We sat next to each other on my first day back to school in a decade and you were pretty, I thought, and you were quiet, and when I wandered into my next class feeling old and out-of-sorts I found you—again—sitting quiet. And you were smiling a little darkly. And the professor made us role-play partners with the topic of body dysmorphia, so for our presentation I had to find a JPEG of a model who looked like you and photoshop her hair to look short like yours.
It was very intimate: touching up that model’s hair, thinking of you. You dropped both classes and I haven’t seen you since.
▴ ▴ ▴
It’s easy being a student again, though the stress might make my brain change. It can do that. My textbooks say cortisol is a chemical that ignites your reactions for fight or flight, but if you’re just lying in bed alone doing neither, it’s a brush fire, with your hippocampus as kindling. But what’s easy is the grades: that they exist—that if you are a student, if that is what you are, then you will know how you are doing as the thing that you are. I’ve been looking for that feeling everywhere.
And leaving campus in the sun every day (for three hundred days a year, I bait in my first letters home to Jersey), I get what’s good about everyone here being pretty, even the tight clothes fitting loosely, and even the heavy traffic being light enough to let you pick your own pace and witness teenagers skateboarding home, blinding themselves by lifting their sweatshirts over their heads in the crossed-arms fashion because it’s the coldest day in October and it isn’t even cold.
But I wonder if twenty-nine is too old, to be watching them.
By the time I step into the church basement every Tuesday evening for Colorado Springs to Redeemed Love and see a painting hanging behind the chair circle, and it isn’t of the mountains—it’s of an ocean seen through trees of a type they don’t grow here, couldn’t grow here if they tried—I still get what’s good about being here. But I start missing sand in the hair of the boys who never shower, only swim.
▴ ▴ ▴
Evan sits to my side, so I can’t look at him without him knowing. When his wife isn’t home he lets down his hair and watches men have sex on the internet.
Soon she’ll be deployed for six months, and he’s noticed something: he’s started leaving her hints. He’s forgetting to clear the browsing histories, accidentally not locking the door. He thinks Freud’s an ass, so don’t even go there—he’s not ready to live by himself.
“What am I going to do,” he asks us two weeks before she’s gone. “Besides have the time of my life.” On his chin I can’t tell if it’s a scar or a dimple.
“Pretend she’s still there,” someone says.
And for the rest of the meeting, I picture him changing into his pajamas in front of the mirror, pretending she is watching. Pretending she’s in bed. “Kilmer loves your sweat,” he’ll imagine her saying when the poodle runs off with his dress socks.
“I have something to tell you,” he’ll pretend to reply.
And as the group stands to sing “You Alone” I find I can’t stop, I see his hand lifting in worship and imagine him by himself, pretending to brush it against her, pretending that he wants to. Putting a pajama’d knee on the bed and then his hand and then his other knee like a child climbing up. Thinking, That is what I am: a child. He’ll want to hate himself but I imagine it’s harder, for him, than it is for me, because she loves him—how good a boy he is, how clean. He’ll pretend that she is touching him. He’ll let her and let her. Till finally he might decide: I will stop pretending, now. I will call her and tell her, I am unrepaired. I will call in thirty minutes. I will call in twenty-nine.
But every minute he does not tell her is another minute he gets to be loved by her. When the song ends and I draw his name from the Affirmation Bin, I write a note on the back of an unused name tag to say,
There is something special about you. Something good. When things are hard know that the devil is trying to keep you from it, because he knows it, because everyone knows it: you and your wife together forever is something so perfect all evil should fear it.
Then I drive home in the dark.
▴ ▴ ▴
There are no photos of men in the house. There are photos of the cats, who hide even from Ellen, and of a capped and gowned daughter bearing none of her traits.
Ellen, my housemate, says she’s lived here for two decades—give or take. Her new friend comes over for late dinners and afterward lies on the couch pretending not to fall asleep. He has spent many years outside, taller than anyone and familiar with pliers. Now he is tired. She Skypes her daughter in the next room like the date is already over. Biomechanics on the bookshelves behind her, kinesiology, plants.
I need to know if I like him in a room by himself, maybe she’s thinking.
The cats are enormous and have human eyes. One is named Francis and the other Martha, like middle-aged Catholics.
“What do you normally do?” I hear the new friend ask as I decorate my room.
“Not much,” she answers. “I try to eat very little.”
Later that night Francis noses open my door and stares in without entering. Get up and walk, he seems to be saying, crying but not letting me closer, retreating always in the same direction. I follow him to the bathroom and see two empty bowls. Her bedroom door, closed. And there, fallen under a seashell in the hallway cabinet display (if you put your ear to it: the ocean), a small, faded photo.
▴ ▴ ▴
Before my dad got in the car to help drive me out here, I heard him tell my mom, I’ll miss you, and kiss her on the lips. Spent his driving breaks looking at photos of her on his phone. I was thinking, Dad, please, I need you to be sleeping right now, what’s gotten into you, she’s just a girl, and why are we pulling over to take pictures of that buttercup to send to her? You have buttercups at home.
They’ve been married for thirty-five years.
And as I dropped him off at the airport after thirty hours of that, of eating Wheat Thins and missing exits from New Jersey to Colorado, he said, without looking at me, Son: I’m praying this year that you’ll find a wife.
When the righteous ask, God listens.
So in the third week of sociology when I hear White men are cursed and look up to notice you for the first time—the way your blouse lifts a little when you raise a cross-tattooed hand, belly pale as sky—I think it could be you. And the way you almost regret saying it, the way you smile with just your lips and never once look at me (likewise pale as sky), says you’ve seen me too.
You say that when a woman looks into a man’s eyes she sees his eyes, but when a man looks into a woman’s eyes, he sees his reflection. And in every song he hears, he hears the tapping of his own foot; he hears his proud, downbeat, clap.
As the only man in the course I would like to add that I have also noticed my yellow lights getting shorter, and that the first key I try is usually not the right one. I no longer free-throw wrappers into the trash. But even when I drop them directly from above, they seem to float sideways, onto the floor.
After class you see our professor’s purse on the podium and kindly chase her to the parking lot. I follow you out to introduce myself and feel a text from Ellen: Away 4 wknd w/ friend. feed cats?
No worries, I text back. And look up as you kiss our professor on the lips, leaning her into the side of her car.
▴ ▴ ▴
The groom in the little faded photo has masking-tape letters on the bottoms of his shoes: g a m e on one, o v e r on the other. Ellen’s face literally glows from one of three hundred sunsets reflecting off the flower petals she’d knit into her bridal tiara and off her wet, fat tongue as she sticks it out at the camera.
While she’s gone I sip from her liquors and dip my spoon in the already-opened jars. Microwave the peanut butter for six seconds afterward to melt its surface back to flat. She’s a physical therapist at a conference with a new, new friend, and I am a schoolboy in her kitchen, ten thousand days old. Some mornings I wake to find the cabinets wide open and think, Who did this—oh wait.
But she needs me. A month before I moved in, she stepped outside at 6 a.m. to clap a welcome mat against a porch rail. And after watching its dust give shape to the wind, she put her hand on the self-locking doorknob and knew, without even turning it, Oh fudge, I am fucked. Barefoot in the boxer shorts she sleeps in, she trudged foot-sucked through a horse field to knock on the neighbor’s back door, reassuring horses the whole way, like, It’s me, your neighbor, who used to take part in community events more? Chili cook-offs and whatnot? You must remember me, shush, I mean I know I’m around less now that my husband’s out of the picture, but—
Till she remembered an old trick called always forgetting to lock her windows and mucked back home to climb in, cats’ hearts aflutter, and write up a Craigslist post:
Housemate Wanted! Well, Needed.
Looking for a roomie in early/mid-August to make sure it doesn’t take a whole week to find my body when I kick. I’m on Cherry Rd, a stone’s throw from the Air Force Academy, though I’ve never actually tested this.
It’s a 1908 big-windowed farmhouse down to one tenant who has it all to herself: kitchen, bathrooms, bunkbeds, cats, and a basement where you’d go. She’s a quiet, open gal who likes to drink and read the Bible in that order. Sometimes she’ll go all-out and plot a Multi-Course Healthy Dinner around a theme or key ingredient, then get tired and order a pizza. She’s pretty happy here.
There’s a big porch, easy parking, free laundry, thin walls, AC, wi-fi, cute mice, and horses. Horses! Might be a ghost on the second floor but he’s mild. You probably know by this point whether you’d love or hate living here. If you’d love it, you’re like me. But say more:
Name; age; hobbies; regrets; on a scale of 1-10, how much were you made fun of as a kid; and on a weekday night, how early do you go to bed? What’s the greatest thing you’ve ever cooked? Have you heard it said that marriages live or die based on the quality of their Tuesday evenings, more so than their passionate midnights? What’s your ideal Tuesday evening? You don’t have to tell me about the midnights.
395/mnth, no lease, utilities included
▴ ▴ ▴
I remember touching myself at twenty-five after so many months of abstinence and feeling better for having something to repent. For being worth Christ’s time. The reason for my slip was nostalgia: of a porn star, named Billy. How was he doing? What was he up to? Would be nice to catch up over coffee, sometime. Only, I don’t drink coffee.
Years later I still do miss him but my sharpest memory is of an interview, brief and vulgar, in a warehouse between takes (“What’s the biggest asshole you’ve ever fucked, congressman-wise,” etc.), and there, in the distant background, is an open external door. And the light is just pouring in. And every time someone walks past it, the camera panics, auto-adjusting to the contrast, and dims dear Billy for a near millisecond as the world outside steals into focus: green. Bright green.
At group tonight Gabe cried as he showed us his ex-boyfriend’s picture on the internet. It was taken by the ex’s mother. The ex had gained twenty pounds and sat before a basket of wax paper with used ketchup on it, looking too sad to be tagged. “I’m very proud of this boy,” captioned the mom, who’d earlier phoned Gabe to say, Hey: you belong with my boy; don’t you know you belong with my boy?
Gabe had lost fifteen pounds and gained a girlfriend: a broad-shouldered, Methodist poet. “But her lineation is weak,” he says more than once per meeting. “So we’ll see.”
Donnie replied that someone he’d almost dated had visited recently, so he’d surrounded himself with friends on the night they’d hung out, just to be safe. But it didn’t matter because over the course of the evening, the unofficial ex seemed to move farther and farther away from him, sitting on the kitchen counter when there were open chairs, saying less but always looking.
(Psych 235: all at once and permanently your brain can realize that an image you thought was a candlestick is actually two men’s faces, all at once but forever.)
“Quiet again,” Evan says at me and smiles. It’s a dimple.
“Just listening,” I say.
“Just talk,” he says.
But I don’t. I’m about to tell them about Thanksgiving, eight years ago this month, and my college friends renting a reunion house near the shoreline. And my unofficial someone. Tyler: telling the same jokes but with a wedding ring on. Still golden at 4 a.m. as it taps the game controller we share.
“Evan,” says David. “No pressuring.”
And how that morning we woke sick from sleeplessness to visit Their Beach—the one his wife had first seen him running across and told her friend, beneath the umbrella they’d watched from, That’s the man I’m going to marry.
“I just don’t want to get well without him,” Evan says, and winks.
“No winking either,” says Gabe. He turns to me. “Have you found a church yet?” he asks, and winks.
▴ ▴ ▴
She married the man; but who got the boy? The joystick blisters. The joke that spits the drink back into the glass, out through the nose. Eternal chalice, always refilling. Our loop; a ring.
Tiptoeing to the attic where our friends had already fallen asleep, closing their curtains to Black Friday traffic, Ty and I creaked around their bodies to our own separate beds. Dramatic stakes of not waking a soul; somehow, impossibly, succeeding in silence. Then from our beds bursting into laughter.
▴ ▴ ▴
Ellen sees Citizen sticking out of my backpack and asks, “Homework? I thought you were studying to become a nurse.”
“Prerequisites,” I say. “Sociology. Plus Gross Anatomy, Physiology…”
“Gross,” she says. “Unless you like it. Oh! and I’ve been meaning to ask: do they teach whether loneliness has physiological effects? Because Google says yes—increased risk of heart disease, stress hormones, dementia. But Google always says that.”
“Haven’t covered that, yet,” I say. “But I believe it.”
“Same!” she says, brightening: “That’s why I take DayQuil Cold & Flu LiquiCaps with every meal and snack.”
One day maybe a neighbor will look at me with sympathy not meant for me but referred, to Ellen, and I’ll have my epiphany: Ellen is a widow. Her husband, killed. Cut to death by a tin can lid—explaining why she insists I use her safety opener (I’ve had bad experiences with the sharp ones, she did say once). Or, maybe, some locals will ask where I live, and when I reply, “With Ellen,” they’ll stop blinking for the rest of the conversation, struggling not to scurry to their spouses with the latest. And suddenly I’ll see it: not death, but divorce. Infidelity. A Colorado Springs scandal.
But for now, all I see is a new friend, and a week later, another.
“He doesn’t like swing,” she tells me one morning, about the latest. “But maybe something more stilted would suit him? Some thumbs-in-your-belt-loops, kick-based sort of thing. But you: you should try swing.”
“Maybe,” I say, examining my wrist for some reason. (Passionate Marriage on the bookshelf behind her.) I ask, “Is swing the one where they, like, throw you up in the air?”
“You’d be great at it,” she says. “I mean, look at you.”
We look at me. The cats are there and then they aren’t, silent but massive.
“I really wish my daughter would visit so she could take you,” she says. “What have you been doing for fun around here, anyway?”
“Meals and snacks, mostly,” I say as she sips, and hear a choked cough as I head for the door.
That night I leave Citizen outside her room with an inscription:
Check your privilege, this book taught me, and it’s even greater than I’d thought—first, being white in America, and now this: meeting you.
And I don’t need to walk upstairs on my way out every morning but I do, I pretend I am looking for a coat or a notebook so I can say hello and tell her something I’ve noticed, a thing in her life—an unexpected pipe-creak or the way a cabinet opens. Not her hands or tense brilliance but the side window in the study, oh Ellen what a window, when it snows you should sit there.
▴ ▴ ▴
Later that week I leave my first and only Campus Crusade meeting too quickly and someone chases me. Come walk and ask me questions, she says. Don’t get the wrong idea, she says, but she’s talking about the club—how frivolous its students seem. So we walk, and I ask, till suddenly she’s handing out mittens to strangers despite holes in her own, and by the time it’s evening she’s emptied her backpack. No books. No notebooks. Mittens, was all. And I think: I can make this work. Let’s just get married and let the details figure themselves out.
Because the one who ends up with you is set for life. There will be no midlife crises, no bucket lists. No overstuffed closets where a skeleton could hide. And afterward, I think, no God who can say: When I was hungry and without food, who fed me? Cold and outside, did you clothe me, see me?
We’re walking for a drink neither of us wants (but I don’t know what else to want, and you don’t know why I’m quiet), when two young men bike past us naked. You wonder where their helmets are. I wonder how anybody could be so beautiful and why I’ve tried to be beautiful, tried to be anything, if nothing I do will ever bring me close to this perfect default—the bodies these boys simply came with. And disappeared with, through a stoplight laughing, green-lit and casting shadows on themselves.
▴ ▴ ▴
“Baby steps,” says David. “You’re closer than you think. I’d like you each to keep a Gratitude Log this week, to prove it.”
“Will you be reading them?” asks Gabe.
“If you’d like me to.”
“Nope,” I say, then regret it as he turns.
“Tell us about school,” David says. “Nursing, right? How cool. I keep hoping I’ll run into you—you know, my wife and I volunteer over there, assisting the CPR trainers.”
“By letting them do CPR on you?” asks Donnie, sincerely.
“Oh, no, no,” says David. “They use dummies for that.”
“Ah,” says Evan. “So just your wife then.”
▴ ▴ ▴
Four to six times per day I get to say I love you, and mean it. I’m warm when it’s cold out. My parents are alive. Never hungry, nor addicted, nor diseased nor alone. Every scar (accidental) has ended up cute. Keep a journal but the cat—nuzzling into the keys—turns self-pity into lkmljn; Why can’t hngb; I feel ko.
The moon is so bright I can see the stonework but still the stars; cirrus clouds at midnight. I step outside to putz in the gorgeousness and trip on a care package. Gummy vitamins, sunscreen, a twenty-dollar bill. Back inside, the cat begins to snore.
Do not ask me to be grateful. Francis does not say “I love you” back—he paws at my face, like, You will always have journals but not always have me.
And sure enough, the next day he lays down in the hallway without seeming to know it, eyes open but not quite seeing, coughing a red puddle and lapping it up—like, I just don’t want someone else to have to do it.
Twenty-nine is old enough to find a vet’s phone number. But I cry out to Ellen via text, and she’s home in less than ten minutes, saying, “Looks fine to me!” But she sticks around anyway with her hands in her armpits, watching him bathe Martha as she bathes him back.
“Like angels fighting,” she mumbles.
Till that night his breath becomes lkmljn hngb ko as little swimming malfunctions chew up medicine in his blood. We can’t sleep because he is dying but still chasing mice, still not catching any. Shitting bile across my T-shirt as I carry him up the stairs to keep his heart from bursting. “It’s happening so fast,” Ellen says after calling in sick the next morning, kneeling in her pajamas (which she must wear just for me) to kiss his big, white, furry belly and whisper, “Francis, honey: remember us when you come into your kingdom.”
▴ ▴ ▴
Gabe is officially in love with the Methodist. She’s on a mission trip to Laramie when he tells me there’s a glow that can color almost anything when you’re in love with someone far away. A coffee spill stains twice as dark, since now he’s lost the shirt and her, and that birthmark on the baby’s arm in the dairy aisle resembles nothing but, sure enough, reminds him (as the lack of the birthmark would) of her. And—great, just what he needs—birds are now falling in slow arcs from the Safeway rafters, which is like, just so, her.
We speed to St. Andrew’s in time to stock the coffee cart with groceries and sit for the sermon. In the holiest of places: the sneakers of the acolytes. The pastor hands out notecards for us to write our Doubts & Questions on, and I look over Gabe’s shoulder to see that he doesn’t believe in hell. Then we man the cart, which I’ve supplied with nontraditional treats from the foreign-foods aisle because everyone else brings grapes and Wheat Thins. I proudly watch a woman take a cube of spicy cheese to her daughter who never makes eye contact with me when I pass the peace. I tell Gabe it is because I am too handsome; but we both know that she is paralyzed.
My Question is, how come sick people come to Christ for repair and Christ just says, Get up and walk? Like, without even healing them? Or, Stretch out your hand—before healing the hand? By the time Peter wants to walk on water it’s like he knows better than to ask for the ability to walk on water and instead says, Christ, if it’s really you, command me to do this. And Christ commands him, and he does it. You go to God for help sometimes and all you get are commandments. So what’s the miracle, then, your obedience?
But what I wrote is, Where do animals go when they die? Asking for a friend.
The mother leans over the wheelchair and inserts the red-specked cheese into her daughter’s mouth. The daughter chews slowly and then begins to cry.
I turn to Gabe in horror, and he grins back at me, in horror.
And is Gabe’s ex sad, always? Even at Shake Shack with his ketchup and his french fries and his napkin tucked in, and his mom aiming her iPad saying, Smile, child?
▴ ▴ ▴
Forty-four years old and only eight of them without horses, Ellen’s telling me. Fixing my cowlicks and finding some new ones. Goshing at my long legs and longer eyelashes; scoffing at the injustice. “As soon as you’re home,” she’d said on my way out to church, “I’m declaring it Equestrian Self-Therapy Day.”
Forty-four and too pretty for her boyfriends, she’s learned to laugh before their punch lines—an aimless kindness that makes the punch lines not matter, I inform her. And maybe the boyfriends. But maybe who cares: all that matters tonight is that ears back means euphoric, forward fascinated, and sideways scared, as they lick her fingers and buck me into a fence post.
That night while holding a bag of ice to my shoulder, I tell her where I found her wedding photo, and she finds it and flicks it into the trash—then changes her mind—and moves it to recycling.
“I knew you were something else,” she says. “Don’t ever get married. It isn’t for us.”
“Who is it for?” I ask.
“For the sincere, obviously, and the women who worship them.”
I snort. “I don’t want to be alone,” I say too sincerely, and clench and unclench the ice.
“Oh,” she says. “Like me.”
I don’t say anything. Then: “I would give anything to be like you.”
She takes the melting ice from my hand, and I follow her into the kitchen where she points to a low drawer I can’t open. She asks me to open it. I pretend I’ve never tried and give it a pull, but it catches, partway as always, till she reaches down and unlatches a hidden hook.
Next she’s wrapping frozen mixed vegetables to my shoulder and telling me, “Kid, your mother, she childproofed her kitchen, bathrooms, living room, laundry room, outlets, stairs, each ledge lip and lid. Maybe no one let on how inconvenienced they were as they snagged their ankles on her baby gates, but make no mistake: everyone, husband included—husband especially, in my case—was owed back those privately humiliating thirty seconds spent struggling with the toilet-seat lock and considering calling for help. Who had she become, they asked themselves.
“Your mother. She’d gone and become your mother on them.
“Every minute for years we moms held in mind your safety. How many damn-near heart attacks were had when my girl simply left my sight, ducking behind an ottoman? After that, how about no more ottomans. And when I couldn’t fall asleep some nights you bet your ass I hand-quilted hats to keep her head warm.”
My eyes follow hers to the fridge photo of her daughter tossing a chintzy grad cap. “So yikes: don’t be like me. Be like her. Or even him,” she says, nodding toward the recycling. “Everyone’s gotta leave for greener pastures. I won’t hear otherwise. Everyone but the mothers, who’ve gotta keep their pastures for your annual visits, if they can win their pastures in court.”
▴ ▴ ▴
At the 2016 Colorado Springs to Redeemed Love Fundraiser Gala, Former Miss America introduced Gabe to the audience. He wept during his testimony.
“She was beautiful,” he tells us at his final meeting. “You could see the pores in the skin on her legs: proof that something once grew. Her makeup made her blush. Her muscles made me uncomfortable—perfect but nonfunctional. Years of movements without purpose and smiling at no one, in mirrors in the mornings, returning her own waves, daydreaming of being handed things. And did you hear what she told them all? Gabe has such a powerful story.
“But when she spoke my name, I did not know who she was talking about. And when she found me afterward, and thanked me for my courage, I could not tell who she thanked.”
David stops smiling; then starts again, but cautiously.
“Because my name doesn’t belong on her lips. It’s too late. When I wanted to be beautiful, where were they? When I wanted beautiful people to notice me?”
Donnie jumps from his chair to lay a hand on Gabe’s shoulder, because once again Gabe is starting to cry.
“There are birds living their entire lives in the supermarkets out here, raising babies in the rafters, have you seen them? Swooping the aisles to perch on sale items. One tried to escape me as I shopped, but it bonked into a freezer door. Thought it was sky. Everything says, Be what I’d rather love. I’m trying though, God! I’m trying so hard.”
“Maybe try to make sense,” says Evan.
“I’m trying so hard to love right but it’s all just…not home, to me. And I’ve started to think, if there is no God—if someday it just turns out there isn’t one—on that day I will not fuck a men’s basketball team or eat a bag of heroin. I will not even go put a knife into all of my enemies.”
“Gabe,” warns David.
“I will go to put a knife into myself but never find him.”
▴ ▴ ▴
Pain wakes me up early enough the next morning that Ellen says, “Come here,” followed by, “Take off your shirt.” Pats her hand on the massage table by the side window in the study. “I promise you’ll make it to class on time. Probably in one piece. Ever heard of dry needling? I can’t perform miracles, but—”
She keeps speaking as she puts the needles in so I barely even feel it. She puts her index, middle, and ring fingers together against the hurting part of me, and presses. “Ticklish, or painful?”
“Ticklish,” I say. “I’m a child.”
“Here,” she says. “Put your hand over mine while I press. Does that help?”
It does. I answered before I even felt it: It does.
Ellen you are the only one who touches me. I like your sweet vermouth and how clean you keep your stovetop. It’s really hard to be alone here. I like that you’ve lasted a whole month without a new friend. I like your candy canes and real-pine wreaths and road-trip plans for our upcoming birthdays, and how your coworker made a Tinder joke and everybody got it but you.
“All my appointments should be here!” you say. “No more stepping over stretching patients and foam rollers and neon rubber bands. No more bozos standing me up because their ‘deductibles reset after the New Year.’ Relationships have ended over less and they know it. I feel so pathetic, asking them, ‘When can I see you again? What are you up to, this Friday?’”
Ellen you don’t really smile. People probably tell you all about that. Always asking, Are you happy? Are you sure? And really they are asking, Are you okay with me? Am I okay?
“And they tell me, ‘No appointments for now.’ Never say good-bye, just, ‘not for now.’”
When I put my fingers over yours and you press into me, it doesn’t tickle anymore because I think it’s just me doing it: my fingers, my press. But really it’s you.
“All set, kiddo. You know where to find me if you have any questions.”
It’s seventy degrees in December and people are falling asleep on their porches. People are dancing with no music while they wait for the bus, wearing winter coats out of habit, wiping Christmas-cookie crumbs off their children’s scrunching faces. Are you happy? Are you sure? I miss my bus and run.
▴ ▴ ▴
And when I get there, I talk.
I tell the group that the last woman to see me naked was my mom when I was thirteen and too sick to draw my own bathwater. She put her wrist under the faucet to feel how hot it was. I was too sick to care that she hadn’t left the room yet when I got in.
I will turn thirty, with you.
I tell them you’ve cut your hair a week before your forty-fifth. That as we plotted our birthday road trip, the dreams started, of me needing you to hold my bags so I can comb my fingers through it. Would you have cut it so short, if I hadn’t once mentioned that I love short hair? I don’t tell them that when you lift your chin, I find myself with Evan instead.
Or that maybe I just love short hair. That I’d love it in a house, with a mouse, in a hat with a cat.
Or that I know I don’t love you and it’s barely a crush, barely a reason to climb out of bed at night to walk along the tree line and look up at the deer and wonder why they aren’t running away. Just a dream for cold mornings. Cold nights I dream of Ty. Then I get up and walk to my closet and stretch out my hand to a coat that’s warm enough, and never wonder whether he’ll see me in it or what colors he still likes, what patterns or textures, and I tell them it’s love: that I’m ready; that I quit.
They pass around a rock with a cross carved into it, and whoever holds it gets to say good-bye.
“Thank you for sharing yourself with us,” says David.
“We’ll miss you, a lot,” says Donnie.
“Wish I’d gotten to know you better! You seem cool,” says Kevin.
And Evan keeps passing.
I drive home in the dark, holding the rock, and make a plan for our first night together—one worth Christ’s time.
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We’re halfway to Yellowstone when I offer to take a shift so you can drink your birthday present. Then I miss an exit. Then an alternate exit. And another. And soon we’re closer to our house than to the Tetons, and you’re laughing till grimacing at the sting of sweet vermouth in your sinuses, and I’m gripping the steering wheel in disbelief. By the time we decide we’re too old for this and get home, it’s early evening and beginning to rain.
And as you help me unload my bags, the rain gets warmer, somehow, till a few scents collide and sink you into a memory of some gray Tuesday twenty years ago—when your husband brought home a pack of dollar-store water guns with no explanation. And you declared war on each other, right here in this driveway, you and he and Sydney, never knowing when you were hit because it was raining just like this and you were soaked dead already.
We’re pitching the tent in the backyard just for kicks, when you stop and say, “Hey: kid.”
“Hi. Have you heard the one about the guy searching for himself under three hundred suns?”
“And God comes up to him like, Whaddya looking for, and the guy’s like, Me, and God’s like, Here let me help. And they search for the rest of his life. At which point God says, Are you sure it was here?”
You stare at me. Red eyes making the blue parts look bluer.
“I forget the punch line,” you say.
And sure: I am the one who will spend the rest of his life being told to just talk and tell us about school and work and the hospital. But Ellen—lovely with humor, hammocks, road-trip snacks, National Park passes and improvised bird calls, Ellen with the puns as we entered Wyoming (Look upon this emptiness! But enough about the state I’m in…), pressing my seat-warmer button as I dreamed in the passenger seat—Ellen is the one who gets quiet as the rain runs out and the sky goes purple and there’s nothing left to do but wrap her old uncuddled shoulders into a blanket that she knit, for no one, and kept for herself.
Goodnight, friend. She tucks me into my blanket (What’s this? Oh, it’s—you) and says goodnight again as she falls onto hers. Purple—I swear they’re purple—can clouds be purple? Something fluttering across my lap till they’re black, pitch, and it might as well be butterflies, except I know that it is moths.