Free Fall

April Darcy Click to read more...

April Darcy is from Jersey City, New Jersey. Her work has been shortlisted for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers and Family Matters competitions, the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the Iowa Review Nonfiction Prize. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. This is her first published story.

I cheated on my husband to prove something to my sister. When Paul’s mouth first leaned toward mine, his lips in that teasing smile that just about killed me, so different from my husband’s, I wasn’t thinking, Oh shit, this man is about to kiss me. I was thinking, Are you watching me, Jessica? Are you fucking watching me this time?

The second time we slept together, I wasn’t thinking about Jessica at all. I was wondering how much Paul desired me. If I’d be enough to hold his interest. I was arching my back and leaning forward, leaning in.

The third time, and all the times after that, I thought only of myself. About taking what I wanted, what I needed, whenever I wanted or needed it. Just throwing myself into the furnace of this burning world.

Affairs are cancerous, it turns out. If you drop a splash of black paint into a glass of water it’ll hover there at first, suspended for a moment. Just a stain, surrounded by all that clarity. But give it some time. The whole glass will turn black.

*

Jessica is two years younger than me, but she was always brighter, wilder. For two blissful years, I moved through the hallways of my high school in peace and quiet. She was still in middle school down the block, stuck in that plaid uniform skirt and itchy red knee socks I’d left behind. But then my junior year began, and Jessica was there, everywhere, all that sparkle and verve of her filling my crowded hallways.

She sauntered up to me on her first day before the morning bell.

“So this is you, huh?” she said, gesturing toward my locker. I stepped aside automatically. She rummaged through my notebooks and hardcovers, poked at my graphing calculator. She stepped back and put her hands on her hips, appraising.

“God, Taylor. You’re so freaking boring.” She sighed, dug into her backpack and pulled out a bag of Skittles. One eyebrow raised, she shook them in my face like a rattle. She tossed the bag into my locker with an arch smile. “A little color couldn’t hurt.”

She leaned up and kissed my cheek. Then she walked down the hallway, all the sass in the world in her step. She’s got this corn silk blond hair, these big blue anime eyes. She’s tiny, but fierce, like you don’t know whether she’s about to seduce or punch you, and the truth is you like the confusion. As she walked away in her torn-up jeans and black tank top, a little biker babe, her skin glowed a pale perfect white. The boys at their lockers—all upperclassmen in that wing, my wing—followed her slow walk with their eyes. I sighed, shoved the Skittles under my gym clothes, and slammed my locker shut.

*

I’m 32 now, and I look pretty good. I’m old enough to have some confidence, finally, but still young enough to pull it together. I started running a few years ago. I was trying to take better care of my body and surprised myself by getting addicted. The running cleans out my heart somehow, invigorating and calming me at the same time. My body changed, growing lean and strong, and that became its own addiction. These days I get ready for work with an eye for what’ll draw attention to my small waist, or make the most of my still-decent breasts. I hunt my dark hair for grays, pulling strands out with tweezers, then put on black eyeliner and red lipstick—a little bold for the office, but that’s okay. I didn’t hit my stride until 30, when the awkwardness of my youth slid away. I’m afraid my newfound looks will leak away the moment I turn 40 and I’m not really young anymore. Not young enough to matter, anyway. It feels like a cruel joke that I should finally grow beautiful at the same moment I begin to grow old.

“Who’s all that for?” Chris asked a few months ago, before things went south between us. I wasn’t dressed yet. I was smoothing moisturizer on my face and neck. You have to remember your neck, or it’ll give you away.

“Huh?”

He was in his boxers on his side of the bed. He gestured to my body with a sweeping motion. With the other hand he scratched the dog’s ear. Turnip’s our gray mutt. She’s got fur that stands up in a jaunty Mohawk all the time. Chris is always trying to smooth it down, to organize her, but I like it better standing up.

“Pretty panties for the office,” he said. “Trying to impress someone?” He used his jokester voice. Like this was a normal question for a husband to ask his wife. He’d been sending barbed jokes my way lately, tiny comments that should have been compliments but felt like baited traps.

My bra and underwear matched. It wasn’t a set—I don’t own sets of underwear, or lingerie, or sexy dresses. All that takes effort, and I usually don’t bother. But that morning I was wearing a black bra and a black lace thong I’d dug up from the back of my drawer because I hadn’t done laundry. Black on black. Organized. Accidentally sexy.

“It’s all for you, baby,” I said dryly. “Or you know, my office boyfriend. That hot affair I’m having.”

“Oh, but that ass is mine,” he said, laughing. He wrapped one arm around my waist and pulled me in, without bothering to notice if I wanted to be held. He lifted my hair, still damp from the shower, and kissed the back of my neck. I stared in the mirror and waited him out. Then I pushed away and picked up my hairbrush.

*

I met Chris at the Metuchen High homecoming dance when I was 14. I wore red platforms that made me feel too tall, and a purple t-shirt that was too tight. Jessica had dressed me. She clapped her hands like a delighted toddler at the sight of me showing my cleavage instead of hiding it. When I tried to change back she shoved me out the door.

“Maybe you’ll finally get lucky,” she yelled down the driveway. She was twelve.

I was positive I was the only girl in school who hadn’t been kissed yet. I stood in the corner of the vaulted gymnasium, friendless and sweaty, worrying over my shoes squeaking on the freshly-waxed floor. Ponytailed girls, easy and laughing, stood in impenetrable clumps, adjusting their lip-gloss and eyeing the dance floor. Skinny boys sat on the bleachers like scattered islands. The prettiest girls were by the DJ. One had her sweaty t-shirt knotted up under her bra, showing off her perfect stomach as she danced.

I was trying to figure out where I belonged. Then Chris walked over and said hello. He had the biggest eyes I’d ever seen, and braces so big they could cause electrical fires. He bought me a can of Coke and handed it over as if it were a cocktail, or maybe a present. We dated for the next four years.

I was wild about him at first, but by the end he was more like a habit. We broke up for college, but eventually found each other again. We’d each moved back home after graduation, poor and frightened of the way the world was widening before us. We had to do terrible, grown-up things like get jobs and health insurance and figure out what a 401(k) was. We met up for commiserative beers at the Applebee’s near the Woodbridge Center Mall on happy hour Tuesdays. Chris had a plan for everything. He’d make millions on Wall Street, he said, play the markets, then buy one of those old Victorians in South Orange, the kind with a wraparound porch and an easy commute on the Dover line. He’d have two kids, maybe three. Play 18 holes down at the Bridgewater course every Saturday. It all sounded dull even then. But his shoulders were broad under his button-down, and his eyes were still warm. He felt like an unfamiliar man instead of the boy I’d once loved, a complicated blend of strange and familiar.

I didn’t know what I wanted. A job in marketing, maybe. After four years of diner waitressing for spare cash a clean white cubicle sounded like something worth having.

One night that October we went to a midnight showing of The Shining in Maplewood. The theater was small, family-owned. They made real popcorn and they used real butter. Chris liked the enormous Loews’s on Route 22, with the reclining leather seats and bar service, but this rickety place was my favorite. I loved horror movies, especially old classics. I adored the way they made my palms prickle, how alert they made me feel, how alive. I clung to Chris’s arm that night during the scary parts, not really aware I was doing it. The credits came up but it was still dark, and all of a sudden he was kissing me for the first time in four years. And while it wasn’t the most amazing thing I’d ever felt, at least it felt like something.

*

These days, when I run, I notice men noticing me. I go longer and longer, sometimes in the evening along the waterfront in Jersey City, where we live. I run six miles from my neighborhood down along the Hudson. I stand on the pier looking at the city lights across the river, feeling the flush on my cheeks, my sweat drying in the cool salt-breeze. I take down my hair to let the roots dry. I slip out of my jacket even though it’s cold and let the wind wick my shoulders dry.

It’s new, the men. Sometimes they stop in their tracks and stare. I’m not sure what’s different. It’s my body, sure, but it feels like more than that. I try not to look back, and this makes them look harder. It feels like power maybe, sexual power, and it makes me think of Jessica every time. I wonder how she had access to a well like this when she was so young. How much power I probably had back then too, though I didn’t know it. Sometimes a wave of anger crashes over me for figuring this out on the wrong side of 30.

The running helps. There’s an edge to me when I run, a hard angry something I don’t understand. It burns behind me like a torch.

*

Jessica’s been married to Steve for three years now, but she cheats whenever she wants. The thing is, she’s honest about who she is. If you ever dated Jessica, if you fucked her, or god forbid you married her, you knew you were in for trouble. That’s why they flocked to her like honeybees, dancing around her gorgeous, tattooed body. As a teenager I hung out in my bedroom most of the time. I read a lot of books. I was the one afraid of roller coasters, of sneaking out, of our parents’ disappointment, of getting pregnant. Jessica laughed at me, but not unkindly. She loved me the way you love an old dog—affectionately, out of habit—but mostly she ignored me. I wanted to ignore her right back, but you can’t unsee a girl like that. She was the brightest thing in every room.

I had a panic attack the day I married Chris, although I didn’t recognize it as such until years later. When I couldn’t catch my breath, I thought the corset lacing of my wedding dress was too tight.

“Get it off,” I pleaded. Tears rose in my eyes, which had been made up by professionals for $125. My bridesmaids undid my dress, kind of cooing and fluttering, and I drew in great gasping breaths. I sat on the edge of my childhood bed and dug the heels of my palms into my eyes.

Jessica knelt in front of me. She’d dragged over a small rotating fan and aimed it at my face. She blotted my tears with a folded over Kleenex.

“You can bust out of here, you know,” she whispered under the whirring. The fan was six inches from my face, blowing back my carefully arranged curls. “I’ll take care of everything.”

I stared at her. The other girls couldn’t hear. She put her hand on my knee and waited. Her hair was plaited over her ears, like a farm girl but somehow sexy, always so sexy.

“That’s ridiculous.” I sat up straight, my fingers fiddling with my dress beading. “I just couldn’t catch my breath. I’m fine.”

She knelt back onto her heels. She stared at me, tilting her head to the side.

“Whatever you say.” She snapped to her feet, dropped the fan onto the corner table, then sauntered away and left me there, staring out the window. A leaden heaviness fell over me like wet snow.

That night Chris and I lay down in the honeymoon suite holding hands, exhausted and sexless. He fell asleep right away, tuxedo still on, black tie unknotted and draped over his shoulder. I went to the mirror. My hair was unraveling from its rhinestone pins. I winced at the swollen welts under my arms where beadwork had rubbed my skin raw. I took a bath in the oversized tub, feeling tiny, sort of dreamy. The rose petals left grease marks on the ceramic edge. I could hear my friends by the campfire behind the hotel. They were shouting and laughing. A dull beat of music pulsed in the background.

I knew Jessica was at the other end of the paisley-carpeted hallway. She told me later that she fucked the bartender. I imagined her blue silk dress, the one I’d picked out, hiked to her waist. The pair of them holding each other’s faces, forehead to forehead. Laughing while he lifted her over the radiator, pushed her against the wall.

At sunrise, Chris smiled over the wrinkled petals on the bathroom tiles. He kissed the wounds under my arms and brought me fresh coffee. I played with my favorite cowlick in his hair. We had sex and it was as good as ever, pretty good, and afterwards, feeling warm and sleepy against his chest, I finally fell asleep.

But later, while he showered, I walked alone through the deserted hotel grounds. I sat on a log by the damp campfire. Shards of glass were mixed into the dirt. Broken beer bottles glinted under stray beams of sunlight breaking through the morning haze. I felt like I’d missed the party, even though the party had been mine.

*

“But why? Why do it?” I pressed Jessica. We were at the Menlo Park Diner like every Sunday. Chris spent Sundays at the office lately. “Getting a jump on things,” he’d said that morning, kissing me on the forehead in bed. The apartment door slammed shut and I clutched Turnip closer. The squirrel that lived in the old flowerpot on the fire escape was having his breakfast. We watched him together.

“Does there have to be some mystery reason?” she said. “I want to. So I do it. Not everything has to mean something.” She sipped a cherry Coke through a straw, then put more butter on her pancakes.

“Jesus. You’re 30 years old and you eat like a child.” She was so fucking vivid. It was excruciating. I leaned low over my plate. “No one made you marry him. Why don’t you just leave?”

Her eyes widened. She put down her fork. “Why would I do that?” she said. “Its just sex, Taylor. So what?”

“So what? Don’t you think it would hurt him?”

“Yes. I do,” she said flatly. “And that’s why he won’t find out.” Cars were streaking by on Route One, traffic upon traffic, red taillights blazing through window steam. She sighed. “Everyone does this, Taylor. It’s just no one talks about it.”

“Not everyone cheats,” I said. My hands were shaking under the table. “But tell yourself that if it makes you feel better.”

“Oh, honey.” She looked at me. “Just because you’re miserable doesn’t mean I have to be.”

*

I packed for my business trip on a Tuesday night. Chris was watching CNN in the living room. Turnip watched me, her tail beating out a sad song on the blue knit blanket she snoozes on. I packed the normal things. Business clothes. Running shoes. Hair gel, deodorant. I lingered over my underwear drawer. There was a bra in the back I hadn’t worn since my early 20s. Black lace, sheer. I’d felt sexy in it then, when sex was something new and we did it whenever we could.

I laid it on the bed. It looked sort of hopeful—black lace ages so gracefully, I thought. I found the black thong that had upset Chris the week before. I laid them together, the way I would if I worked at Bloomingdales: carefully, prettily. I thought about Jessica’s underwear drawer. Feathers came to mind.

I peeked out. Chris had fallen asleep on the couch, an issue of Forbes on his chest. I closed the door and paused. Then I took off my clothes. I slipped into the old bra, the lacy underwear. I took down my hair. I put on lipstick, red again. I grabbed a pair of heels from the back of my closet—ruby colored, sleek, and I slipped them on. I’d bought them years ago on clearance at DSW, but I hadn’t worn them in public once. I stood before the mirror, all dark curls and pale breasts, black lace and gleaming red. I stared for a long time, considering. Then I took everything off and, still naked, hair falling down on my shoulders, I packed the underwear and heels in my suitcase.

*

“Hey there, sailor girl,” Paul said when I walked into the ballroom. Taylor the sailor, he’d coined me a few months ago. We’d stayed up late after another conference. We drank martinis at the hotel bar and he gave me all of his olives. I’d gotten drunk and confessed I’d never been on a boat in my life. He teased and teased—not because he gave a shit, just to make me laugh. He sat too close on his barstool, his arm brushing against mine. When he walked me to my room he rested his hand at the base of my back, guiding me, or maybe claiming something, but I slipped away. I went to bed alone, flustered, my body aching. I snuck out the next morning before breakfast. I hadn’t seen him since.

We both worked for Marriott International. I was in management; he was a sound engineer, always in the background setting up microphones, fiddling with lights. He wore all black, casual stuff, jeans and t-shirts. He would have seemed too serious without that smile. He was about ten years older than me: just enough to make it interesting. His eyes were so dark they were almost black, but there was laughter at the back of them. He felt familiar. Like someone I’d known since I was old enough to know anything, although I didn’t understand why.

I flushed when I saw him. The plan had been to keep a clear head. I was decidedly not wearing the red heels. I felt his eyes on me as the conference went on. When I caught him staring he looked back evenly. The room fell away as I stared back.

I wasn’t used to any of this. I felt like I’d been married my whole life.

“I know what that ass looks like bent over a pool table,” Chris had said a few weeks earlier. I’d told him how we’d all ended up playing pool at the hotel bar. “You better watch yourself.”

I didn’t know if I was flattered or angry when he talked like that. Lately it felt like he was trying to drown me, or maybe I was trying to run and he could feel me slipping.

Paul was still watching me across the room. I wondered what Jessica would do.

I’d bang him, that’s what I’d do, I imagined her saying. She’d be sitting at the bar next to me, on her third Manhattan but still cool somehow. Her toned legs would be crossed, her eyes scanning the room for someone better to talk to. I mean; Jesus, your vagina is growing cobwebs. Are you ever going to do something worth remembering?

When she’s mad, like real mad, which is often, she throws things. Books, glasses, whatever she can get her hands on. She’ll throw them across the room, punch walls, kick garbage cans and scream.

“You’ve got the devil in you,” her husband said once, after she threw a stack of dinner plates one by one against the kitchen wall.

The only thing I’ve ever thrown was a bag of dirty gym clothes. Chris and I were walking home after dinner with friends. We’d had too much to drink, and we were fighting. He was two hours late to dinner and had shown up half-drunk. The company car dropped him at the restaurant and he sauntered in like he owned the place, like he didn’t smell like scotch, like our friends weren’t whispering behind our backs. Later he was holding my phone to take a picture when an old friend, a guy, texted to say hey. Chris read the text and threw the phone down on the table like it disgusted him. Like I disgusted him. Like holding something that belonged to me had burned his hand. I’d never cheated on anyone in my life, but that didn’t seem to matter. We walked home screaming under the streetlights, past stately brownstones that had been there for generations. They had seen worse than us.

He walked away while I was still crying. I wanted to throw something but all I had was that bag. I threw it as hard as I could at his retreating back—to hurt him, to get his attention, anything—but I missed. It hit a garage door, just soft-lobbed right onto nothing in unsatisfying slow motion, like trying to hit something in a dream. My sneakers and dirty socks spilled onto the driveway in a pathetic heap. He didn’t come back for me. Drained and ancient, I knelt for a minute on the cold asphalt to look at the black sky.

*

Jessica and I used to go to Six Flags during college. We wore short shorts and bright tank tops. We ate cotton candy and rode the log flume. She sunburned, I freckled. She went on the roller coasters. I sat on a bench, thighs sticking to the hot plastic, and held her purse on my sweating lap. One time her new boyfriend was supposed to meet us but he never showed. She checked her phone for hours. The more she panicked, the wilder she became. She spoke faster, louder, barked laughter. She flirted with the boys waiting in line around us in a hard, almost hysterical way. Then she went on a ride called Free Fall for the first time. In the past she’d strode right by it. “Crazy bitches,” she’d say, shaking her head. But that day she climbed into the open-walled elevator that took her up, skyscraper-high, way out of reach, her white-blond hair a gleam against the hot August sky. Teenagers with floppy hair and acne strapped her into a thick leather harness as if she were jumping out of a plane. She stood on the platform in bare feet. I imagined her cherry-painted toes curled over the edge. She raised her arms like wings, then paused. Her phone was cradled in my hand. He still hadn’t called. She dove, arcing down into the sky like a plunging bird. Her mouth open but silent.

When she landed in the netting, her hair was matted to the tear-tracks on her cheeks. “That wind,” she laughed, shaking out of her harness. I smiled and handed over the phone. She tucked it into her back pocket and left it there.

She had been pregnant that day, and she’d known it. So did the vanished boyfriend. I found her in bed one afternoon a week later, ragged from weeping, clutching her stomach after the abortion. I climbed into bed and curled up behind her in my jeans. I loved her so much I wanted to swallow her. Her shoulders were light, sparrow’s bones against my chest. I brushed her hair back from her forehead and hushed her over and over. Baby girl, I said. Baby girl. She hadn’t let me touch her like that in years. She never would again.

There is a grace to ending things the right way. She and I were born without it.

*

Paul offered to walk me to my room. I accepted. We ducked out a side door and cut across the dark lawn. It was late, maybe 2 a.m. I was a little drunk, but not enough to blame it on that later. The grass was damp beneath my feet. The June night was humid and sweet, with crickets sawing away. It was only suburban Connecticut but I felt far from home, sort of placeless. The stars were trying to come out. I took off my beige pumps and dangled them from my fingertips. I buried my feet deeper into the wet grass with each step, aiming for soft mud below. The mud-caked heels streaked against my white suit pants. I felt fond of the stains, all of a sudden.

“Want to sit?” Paul asked. We’d come across a park bench under an oak tree in the middle of the lawn.

Knowing better, I said yes. Knowing better, I sat close. He started telling stories, jokes about nights on the road, conferences gone wrong. We knew the same people in the same cities, all so boring and one-toned and hopeless. He had a friendly, open smile, but I felt tight energy whirring under his skin, something calculating and careful, and I liked it.

I relaxed into him. I wondered when the guilt would come. It didn’t show up when he put his hand on my thigh for a few beats and my whole body lit up. Not when he rested his palm on my lower back when I leaned over to put my shoes down. Not when I laughingly touched his arm during the funny part of one of his stories, surprising myself by the instinct for touch. My mind drifted, for a moment, toward Chris. Maybe Turnip was asleep on his lap. More likely she was alone, curled up on her pillow while he worked late again. Staring out the window into the night, patiently waiting, devotion for him thrumming through her.

Paul’s wedding ring glinted under the pale streetlight. I was always surprised to see it there, so stubborn and silver. He never mentioned a wife. He gave off a road-warrior air, a dusty traveler, a loner. I wondered if she was my age. If she were more beautiful than I was. I cared more about his ring than my own, I realized. I tucked my left hand under my thigh.

When he kissed me, finally, finally, I was still waiting for the guilt that wasn’t coming. This is what Jessica meant, I thought. This is how she feels.

*

I thought I’d only do it once. To know what it felt like to want something, and then actually take it. He seemed surprised at the ferocity in me, the way a park-bench kiss nearly turned into a fuck on the ground in the dark. I might have scared him. But then again, what do I know? He might have been thinking he hit pay dirt, that here was a hot little number, a real slut, the kind of girl who moans into the mouth of a man she doesn’t even know. Some sweet-smelling thing that dreams about sailboats, about roller coasters and running away. He might’ve headed home to his wife feeling sated for a while. More generous with his small talk as the chicken thawed on the kitchen counter. More patient when she bent over her sewing as he read a book on the couch. Stripped clean of need, for a moment. More able to love her.

That’s not what happened to me. I went home and found a stranger across my kitchen table. He was cardboard, a poster of a man I didn’t recognize and hadn’t loved in years. When he lay in bed, breathing evenly in the dark, I was grateful for Turnip between us, her warm body a shield. The need to get fucked, so desperate and new, pulsed out of me in waves my husband couldn’t feel or touch.

*

In an effort to alleviate the growing pressure in my chest I do all kinds of things these days. I go for longer runs—eight miles, ten—punishing my legs and my lungs and my heart with the night wind that rushes across the river. Manhattan twinkles across the water like a savior, like something to dream about, but I’m too old to believe in all that anymore. Still, it steadies me. All that granite. The sea wind and the black river and the white lights.

When I told Jessica about Paul, she stared. Then she nodded, just once, and looked back at her menu. “Good for you,” she said.

That was it.

I don’t know what I’d expected—a gossip fest? Sisterly confidences? For her eyes to fill with surprise, maybe admiration?

I did not expect a dismissal.

I didn’t expect to start meeting Paul all the time either. All those anonymous hotel rooms, my blood so thick with desire there was simply no room for shame. I showered under the hottest water I could handle, scalding my skin, barely able to breathe in the steam. Jessica stopped meeting me for Sunday breakfast, but to be honest I barely noticed.

For a few months I had it all, I suppose: stability at home, passion on the road. I’d always judged people like that. Especially my sister. I didn’t understand how she could live with the guilt, look her husband in the eye, walk around with that horrible ease, like she deserved anything good at all.

It had never occurred to me that she didn’t feel guilty. Duplicity is easy, turns out. You just have to want something enough.

*

A few months in, still dithering and distracted, my husband went ahead and ended our marriage for me. He went through my phone while I was in yet another too-long shower, steaming my pores and daydreaming. I came out wrapped in a towel, pink-skinned and humming. He was standing in the corner, between the radiator and the window. As far away from me as he could get. I was surprised at how biblical it was: the way I dropped to my knees.

*

My new studio is a few blocks from our old place. I’ve got a double bed, an old-fashioned writing desk, and a stained glass lamp I picked up at a yard sale. Turnip’s bed is in the corner. I hide it in the closet when she’s staying with Chris, which is most of the time. The one who cheats doesn’t get to keep the dog.

I could’ve told Paul what happened to my marriage, but I didn’t. He called for a while, and if the worry in his voice and the memory of his hands made me falter, I toughened to it in time. I still think about his undershirts. I remember running my mouth along the edge where shirt ended and warm neck began. I picture him wearing one and a pair of boxers, shuffling around in his at-home life, with his at-home wife. When he pours himself a cup of coffee, does he bring her one too? Does he lean down and kiss her forehead at the kitchen table? Does she stroke his forearm in absentminded thanks? I picture a light-boned woman, a calmer one, less difficult, more beautiful, and have to turn my face from a black-hole quality of pain. The image of him walking around his own house, hair fussed from sleep, feels stamped into my spine.

Maybe this is why Jessica picked a new man every time.

Sometimes I wake to unfamiliar shadows on blank walls and reach for Chris before I’m fully awake. The first time this happened I crawled around on his side of the bed, digging through cold sheets like a dog for a bone. I waited for dawn huddled in the corner, arms wrapped around my knees, seasick with shame. Disoriented by loss.

Other days though—most of them, if I’m honest—I wake in a patch of warm sunlight. I stretch in silence, often unclothed. I sit at my desk, I write, I drink coffee. There’s a quiet happiness to these mornings, a peace so deep it’s almost joy, and I’m ashamed I didn’t reach for it sooner.

In a fit of optimism on move-in day I bought three bottles of champagne. I imagined Jessica visiting some Saturday night. We’d order Chinese takeout and she’d bring Ben & Jerry’s. We’d sit on the floor leaning against my new mattress. I’d tell her my secrets and she’d teach me what happens next. She hasn’t been answering my texts, but I’m thinking she’ll come around any day now. The bottles look hopeful, covered in icy sweat in the back of the fridge. When the door swings shut they clink and chime like little bells.

I still wish for sex. There’s no one in the living room with his own morning coffee. No one to walk up behind naked, to kiss on the neck, to lead, smiling, toward a marital bed. There’s no living room here, and certainly no marital bed. Just four yellow walls, my books and my lamp. A handful of daisies in a cracked water glass on the windowsill. I replace them every day. They feel like a prayer.

I spend whole weekends in my underwear, reading and taking naps. I write poetry right onto my bedroom walls, then paint over it as many times as I like, in whatever colors I want.

Occasionally I feel the weight of that first hot kiss, that wet night. For opening a door I never planned to open, and couldn’t close again. I go on those waterfront runs, so long, so punishing, and when men turn and stare these days I stare right back, and even I don’t know if my gaze is a challenge or an invitation. I return to my apartment shaking, drenched, giddy with endorphins and my imaginary cleanliness. If Turnip’s there she’s on the bed, waiting for me. I let her lick the sweat off my neck and chest. I rock her against me, feeling strong and free, and I realize I’m laughing. I’m actually laughing.

So what, is what I’m thinking. So what?

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