The journalist, Rikesh, sat me beside my living room window. He said the lighting was perfect. I imagined the sunlight casting shadows along my scars. The burns on my face and neck created ridges I did my best to fill in with foundation. But the wrong angle revealed every line. He’d discovered that angle. I wasn’t sure what sort of expression to make. Despite my nerves, my natural inclination was to smile. Once he lifted the camera, I remembered the type of article the photo would accompany, and I relaxed my mouth, squinted my eyes. He directed me to look into the far corner of the room, sitting up straight.
I suppose he wanted me to look stoic, brave.
Afterwards, he helped me move the chair and coffee table back. I put my hand on his forearm, and I asked if he’d like to stay for coffee. He hesitated before saying yes. I wasn’t sure if he was considering whether it was a fake offer, asked out of politeness. Or if he was feeling conflicted. I can usually spot the look of internal struggle. When someone intends to be gentle to a person who is different, but not so gentle that it is obvious they are acting disingenuously. After my accident, the world grew fifty times more polite.
I know how human interest pieces work. I know the series of emotions these stories take you through: initial horror at the incident and the accompanying images, then gratitude that the same did not happen to you, and, finally, inspiration that the subject lives on. As though simply existing were cause for admiration.
I decided he probably didn’t want to stay, but he allowed his guilt to prevail. Maybe he hesitated out of the fear that I might be coming on to him.
I once had the luxury of negotiating attraction, of worrying I’d hurt another person’s feelings. I didn’t always look this way. When an overweight classmate in high school asked me to come over for dinner after we stayed at school late working on a physics project, I made up an excuse not to go. I wanted to be friends with him. He was the funniest kid in school. But the risk of leading him on if he wanted to be more than friends was more discomfort than I was willing to risk. I’m unsure whether I was more concerned about his discomfort or mine, though.
Maybe I was coming on to Rikesh. Or I would have if he hadn’t become so strange as we sat at my kitchen table with our coffee.
“Petrology is the area where I’m, you know, most interested right now, but I don’t need to figure out my focus until next year, and it’ll really depend on the lab opportunities. It all depends on a lot, so yeah.” He rambled on about his geology classes for his master’s degree. Why was he taking geology? We lived in Metro Detroit. Rock formations aren’t exactly abundant here.
“What’s the point?” I asked. I wanted to know, and I also wanted to break him from his monologue. It was starting to grate on me that he was talking at me like this. Like I was his senile grandmother who couldn’t form a coherent response. I’d just given him an interview – he knew I could talk. Of course, during the interview he had his recorder and laptop to distract him. He didn’t have to look at me for sustained periods of time.
“What do you mean?” he looked up at my face for one or two seconds.
“I mean, why are you studying geology?”
“Because I like rocks.” He smiled, like it was cute that I was such an idiot.
I’d thought he was attractive when he first appeared at my apartment door. He had good bone structure, a wide jaw. And he stood tall. Though his preferred topic of conversation was undermining his initial masculine impression. We were close to the same age. He might have been a few years older, early-thirties. But now as he fumbled with my salt and pepper shakers and took tiny slurps of his coffee in nervous succession, he began to appear pitiful, his character thin. I noticed the way his hair clumped in defined streaks. He was wearing hair gel.
Now he was talking about an archaeology camp he went to as a kid. I must have been spacing out as he’d transitioned from discussing his classes to his childhood.
The muffled sound of a vacuum cleaner came up from beneath the floorboards.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“There’s a vacuum store downstairs.”
I got up and dumped the last of my coffee into the sink, cleared his mug off of the table. “You know, I forgot, I told my mom I’d take her to an appointment,” I said.
He nodded with polite understanding. He pushed back his chair and it made a scraping noise against the linoleum. He thanked me. He looked me in the eyes this time. I gave him a half-smile in return.
After he left, I called my mom. We talked on the phone every day since she moved away to Lansing with her new girlfriend. Soon TheWalkingDead was coming on. We always watched it together with our phones at our sides set on speaker. As she told me about her day, I examined my face in the mirror. During the interview, I must have been doing that thing where I touch my face when I’m nervous. My foundation had nearly vanished. I could see my skin: the streaks of dark beige and reddish-white, braided together along my cheek. Frustrated, I pounded the cabinet beside the mirror. My mom didn’t seem to notice the sound. She asked me what I was eating for dinner. I took a slow breath and wiped my eyes. I hadn’t had anything since breakfast.
I opened the fridge and examined its contents: bread, cheese, orange juice. The only produce left was a lemon and an onion. I opened the cupboard and selected some cream of potato. Once it was cooking on the stove, I sat down on the couch. Mom was talking about her girlfriend Carol’s watercolor class. I heard a beep interrupt her, and I looked at my phone on the counter. It was Rikesh.
I told my mom I’d call her back and answered his call. By now the soup was boiling, so I ran to turn off the burner. He spoke in that rapid-fire ramble he used when talking about himself over coffee. He said something about not having thanked me enough. I assured him that it was fine. I lied and said I was happy to do it. Then he asked me to dinner.
I shoved the pot of soup in the refrigerator. I texted my mom to tell her I had to answer some more questions, and I wouldn’t be able to watch the show. If I insinuated anything approximating a date, she’d be texting and calling all night.
I hadn’t been on a date since Miri had set me up with her cousin, an amputee she said would be great for me, since we had “so much in common.” I didn’t discover he was missing an arm until I arrived at the brewery. We ordered several flights of beer. I nodded enthusiastically as he told me more than I wanted to know about the difference between scotch ales, porters, and stouts. Information I immediately forgot. I got drunk and embarrassingly giddy. I thought he was drunk, too, so I figured it was okay – until I talked to Miri the next day, who had already debriefed with her cousin. She reported that he had called me a “budding alcoholic.” I remembered how tender I had felt towards him as I watched him struggle to open his wallet at the end of the date, fingers clutching one flap of leather while his stump pulled away the other. What an asshole.
I looked through my closet for something suitable. I wondered if it would be strange if he picked me up and I was wearing a different outfit. For the interview, I had dressed in my typical work attire, slacks and a nice button-down shirt. If this were clearly a date, I would have permission to put on a dress. But I didn’t know if it was a date. I decided to split the difference. I kept on my black collared shirt and traded my pants for a skirt cut just above the knee. In the bathroom, I applied a thick layer of foundation, blush, and powder. I still had half an hour until he would arrive. As the minutes passed, I paced my apartment. Each time I walked through my bedroom I put on another piece of jewelry. By the time he texted to say he was waiting out back, I jingled as I walked down the stairs.
Rikesh took me to one of those hibachi restaurants. I noticed when I got in his car that he was wearing the same V-neck T-shirt, but he’d replaced his puffy winter coat with a corduroy blazer. It felt somewhat serendipitous that we had both partially modified our outfits. During the car ride I had wanted to ask him if his boss made him do it. If the editor told him he had failed to ask all of the most important questions, the personal ones. He failed to connect in the emotional way that a journalist must connect with his subject, especially if that subject was in an accident that killed two others, and the subject was the only one to escape alive. He failed to ask how it felt to walk around with the evidence of that night all over her body.
“I just really wanted to show my appreciation for your time,” he said as he opened the door for me.
The hostess greeted us and asked if we wanted to sit at a grill or at a private table.
“Grill would be fun, wouldn’t it?” He must have been asking me, but he was addressing the hostess. He rubbed the spot beneath his lower lip, like he was stroking a soul patch he didn’t have.
I looked at the groups seated around the grills. On the other side of the room was the bar, surrounded by booths, which had curtains draped along their openings. “Actually, I’d rather sit at a booth.” I didn’t think I could handle worrying about the other occupants at the table staring at me while simultaneously navigating a conversation with Rikesh.
He asked me about what it was like to be a teacher. I told him I didn’t have much to compare it to, but that it seemed I had less free time and less money than people with other careers. I was happy when he didn’t respond with any platitudes about it being “rewarding.”
“I was supposed to be teaching English in Africa right now, actually.” He draped his napkin over his lap.
“Yeah, my ex and I were planning on going into the Peace Corps together. But you have to be married if you want to be placed in the same country with someone.” He opened his menu, as if that were the end of the story.
I looked at the dinner specials while I considered whether to push for more. I couldn’t concentrate on the words in front of me until I asked. “So why didn’t you get married?”
He lowered his menu just enough to show his eyes. “She didn’t want to marry me.” Then he raised the laminated page back up to hide his face entirely.
He asked how I felt about dumplings. I told him I felt very warmly towards them. When the waitress returned, he ordered the appetizer of dumplings and a piña colada. I ordered a sake martini and promised myself it would be my sole drink of the evening.
After a few minutes of sipping, dipping, and chewing, he broke our silence. “You did great with the interview. It can’t be easy to talk about this.” He swirled the straw around in his glass. “I think you’re really brave.”
I expelled a caustic laugh. “You must not understand the definition of brave.” I tried to forgive his naivety.
Shortly after the accident, for the period when I’d first returned home from the hospital and refused to leave my bedroom, my mom told me to appreciate people for their good intentions, rather than chastising them for their poor execution. Then she made me go to Disney World with my aunt, who insisted on taking the whole family. I gave in and went. After the trip, my aunt put dozens of photos on Facebook. She titled the album, “Celebrating Nadine’s Recovery.” Her co-workers and friends I’d never met wrote comments, commending my aunt on her generous spirit.
“I guess I don’t understand.” He chuckled nervously. “I’m a total coward.”
“Me too.” With my fingers, I combed the hair over the side of my face.
He asked if I wanted to ask him any questions about himself.
I chewed slowly as he watched me. It felt like it took extra effort to swallow, while being observed. That familiar tightness in my chest took hold. I counted an inhale up to six. I counted an exhale to eight. “I’m afraid I’ll end up liking you too much, or otherwise I won’t like you at all anymore,” I said.
“You run that risk in any conversation, right? We’re here to get to know each other. And I did just finish interviewing you. I thought you might like to turn the tables.”
I looked around the room. The bartender was watching an ESPN recap on the TV above him. A group of teenage girls around a hibachi were applauding their chef. “Okay, what I just said was mostly bullshit.” I brought my gaze back to him. “I’ve been thinking about my answers to the interview questions, analyzing how I must have come off and wondering what I can say to salvage your view of me.”
He stuck out his lower lip, then shook his head. “Don’t give me that much power. Let’s just have a good time.” The way he said it was authoritative. I liked this confidence that was coming out.
Our entrees arrived. We’d ordered three rolls to split. I had my eye on the tempura shrimp roll. I reached over and plucked one off the platter with my chopsticks and transferred it straight to my face without a stop at my own plate. It wasn’t until the sushi was crammed in my mouth that I realized this was improper. The thought immediately irritated me. Who cares. I looked around the room. When I looked back at him, he was staring at me. I thought he would look down, break our gaze after a few seconds, but he kept looking. Like he was contemplating me.
“Jane didn’t like this place. She thought it was tacky, how it commodifies Japanese culture,” he said.
“Jane is your ex, huh?”
“Sounds like the name of a girl who’d join the Peace Corps.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Safe, sweet. Like she needs some structured adventure in her life to make her feel like a real person.”
“That’s a bit judgmental,” he said. He scootched towards the back of his booth, like he was trying to gain space from me. I’d thought we were banding forces by poking fun at Jane’s privileged self-righteousness. Apparently, though, I wasn’t allowed to play along in this game.
I didn’t say anything in response. I didn’t think I needed to apologize. I pulled the platter of shrimp sushi towards me and kept eating. I looked up as I lifted another piece to my mouth. He was grimacing.
“What?” I paused, mid-bite.
“You’re eating the last one before I’ve had any.”
“Oh, shit” I dropped it back onto the plate.
“No, no.” He was laughing in earnest now. I noticed this was the first time I heard his genuine laugh, rather than his nervous one. “I’ll order another plate of them.”
“It’ll make me feel like such a pig if you order another because I ate them all myself.”
“But you ate it all. And I didn’t get any,” he said.
I studied the tablecloth.
“What if I eat the second one myself? Then we’d be even.” He looked around for the waitress.
“Okay, but make sure the dish is in front of you. None of the dish can pass this soy sauce container, or I’ll reach over and eat more without even realizing it.”
The waitress returned, and he ordered another shrimp roll, along with another drink. My eyes drifted back to the TV. The broadcasters were discussing a basketball player’s neck injury.
“You like sports?” he asked.
“Not in the least,” I said.
“But it’s more interesting than me?”
“I guess so.” I smirked.
He chuckled. I decided to forgive him for the slip up about his ex. Old love haunts us. Reminders trigger strange glitches in the brain. The second roll came out and he ate it all, like he promised.
Driving home, he turned on the radio. He put on the pop station I listened to on my way home from work. I was embarrassed to listen to it. I always made sure to keep my windows rolled up until I was a good mile away from the school, so my co-workers and students wouldn’t discover my guilty pleasure.
He started to mouth the lyrics and tap his fingers against the steering wheel. It was a Nicki Minaj song, “Super Bass.” I thought it was time I paid him a compliment. “I like that you seem to enjoy this music so shamelessly.”
“Why should I be ashamed?” He asked without irony.
I watched as he continued to drum the wheel and softly sing.
“I think you’re pretty uncool. But I like that about you. You seem to take pride in it,” I said. We turned to each other at the same time and smiled, which made me blush. It felt so moronically precious. He slowed down and parked on the street. The darkened storefront beside the car housed lines of vacuums. Their silhouettes looked like people kneeling, praying, waiting to be taken home.
“Tell me more about rocks,” I said.
He lowered his head so that he was looking up at me from beneath his dark, bushy eyebrows. “Would you want to check out my rock collection?”
I laughed. Then I realized he was not joking. He snorted in agreement with my laughter anyway. My hands began to shake. I said goodbye and got out of the car. I walked down the snow-caked alley to the back of the building, where the steps led up to my apartment. Immediately after entering the room, he called me.
Rikesh asked if I had gotten inside safely. He thought there was a door at the front of the building, too, and he apologized for allowing me to walk down the alley alone. I told him I walked through that alley every day. I hung up, then immediately worried I had sounded too defensive. Maybe it was meant as a gesture of kindness, and I had ended our interaction by pushing his kindness away.
I filled the bathtub and took a Xanax. I had held off on taking one all day. I had been trying to lower the frequency of my doses. My therapist thought I was ready to try going without them altogether, which had been my idea, initially. The pills had been a means of coping with the trauma. And I had succeeded in avoiding them during the daytime, but it was harder to deny the pharmaceutical help at night. Without it, I’d spend the next four hours staring at the ceiling above my bed, replaying conversations and praying for drowsiness.
In the tub, I tried to picture Jane. I wondered what he had been like in their relationship. In the imagined interactions I pictured him apologizing to her for something that didn’t need apology. I tried to picture how we would be as a couple. Then I pushed these thoughts away. Too soon. I always let my mind go to these places too soon. Instead, I tried to focus on the feelings of bathing. The state of my mind as the drugs set in.
Anxiety is like getting out of the water, skin all wet. It only takes a slight breeze to inflict pain. I am sensitive and raw. The pills make me feel like I'm floating at the surface. Buoyed by the water, feeling it there, present, yet beneath me, while also feeling the fizz of friendly bubbles encasing my skin.
My phone sat on the bath mat, with the screen facing up so I could see if anyone – he – called. By the time the water was going tepid, it rang. The screen lit up, revealing my mother's name. I stayed put, listening to the ringtone, until it went to voicemail. A few minutes later, she called again.