“I want to leave you,” I say against the grinding of machinery and whoosh of air that accompanies the passing subway train. He doesn’t hear me; my words get lost, and his eyes are focused on the sign that announces approaching trains. Our train is delayed.
Over the past few months the truth has been spilling out of me, but only when no one can hear. Like a strange form of Tourette’s.
I called my mother on the phone last Thursday and she asked, “How’s it going with What’s His Name?”
“Good,” I said. “Good.”
“Did he propose yet?”
“No,” I said.
“Well don’t you think it’s about time?”
She lives near the airport in the house where I grew up. She doesn’t have any neighbors; everyone else from the street sold their land to the airport corporation for runway expansion years ago. Now her house sits isolated on a vast wasteland, a dozen asphalt driveways dividing up perfect squares of patchy, brown grass. She could get murdered and no one would hear a thing.
“Lizzie, don’t you think it’s about time?” she asked again, her voice, as always, like a disappointed sigh.
A plane flew over her house then, sucking all of the sound out of the atmosphere.
I said, “Your second husband used to grab at me when you were at work.”
“What did you say?” she asked. “Something about work?”
“No, he has not proposed yet,” I said. She started giving me a lecture about men and marriage. When she fell into the old routine about why, with all that education, I couldn’t find a better job than a waitress, I told her Michael was calling me.
“I can’t hear him calling you,” she said.
He wasn’t. He’d gone to visit his parents in New Jersey and I’d stood in our empty apartment. An ambulance and two fire trucks sped by below.
I said, to no one: “I’m suffocating.” But that didn’t seem quite right, so I said, “I’m tired.”
Now, Michael and I stand on the subway platform on our way to see this band in Brooklyn. I can’t remember the name of it. The lead singer screams a little, which makes the music seem just a few years too young for Michael and me. We both turned twenty-nine this year; we’ve been together since we were twenty-six.
I wonder if this is the first sign of stepping across that bridge into the thirties, when the lead singer’s screams become too loud. When all you want is to absorb the lyrics, but they’re distorted and piercing.
“Were you talking to me?” Michael asks. He looks at me. “And why are you laughing?”
“I’m not laughing,” I say.
“Yes you are.” He points at my face. He’s right. An express train shoots through the tunnel. I look at the other waiting passengers. New couples hold onto each other as if they’ve found the rarest gem on the planet. Older people try to be invisible. A homeless guy tries not to be invisible. He clangs a tin can with a black magic marker in a monotonous beat. A crudely scrawled cardboard sign next to him says, simply, “I need help.” A couple of people our age stand nearby, typing into their cell phones. Nobody talks. Our train arrives, the sound of metal dragging against metal with it.
“I’m laughing because I’m so good at pretending,” I say into the void.
“You did it again, Elizabeth,” he says. “Didn’t you see the train coming?”
“I saw it.”
He frowns at me, but he takes my hand. I look at my hand in his for too long.
“You’re acting strange,” he says. I follow him onto the train. It’s packed. I watch the homeless guy clanging his pen – muted by the Plexiglass between us - as we pull away. The same people who were on the platform now stand or sit in silence, staring at their phones or their shoes or out through the windows as the tunnels outside go dark, then light up. Dark. Light.
At the club, we meet up with another couple, Lora and Robert. Lora was Michael’s college girlfriend, which never bothered me. They are both nice enough, though Robert is a bit dull; he’s prone to telling long-winded stories that I stop listening to. Michael shouts to them over the music. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I can tell by the gestures and laughs and smiles that it’s a light conversation. The opening band plays some kind of Americana/punk music. The lead singer wears lizard-print pants with a long red moth-ridden wool sweater over a white tank top. She leans forward on chunky heels and sings into the microphone. Her black hair looks electric blue under the lights. When she finishes the chorus she steps back and picks up a fiddle. The fiddle shrieks over the din. She shouts the rest of her lyrics, her voice throaty and dark, like she’s been talking all night at a smoky house party. Michael cups his hand around Lora’s ear and shouts something. She cracks up.
Robert sidles up to me and says something in my ear. I nod.
“You think?” he asks.
I nod again and he looks both sated and distressed.
Michael finishes talking to Lora and he turns toward the band. Robert watches the side of my face for too long.
“You really think so?” he shouts in my ear.
He looks angry, then moves through the crowd toward the bar where Lora is waiting for a drink. He says something to her and she shakes her head. He lifts his hands into the air, as if he’s conducting an orchestra, and she keeps shaking her head “no”. He storms away from her. Lora calls Michael over, shouts something in his ear and points in my direction. They make their way toward me, cutting through the crowd on the dance floor.
“What the hell, Elizabeth?” Michael shouts. “What did you say to Robert?” Lora is crying. She has her hand on Michael’s arm as she tries to keep up with his rapid steps. When he moves, she lurches forward and almost slips in the beer sludge on the floor.
“What?” I say, even though I heard him. He’s screaming so loud over the screaming of the band.
“Did you tell him Lora and I—?”
“No,” I say.
“What did you tell him?”
“Nothing,” I say. Then I say into another fiddle solo, “Robert is so boring. I just wanted him to stop talking to me.”
“I can’t hear you,” Michael shouts.
“He said you agreed with him,” Lora says. “Is that what you think?”
“It’s what I hope,” I mumble. But I don’t know if that part is true.
“Can we go outside and talk about this?” Michael asks. “Everything you say is getting lost.”
The three of us stand outside of the club and Lora continues to cry. Michael puts his arm around her and she leans into him. The headlining band is standing outside smoking and talking about their set list. A group of drunk college-age kids gets out of a parked car. They’re laughing so loudly at their parking job – one wheel all the way up on the curb – that the bouncer has to shout at them three times that they’re in a tow zone. A car pulls up and the driver lays on the horn, two people step out of the shadows and get into the backseat. Michael and Lora stare at me.
“I couldn’t hear a word Robert was saying,” I say.
“But you were nodding,” Lora says.
“Why would you do that?” Michael asks.
“Everyone does that.”
“I don’t,” he says.
“I don’t,” Lora says.
I don’t say anything.
“So you don’t think we’re sleeping together?” Michael asks me.
I shake my head back and forth. Michael stares at me for a long time.
We take a cab back to Lora’s apartment, and the three of us are silent, except for when Lora blurts out, her voice hoarse and jagged, “I keep trying to tell him—“
“Tell him what?” I ask.
She goes back to her quiet sniffles for the rest of the ride. I wait in the backseat while Michael walks her upstairs, then we take the subway home.
He walks ahead of me down the stairs and through the turnstile. My card is out of cash.
“Michael,” I shout to him as people stream through the gate on either side of me. I wave my MetroCard in the air, but he’s too far ahead. He doesn’t notice my absence until I’ve already headed back to the machine and I’m pulling money out of my coat pockets. Change spills out and falls unnoticed under everyone’s hurried footsteps.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asks from the other side of the turnstile. “And why are you crying?” He points at my face.
I wipe at my eyes with the back of my hand. “I’m not.”
He looks pained, then his eyes soften. “You know there’s nothing going on with Lora and me, right?”
The train pulls up then, screeching to a halt as passengers scurry from all directions to step through the open doors. So much movement for so late at night.
I turn from him and say, “You’d never understand why I’m crying.”
“What?” He grabs my hand and leads me onto a car. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Nothing,” I say.
“We should talk when we get home,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. I watch a couple sitting across from us; they are maybe twenty-five or twenty-six. He leans over and brushes her hair away from her neck so he can whisper in her ear; her laughter bubbles through the car. I’m overcome with the need to know what he just said. It makes my chest hurt.
At home, we watch an old TV show, the volume turned down low, and drink tea. I stare at the ceiling after Michael falls asleep.
“If I leave you, I’ll have to begin again,” I whisper into his snoring.
“I’m leaving,” he says in his sleep.
“What?” I shake him, but he just rolls over and faces the window.
In the morning, I wait for him to wake. I watch him go about his routine: Silently drifting into the bathroom, water running, then into the kitchen, coffee. When he’s putting on a tie, I ask him about what he said in his sleep. He stops and stares at me. Finally, he looks off toward the bedroom window at the silent sky above the rooftops in the distance. He nods once. It’s so subtle, I almost miss it.
“When?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “You really haven’t been listening.”
“I’m lonely,” he says. “There’s too much silence here.” He points from me to him and looks out the window again.
“That’s all you have to say?”
“No,” I say.
Michael waits. There is the tiniest sound coming from the wall near the bed. I wonder if maybe it’s a mouse, but it recedes so quickly I think I might’ve imagined it.
“Elizabeth—“ My name drifts off like vapor by the third syllable. He waits again. He grabs his jacket and keys and walks out. I think he might slam the door, but I barely hear it close.
Two days later, I run into Robert on the street. He looks crestfallen, so I ask him if he broke up with Lora.
“No,” he says. “But she won’t talk to me.”
He shrugs and shuffles his feet. He looks at me, and I realize he’s waiting for me to fill the pause I just left hanging in the air between us.
“I’m sorry,” I say again.
“When I first met her,” he says. “We used to have really great conversations. Two- three in the morning still on the phone. Just great conversations.”
And I think about how Robert isn’t dull when he’s talking about Lora. His eyes light up when he remembers, even though they are genuinely sad.
“Did you and Michael? Did you have great conversations?”
I’m silent for a few minutes while I think about this. We did, I think. We must have. Great conversations are the opening scene of every long relationship.
“What do you think happens to people?” he asks me. “What do you think happens to our voices?”
“I—“ My cell phone rings. It’s Michael. I press the screen to answer, and a car alarm goes off next to where Robert and I are standing. I wave goodbye, and he turns and heads up the street. I wonder if he’s off to find Lora, to try to talk to her again.
“Hello?” I say.
“Elizabeth?” Michael says. “Hold on. I can’t hear you.”