy CD player to the backseat.
“We’re in the twenty-first century, Ben,” I say. “Have you heard of this cool new thing called the iPod?”
You nudge me with one hand on the wheel as we roll up Amsterdam Avenue. “I will live under a rock for as long as possible.” A familiarly crooked grin plays on your lips as you squint into the dark for parking spots. It is a few minutes after midnight. “I’ll look on the right, you on the left. Sound good?”
“I’m on it, sir,” I say.
We drive ten blocks without luck. I try to start a real conversation but you don’t take the bait. You read all the street signs out loud as if doing so will somehow change their meaning. You apologize for being distracted and I shrug and pretend that it is okay for us to sit in more silence.
“These goddamned rules for street cleaning, they drive me absolutely insane,” you say.
“Try Riverside Park.” I infuse my voice with authority, and somehow we find a spot within seconds. I notice a police car idling by the intersection and I have this sudden raw desire to get their attention. I know I’m in danger but I don’t know what exactly I should be scared of. The empty spot seems too good to be true. I get out of the car and sashay over, motioning for the officer to roll down his window. I can feel your eyes on my back. I am not who you think I am. I never really was.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry, but we’re from out of town and we’re confused about where we can park,” I say cheerfully, and point back at you. “Is that all right?”
“Yup,” the officer says. He seems overjoyed by the simplicity of our exchange.
We walk back towards my apartment, triumphant. The air is thick with moisture and I can feel my hair curling, frizzing, conducting static. I spent fifteen minutes straightening my hair for your arrival. It is almost one in the morning on a Tuesday and we walk into a bar a few blocks from home like we are a couple of night birds. You order my favorite beer—Blue Moon—and we make our way to the back, where a bunch of men with greying hair are gathered around a pool table. I am the youngest person in the bar.
“We play winner,” I declare, surprising myself, and the men turn around. I can tell I’ll be the most exciting thing that happens to them all night. I am young and I am wearing heeled boots and even though I have come in with the most handsome man in the world, I still want them there in front of me. You look at me again, wondering who I have become in the years that we have lost. I peel away my underside so when we are done, I’ll be built out of different skin.
I am a terrible pool player but I drink more beer and I poke your back with the pool cue and you laugh and pull it towards you, and I’m pulled with it, and you put both your thumbs on either side of my neck at the top of my collarbone, and you almost kiss me, you almost expose us, but when you don’t, I flounce over to the big guy in the corner—whose name is Mick—and Mick shows me the new tattoo of a medusa he has on his forearm, and it is still so red and shiny. You watch me closely as I touch the shiniest, reddest part of Mick’s arm with my finger, and Mick tells me I look like his niece, which is nice to hear because everything I am doing is just for show, and everyone knows it is you and I who will be leaving together no matter what happens in the bar, no matter who wins this game of pool.
We drift out onto the street around five, and the sky is lightening, and the air is drier. We are still drunk but mostly tired and you start to talk about your mom—who is dead—without prompting, and you tell me that you miss seeing her read the mail at the kitchen table, and you miss the way she always left the light on when you were young and reckless, and perhaps what you miss most of all is being young and reckless. My heart is beating so fast because you’ve never really talked about it with me before, and it demands a certain sort of intimacy, and for a moment I really do feel as if I am the girl you are supposed to marry.
We get to my building and climb the stairs to my apartment and you say, “Remember that story you sent me a while back?”
I nod because I vaguely recall sending you something I was proud of because your opinion had always been the most important opinion of all.
“Well, I finally read it. I’m sorry it took so long. I read it yesterday, actually. It felt like the sort of dream where you wake up and you’re like, wait, what—was that real, or am I still in the dream? You know?”
You’re not particularly profound but I can’t stop grinning. We flop on the couch and I can’t tell which limbs belong to which body. We are alone and so we kiss, we kiss, and your hands are so warm, and I open a window, and I catch sight of myself in a dirty puddle on the sidewalk below, looking up into a life that is not mine to keep, and I back up, away from the window and away from myself, and when you spin my body around and move inside me, I can’t really feel anything at all. You keep kissing me, all over, trying to bring me back to life, and I forget to make sounds, and things are most certainly not going well for us, not now, not here, suspended in our isolated one-time-only-last-chance-final-call-closing-time togetherness.
I’m numb and when I close my eyes and drift away you are a fur glove and I am a speed limit sign on the freeway, you are an owl and I am an infinity scarf. I plan to write this down and for the first time I feel pleasure and release.
Certain things cross my mind as we finish: the way the door wrenched open, the way you called out anyone home the way I called out yes I’m home, the way we stood in different doorways.
I open my eyes and you are still here, close enough to touch.
—Caitlin graduated from Colorado College and lives in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Word Riot, and Grasslimb. She’s also written book reviews for DIAGRAM and conducted author interviews for Electric Literature. She was recently featured in the Lamprophonic Emerging Writers Series.