Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018


From the window of their apartment, Will watched Juma downstairs fumble with her keys. The man beside her was looking at the dirty ground. The gate stuck. Then they were upstairs. She hadn’t been crying, but there was the strain of cheerfulness all over her. She unbuttoned her coat.

“Will,” she said, “it’s Marcus. You remember Marcus.”

“We’ve never met,” said Will. He stuck out his hand. In fact, though he had seen a photograph of Marcus just a few days ago, slipped out from between the pages of Juma’s journal, he still wouldn’t have been able to recognize the man standing in front of him without a bit of prompting. This Marcus had a scrappy beard. There were holes in his tennis shoes, and his jeans were baggy and smeared with dirt. The smell coming off him was intensely physical, sour and frighteningly animal. Like an aura, it quivered around him, slowly expanding to fill the room.

Marcus’s hand was warm and dry. But he wouldn’t look up to meet Will’s eyes.

“Good to meet you, man,” said Will.

Juma had hung her coat up, now she was standing there in the foyer, eying them both. “Marcus,” she said. “The bathroom’s just over here. I’ll get you a towel and you can have a hot shower.”

Marcus nodded. While he wouldn’t look at Will, he would look at her, at Juma. She tugged at her hair. Her eyes were on him.

“Are you hungry? You must be hungry,” said Juma.

“I’m fine.” His voice was deep and dry, somewhat distant.

“You can wash up and we’ll make dinner.”

He shrugged. “Don’t put yourself out.”

When they heard the water go on, Juma said, “I should just chuck his clothes, right?”

“What’s he going to wear?”

“I thought he could borrow something of yours.”

“Won’t he feel offended if you throw his clothes away?”

“I guess we could just wash them. Should we just wash them?”

It was strange for Will to see Juma like this, so uncertain.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you have any clothes he can borrow?”

“Not really.”

“Okay,” she said. She put one of her shoes back on, hard and shiny, leather with a sharp heel. “I’ll go and get some clothes for him.”

“Go where?”

“I don’t know.” Her lips became full, and her eyes, a redness coming into her face. It looked like anger.

“Come here,” he said.

She wouldn’t, so he went to her, and put his arms around her. She smelled clean, of lemon and vanilla, and salt. She put her fists against him, but her body softened. “I have to go get him some new clothes.”

“I have clothes,” he said. Holding her, he was soothed, she was his. “They’ll be big on him. It’s okay.”

▴ ▴ ▴

Marcus stayed in the shower a long time. He had worked the smell off him by the time he came out. As they sat at the table, Will tried not to watch Marcus eat. His actions were careful and mannered, each mouthful he brought to his chapped lips. More than anything, it was the cast of his face that dared each person to put their eyes on him. Juma carried on a long and unbending conversation with almost no help from anyone else. She talked about the cases she was working on, the books she had read, even, sometimes, about the weather. She looked from Marcus to Will to Marcus, as though seeking approval or assurance from each face, Marcus who could not give it, Will who couldn’t bring himself to. Finally Marcus said, “What happened to your paintings?”

“Oh,” she said. “It felt sort of weird having them around.”

“So what, you got rid of them?”

“They’re in my parents’ garage.”

“And you’re done?”

“Yes,” she said, color coming in to her face. “I’m done.”

“You see them, Will?”

But Will had arrived to Juma too late to see the paintings—all but one. It was a huge fleshy nude, intentionally grotesque, and he was glad not to have it displayed in their living room. Anyway, the paintings had become a source of pain to her, and at one point she had talked about destroying them. Instead, they sat still untouched in her parents’ garage, their faces turned to the wall.

“Marcus, is the food okay?”

“Yeah, great,” said Marcus.

“Will’s a good cook,” said Juma.

“One of us had to be.”

“Yeah, Juma can’t cook for shit,” said Marcus.

“I’m getting better,” she said.

“She isn’t,” said Will.

“Marcus is pretty good too,” said Juma. “He knows how to roast a chicken, anyway.”

“Still do,” said Marcus, lifting his eyes for only a moment.

▴ ▴ ▴

Marcus helped clean up after dinner and then shaved in the bathroom with a borrowed razor. He stood at the mirror with the door open as he shaved, while Juma made up the air mattress for him in the living room. Will was feeling aimless. The dishes were done, and drying, the leftovers put away. He would normally sit and watch TV with a beer and Juma in the living room, but with Marcus here he couldn’t do that. He sat at the kitchen table instead and watched Juma plumping the pillows until Marcus came out of the bathroom. Without the beard, Marcus looked different, very clean. His cheeks were whiskey-brown and smooth. His hair too, he had trimmed, bringing it very close to his scalp. He patted his face with a towel. Will offered him a beer, he declined. He was smaller than Will, shorter than him and firmly compacted, skinny, actually. And it was true, Will had put on some weight in the last couple years. The clothes on Marcus made him look especially small.

“Anyone ever call you Mark?” said Will.


“Always Marcus.”

“Marcus. Like Marcus Garvey.”

A long silence. Then Juma came and offered him everything: coffee, tea, beer, water, juice, more milk. Marcus shook his head. His body seemed tense in his loose clothes. Juma looked different next to Marcus, like a color that brightens when seen next to its complement. Did they want to be left alone? For a few moments, Will, stubbornly, stayed where he was. But Juma was freezing him out, refusing to fill the air with talk like she had at dinner. Marcus shifted on his feet—it seemed, most of all, that he would have liked to settle in for the night, but couldn’t bring himself to ask to be left alone. His feet were bare, as mangled as a dancer’s, capped with ugly yellow toenails, and swollen. Will gave in and went to brush his teeth, and lay in bed. He was not at all tired, though, and tried to read a book. He could hear Juma and Marcus speaking from the other room. Her voice changed as she spoke to him. It was less firm—she phrased normal sentences like questions. Marcus’s voice, on the other hand, seemed sure, he spoke little, used few words, and the silence that contracted around him made him powerful. She asked him how his mother was doing, he said that she had died. He used the words passed on. There was a small, tight silence, where Will imagined Juma gathering herself. Are you doing alright, Juma asked him. Yes fine, said Marcus, with a small, dry laugh. I’m fine. Then Juma was embarrassed for her question and changed the subject, asking if he needed anything from the grocery store. Marcus said no. You’re tired, said Juma, finally. Were they touching? Had she laid her hand on his? Then the chair scraped as she stood, or he did, someone went to the bathroom, someone went about turning off all the lights, the bedroom door opened and closed and Juma was pulling her night-clothes from the dresser.

“What time is it?”

“Almost nine,” he said, putting down his book. He watched her as she unbuttoned her shirt, facing away from him, reaching back to unhook the beige-colored bra. The muscles of her shoulders were tense under the skin, horse’s muscles, he thought. In her nightgown, and into bed, her body slid next to his, she lay facedown and began to cry.

“Juma,” he said.

She would not lift her face from the pillow. He reached for her, but she curled away from him, and lay on her side, near silent, smothering her busy breathing with the pillow as he sat beside her. He picked up his book, but was too angry to read it. She sat up, wiped her face, and saw him, his clenched jaw. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey yourself.”

“You’re a good one. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.”

And then she would let him hold her. She seemed to fall asleep almost immediately after he turned off the light, a talent she had, while Will lay awake for several hours. A sigh from the other room, a cough, even the body turning over on the inflatable mattress pulled him awake when he found himself sliding into the black gully. His dream was so subtle he didn’t realize he was dreaming, until, with an enormous breath, his body threw itself awake. His eyes felt blurry and he couldn’t make out the time. But he could feel Marcus’s presence very strongly in the other room. Will got out of bed. Blue light from the window: Juma looked beautiful and dead. When he couldn’t sleep and she could, he felt shut out of her mind unfairly. Every time he saw her like this he had to resist the urge to wake her up.

The light was on in the kitchen. Marcus was sitting at the table. He had trimmed and scrubbed his fingernails, but there was still grit in the creases where the nail met the soft pad of flesh. A metal tumbler sweating in his hands, in the warmth of the apartment, warmth that their three bodies had made.

“Can’t sleep?”


“Warm enough?”

“Fine,” said Marcus, looking into the cup again.

Will filled a glass of water at the sink, suddenly thirsty. He stood there at the sink and drank it quickly, tipping his head back. But he felt vulnerable with his throat exposed and he slowed down and just sipped. He filled his glass again. Water, milk, whiskey: what was in Marcus’s tumbler?

“We’re getting married. Next year, September.”

“Juma told me.”

“She’s changed a lot.”

“I know.”

The famous Marcus. For years, Will had imagined him, and the man in front of him was not the person he had imagined at all. His eyes strangest of all. They were deep, reflected copper in the light, and when they looked at him, for the first time since he’d arrived, Will felt them pass over him like an X-ray, finding and recording every flaw. It was the terror of his imagination—or was it? Marcus took a long pull at the tumbler, Will, unsettled, left the room. In bed, Juma was warm. She had thrown off the comforter, sweating. She slept sometimes like she was swimming, with her arms flung out. But as he lay down next to her she accepted his body, almost burying herself in it, his coolness. Sleep came just before dawn.

▴ ▴ ▴

Juma and Marcus had met one afternoon at the public library. She was nineteen and he was twenty-three. She sat down on the opposite end of the table from Marcus and glanced up at him from time to time, when she thought he wasn’t looking. But he was looking. When he smiled at her she was ashamed of herself and looked back down at her book. She was studying for her art history final. She looked up again. He was still looking, still smiling. He got up and introduced himself. He was a junior at City College, a philosophy major. And she? She seemed like an artist, was she? There was paint in her fingernails, no lucky guess, just an observant eye, but she looked startled at him like a mind reader. Let me guess—a painter? She nodded. In those days she was shy. Would you like to get a drink with me? She said that it was only three. Okay, a coffee? But then she changed her mind and said, no, a drink. She followed him down the steps of the library and out to the street. Feeling nineteen, wholly nineteen, impulsive, full-bodied and young. He had terrific posture and wore a white shirt with a pressed collar, looking, as he moved down the street, like a waiter or a dancer. It was dark in the bar he chose, he bought her a beer. Each time the door opened the light fell directly onto his face, curving over his clean cheeks, his wet eyes. He was from Baltimore, the first of his family to go to college, they thought he was crazy for studying philosophy. Try getting a degree in fine art, she told him. About the same, he said. Equally crazy. As soon as she had finished her beer she wanted to kiss him, but she still held herself away, not touching him, not even turning her body toward him, but pointing it straight ahead and resting her elbows on the bar. It was her face she turned slightly and her eyes. You want another? She shook her head. Four thirty, but late in winter and the sun was going down as they left. And where to now? She said she should go home and study for her art history test. He admitted he needed to write his philosophy paper. I went to the library so I wouldn’t get distracted, he said.

Me too, she said, but I always get distracted.

Always someone who wants to distract you, I bet. They were standing in front of her bus stop. When he smiled she saw the sweet jumble of his teeth. He kissed her mouth, she felt it immediately and all over. Juma, nineteen, fully reckless: she took him home with her. He stayed four years. Some Saturday mornings, he made her eggs, and brought them to her in bed, read Kierkegaard aloud during lazy afternoons as she fell into a warm doze: his voice troubled the surface of her dreams, made them half-lucid. On their second Christmas he brought her to Baltimore to meet his mother, Nelda. Marcus and Nelda had the same delicate bones, though Nelda’s face had grown wide and soft, burying some of the beauty that had once been there. She greeted Juma with what felt to Juma like suspicion, but later she thought it may actually have been fear: Juma’s fine coat, her glossy hair and her straight teeth looked expensive, a girl accustomed to comfort and fine things. But Nelda made them tea, and brought out the customary albums of Marcus’s babyhood and childhood, and the awkward years of his adolescence. There was a deep and obvious pride in the way she touched Marcus’s face in the pictures, even the years of slouching, frowning.

You a painter? Will you paint my house? Nelda said.

Sure, Juma said, What color?

Green and yellow, like an Easter egg.

I thought they only paint houses colors like that in New Orleans.

Those are my favorite colors. The smile she offered Juma told her that she had been teasing, and they were, suddenly, friends.

The next morning, they opened presents, and she marveled at the gentleness between Marcus and Nelda. She got him a sweater, he had gotten her a yellow teapot and a bathrobe. Nelda gave Juma a present too, three kinds of fruit-scented lotions in a plastic pack. Juma gave her chocolates. The whole event had a tender hesitancy that was almost unbearable—each person made a great performance of delight when they opened their presents. There were tears in Nelda’s eyes when they said good-bye, she brushed them away, not at all ashamed.

Juma’s parents were another story.

And Juma’s fights with Marcus were fierce and unfair. There were things she said that angered him, innocent things, she thought, that he didn’t react to right away, but seemed to wound him; in the middle of an argument he would circle back to the comment and she would understand it had been what started them off. Sometimes it was about money. They were young: she felt a terror, at times, of drowning in him. Worse yet, when then fights became bitter, and Marcus began pulling into himself, retreating into silence. He could go for days, full days, like a Zen master, not even visibly upset. And she would move to the opposite direction, screaming at him, waving her hands in his face, sometimes pulling crazily at her own hair. In the dark hours of morning, out of sheer exhaustion, they apologized and slept, though neither the sleep nor the apology was ever satisfying enough. They seemed to make do.

One New Year’s Eve, they fought at a party and Juma left in a huff an hour to midnight. She expected Marcus to follow her but he didn’t. The bus was roiling with happy drunks, just before twelve it deposited her in her quiet neighborhood. She wanted to stay up until Marcus came home, and argue until they made up, but at some point the TV lapsed into infomercials, and she dozed, the sheer wonder of the miraculous blender leaking into her dream. She woke, Marcus was letting himself in. It was dawn. He’d never stayed out so late. He didn’t say anything to her, just went to get a glass of water. But she could see in his body that he had fucked someone at that party. The knowledge made her very quiet as she watched him fill a glass of water at the tap and gulp it down. Then he sat on the bed and took off his shoes, and she looked at his bare feet, slender feet with very long toes and shell-pink nails.

You have fun at the party?

He was undressing for a shower with his back turned to her. Acting like he hadn’t heard her but she could see his body register her voice. The smooth muscles in his back as he lifted his shirt above his head, dark skin under the white T-shirt, darker than hers, but warm. She wanted to press her face to it.


He went to the bathroom. She could hear the shower running. She began to cry. When he came out, she wiped her face and said again, Marcus?

He dressed in clean clothes. His graceful body tired. Still moving like he hadn’t heard her, didn’t see her in the room. If Marcus had turned to her, if he had said one thing—not even an apology— she would have asked him to stay. And he would have stayed. He knew this. His quiet. She bit her lips. She watched him calmly pack up his belongings into suitcases and garbage bags, leaving nothing behind to pick up later. She moved across town, shut her paintings up in her parents’ garage, turned, to their relief, to law. She was unhappy for a time, then she was busy, and forgot to be. One day she walked out into the cold morning of winter, and felt, with surprise, the sun falling warm on her face, the clear blue of the sky.

▴ ▴ ▴

In the morning, Juma had made coffee by the time Will woke, a little past seven, had already scrubbed out the shower from the night’s grime, was dressed for work. He found her paused in the doorway of the living room, where Marcus slept. His deep breaths whistled out of him. Morning, and his skin had a kind of flatness to it, and his hair. Even in sleep, his face looked weary. Juma started.

“How long have you been standing there?” she asked.

“I just woke up.”

They went to the kitchen. He needed coffee, lots of it, and poured himself a generous amount.

“Didn’t sleep too well, huh?”

“No,” he said. The coffee was not hot, only a little warm. “Do you know how long he’s staying?”

“We haven’t talked about it yet.”

“You didn’t think this through.”

“I didn’t.”

Her face looked wretched, and despite the apparent ease of her slumber, unslept.

“You love him,” he said.

She lay her head against his palm, open on the table. “Not like that.”

Her cheek was hot. Will said, almost cruelly, “You should be somebody’s mother.”

▴ ▴ ▴

Will was antsy at work, and left a little early. On his walk home from the shuttle stop, he thought about how Juma had found Marcus just three blocks away from their apartment—Will may have walked by him, maybe even several times, without knowing. Of course, he wouldn’t have recognized him anyway. He had rid himself of the habit of looking at people’s faces—he caught on to that early—not out of any sense of cruelty or cowardice, but just because it stopped him from getting hassled. Sometimes you met the eye of a women and she approached you: she offered you her body. Sometimes you met the eye of a women and she latched on to you, she followed you all the way home, she could smell money on you, she wanted it, asking, asking, in a rough voice, begging, making her voice small, or needle-like she would say she had a child, she was hungry, or her voice became angry and scary. Or they would try and sell you drugs. Or, they would just take you in—they did it sometimes and there was no help for it—they made some nasty comment about you, you felt an X drawn on your back and walked quickly until you got to your apartment. The principle was a childish one: you can’t see them, they can’t see you. But mostly it worked. Or maybe they were just used to him now.

When Will got home, the apartment was empty. The living room had been neatened, the mattress deflated and put away. Everything felt smaller. Will moved around the apartment, checking to see if all their things were still in the places they had been left. Satisfied, mildly ashamed, he sat down with a beer on the couch to wait for Juma. But though the apartment was empty, he began to feel as though Marcus was still there, still in the room. He could see Marcus sitting beside him on the couch, looking down at his clasped hands, sitting in formidable silence, his beauty blunted by his hunger, his wariness. Was he gone for good? It seemed like it, yet the thought didn’t bring Will relief. He had another beer. When Juma came home, a little later than usual, and loaded down with things: clothes for Marcus, and shoes that fit, socks, bars of soap, a warm hat, new toothbrush and deodorant and toothpaste, she was alone, and rumpled. She kissed Will at the door.

“I was worried.”

“I called you. I left a message.”

His phone confirmed this. “I don’t know how I missed it.”

“Where’s Marcus?”

“I thought he might be with you.”

“He didn’t come back here?”

“Not that I can see.”

She was putting her coat back on.

“What are you doing?”

“I have to go look for him.”

“What are you going to do if you find him? Drag him bodily back to the apartment?”

“He needs help, Will.”

“Sweetheart, what can we possibly do for him?” He followed her out the door, pulling on a jacket. Dark had fallen, the streetlights blinked on. Juma walked furiously down the street, looking into the faces of all the people she passed. And Will stayed a few paces behind, just watching her. Her movements were short and ungraceful, she had a way of kicking her legs out in front of her when she was upset that seemed almost comical. She turned the corner, Will followed. Then they were walking through the worst of the Tenderloin, the dirty heart of the city. Walking down the soiled streets past the liquor stores and the beautiful ruined buildings that housed the poor. The street was alive at this time, full of bristling conversations that occupied the entire sidewalk, there were sheets spread and piled with strange goods: out-of-fashion clothes, cat carriers, broken pots, CDs—the nighttime vendors didn’t hawk these goods, offering them only passively, but seemed anyway to be doing brisk business. The flow of money on the street was surprising, somewhat terrifying, the smells of the street localized and various: shit—dog and human, urine, dank water, cheap perfume, smoke. Juma knelt to talk to a man holding a radio, the radio buzzed talk, not music, and he didn’t seem to be listening to it, only wanted to add noise to noise, he shook his head, she kept moving. Will stood and watched her. He was a little bit drunk. Something like shame was coming over him, shame for her, something else, as he watched her, the set of her mouth and the brittleness of her body: she looked like a stranger. No one touched her. Still. They would move—they should—after they married, their apartment anyway was not big enough to start a family. This was no place to live.

Now he saw a few paces away a man Juma seemed to have missed, slumped against the wall with an apple in his hand, intoxicated or just tired, with his eyes half-closed, his mouth somehow shy between the hollows of his cheeks. His heart leapt—but no, it was not Marcus. He just saw Marcus in the cast of this face. The cheeks were dark and rough, the eyes had a beautiful shape like women’s eyes, almond, between the lids a strip of white showed, until, quite suddenly, they came open. His eyes reached Will’s eyes. Will took an involuntary step back. For a second, he caught in the man’s face—not anger, not bitterness, not even interest—but a pure and piercing bewilderment. He caught it, and then he turned away.

Juma had by this point loosed herself from the crowd she was crossing and began to move very quickly down the street. She turned the corner and began to climb a hill so steep there were stairs etched into the sidewalk. Will followed her. Her quick pace was sagging. And the city fell before them as they rose, deep blue sky and lighted ships on the bay, the aisles of light aligning into their crooked grid. At the top of the hill, she stopped, panting. Behind her, the enormous cathedral, lit majestically for night, the grandest hotels in the city thrusting their towers into the sky, the park that nobody dared sleep in, where the rich walked their dogs at night.

“Hey,” he said.


“You okay?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She put a hand to her forehead. “I feel like I’m dreaming. Are you?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“What are we going to do with all that stuff I bought?”

“Give it to Glide.” Then he said, “Juma, do you remember me?”

“What do you mean?” Her eyes were fixed on him. They were sad, dark, familiar, the eyes of a kind animal. When he looked at her, he was used to seeing himself reflected in her face, and now, he looked and looked for that sign of himself. Perhaps he’d been imagining it all along. She kissed his hand, her soft lips. Was it enough? “Of course I do.”

▴ ▴ ▴

First Marcus was laid off from his job. He was only able to find part-time work. Then his building was bought and was slated to convert to condos—he couldn’t find a new place. He slept for months on the couches of friends, overstaying his welcome. In the apartment of his friend Jesse he knelt down on the floor of the bathroom and prayed, not to god, but to his mother. She had died recently, but he didn’t have the money for her funeral, not even for the ticket home. In his mind he reached for his mother and couldn’t find her. And when he couldn’t find her, a blackness entered him. He left Jesse’s apartment soon after. Sometimes he got to the line in time to get shelter for the night, sometimes he slept on benches, or quietly in the neighborhoods of the rich. Sleeping in the green bowl of a park one night, he could see the stars before he closed his eyes, but when he awoke, he found he had been robbed of the few things he carried with him. Shortly after, he was arrested for sitting on the sidewalk and finally lost his part-time job. That tether cut, he drifted.

He wasn’t quite angry. Not all at once. He woke, each time, thinking, where am I? Woke with a jolt, his mind shocked from its dreaming, and reaching outward: which was the dream, and which the waking? Dreams were bad, but waking always worse. It wasn’t anger, as the people passed his body sitting on the sidewalk with a hat to collect the coins they threw, and him hardly seeing faces, only knees, and nice shoes. Anger would be sharp, like a limb coming awake, this was a kind of dulling. He found he must discard his name. It was not hard to think of the m a r c u s that he wrote on the forms the shelters required was just a word, like yellow. Then discarded his face. For a while, he didn’t look in the windows of the shops to see it. After that he looked but still couldn’t see it. Who was that man in the glass? What is a “me” anyway? He snapped the word into two letters in his mouth and chewed it. After that it meant nothing.

On the sidewalk, and dulled sometimes by drink, loose and almost golden, lulled by the sun on his face, sitting, just sitting against the wall. It was hard to stay away from the harder stuff, but he managed. He was learning about the discomfort of a body, all the body’s longings, for sleep, and water, and hot food, and sex, learning how to manage these longings. One morning he woke and thought not where am I, but simply still here. He sat where he often did, leaning against an apartment building on the Jones block of Eddy, asking for nothing, just sitting. He could sit very still for longer and longer periods of time, not that his body grew less painful but only that it was easier to ignore it. How long he sat there, as the day stretched open, and the shadows shifted on their feet. Wind picked up, and the lone tree on the block fluttered her leaves, and quieted. A siren went by. Marcus watched his hunger. It started lower than the belly—in the groin—and spread upward over time. Not pain, but a diminishment, his body shrank around it, his hunger. By evening he had to stand up carefully, a little dizzy. He had accumulated enough change to buy two slices of pizza, and broke his fast upright, standing in front of the pizza place because they didn’t want him inside. But he was absorbed in it, the task of eating. To feed the body, that’s how he thought of it. Not unpleasant, not a pleasure either.

She saw him. She didn’t speak. She just stood there. Soon he felt her eyes on him and looked up, and an eerie feeling went through him. It was that uncertain evening hour that says nothing, not yes or no. Juma: the force of the word through his lips had heft, velocity. In her face, he could see how low he had become. Biting her lips red.

“Marcus,” she said. Suddenly it felt precious, his name. He didn’t want it in her mouth.

He let her take him home, like he had all those years ago, coming to it, this time, unwilling, dazed. Language returned to him slowly—he spoke very little in his new life. But by dinner he wanted to ask if she was enjoying it. It would be to wound her: her distress was plain. Her well-intentioned distress, that some part of the world had slipped out of order, and it was her task to tuck it back into place. Groom him and feed him and let him sleep—and then? Let him go on his merry way, so she could return to the task of planning and managing current and future happiness, her trips, her wedding, her dinner parties. How different she was from the girl he had loved. It’s not like he didn’t remember her pettiness, her unthinking comments. And yet, he could see her through the thick screen of memory, twenty-two, full of uncertainty, drunk, dancing shyly at a party to the Talking Heads, glancing back at him with a smile, wearing that short green dress, looking self-conscious, tugging at the dress, but dancing, with her firm legs, her long soft arms, asking with her eyes, like a child asks her parent, do you see me? Do you see me? And his eyes had said yes, I see you.

When he woke in their apartment in the morning, she was standing in the doorway. She whispered, “Lu, are you awake?”

He didn’t answer. She had grown a little plumper since the last time he’d seen her, the way that cats do when they’re happy. Well then, she was happy. Her clean teeth gleaming in her brown face.


He closed his eyes, moving away from her, falling into a thin sleep. It was warm. He had a good dream, his mother was there. He couldn’t see her face but it was good to be close to her. When he woke the apartment was empty, and it was time to leave. And go—where? They had taken his clothes to wash, but he found them in a garbage bag in the hall closet and put them on: dirty, but his. Saw himself in the full-length mirror in the bathroom, and marveled at the change in him. He could see his muscles and bones, the thin frame that carried him. The expression in his face was like a thing that had been rubbed and rubbed until it was callused over. He no longer looked kind.

But it was his face. He touched it. His.

He spent the day aimlessly walking, and ended up in the evening back on her street. For a second, he imagined pressing the buzzer and being allowed inside, where it was warm, and where a man would make him a meal, with the pity that comes from well-meaning kindness, where he would lay afterward to sleep in a soft bed, while the man watched him carefully to ensure he took nothing except what they would freely give. And the woman who he used to love would rub her feet together under the covers in the other room. And he would take nothing, only borrow, an evening, an afternoon, another week. Looking up at the face of her building, each window a furious lighted eye turned inward, turned away from him. And the eyes of the buildings all around, shutting their blinds, so only a scrap of light showed at the edge. Yes, but it was he who rocked back on his heels and turned, it was he who walked away.

Shruti Swamy’s fiction has been included in the 2016 and 2017 editions of The O. Henry Prize Stories, and appears in the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Earthly Pleasures, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. She lives in San Francisco.