Someone had said: Meet my friend Ruben, like you he’s thirty-five, which could have also meant: Meet my friend Ruben, like you he is young but not that young, or Meet my friend Ruben, like you he is tired of performing basic human behaviors such as eating, defecating, taking out the trash, or Meet my friend Ruben, like you he makes all of us very uneasy with his lonesomeness, inviting himself over every year for our family’s Thanksgiving and insisting on washing the dishes, on lingering around the house too long after pie, on using invented code names for our children (Maverick, Vorzyd-5, BLAMantha), on subjecting respectable adults to jokes that—when politics are on the table—often involve a slapstick pantomime of stabbing himself or shooting himself in the head, so on and so forth. Naturally I agreed to meet him.
The two of us settled on nine o’clock sharp outside the tiki bar on Wallace. He stood there in his black peacoat with the collar popped, snowflakes covering the tops of his square shoulders. Two wicker torches flanked the doorway. The flames revealed his face in this pleasant, yellow wash. Approaching, I noticed his jawline was decorated by tiny, shallow acne scars, and pulled down to his eyebrows was one of those humiliating winter hats with long braided strings and a god-awful yellow pom-pom on top. Immediately I was in love. We shook hands, which felt oddly formal considering the hat, then made moves to drink.
Inside, the stools were lined up like kids in trouble. Upholstered in shiny black pleather. You could spin on them an entire three hundred and sixty degrees and it was possible to pick up some serious speed on your fourth or fifth revolution, but they squealed loudly when you did this, so I agreed to stop. The bartender wondered if we were out-of-towners. Guess from where, I said, and he said, Up north? which was correct and thrilled me. 80s rock played dimly from somewhere. Ruben ordered two of something.
He said, It’s true.
I said, What’s true?
He said, You have a lovely smile.
This made me grin very widely. A different smile altogether.
He said, So what do you do?
Webinars, I said. And you?
Dental equipment liquidation.
I told him that was very interesting.
The drinks landed in front of us, both with a coppery tinge and a twist hooked onto the side. Ruben sipped the drink, as did I.
He said, Do you date often?
I said I suppose.
He raised his eyebrows.
I clarified, Lots of first dates.
They rose higher.
I said, It seems weird for us to talk about this, doesn’t it?
He agreed that perhaps it was weird, so we stopped talking altogether. I took a big sip from my drink—so big that most of it was then gone, and when I put it back on the bar I tried to hide how little was left by covering the glass with my hand. I propped my wrist over the top in a delicate show of femininity. As if my hand had landed there to rest or unwind. A hand was heavy after all, and this one I had been carrying around my whole life. All that hand. I thought I was discreet, but of course the bartender saw. Bartenders always see.
I turned to Ruben and said, So are you a red wine person or white wine person?
Yes. I told him that, due to his preference of red wine over white wine, he and my mother would get along wonderfully.
Ruben sipped his drink with thoughtfulness.
I said, What about beach versus mountains?
Mountains, he said.
I said, It’s beach for me but that’s okay.
He said, We’re both adults here.
I worked to figure out what he meant by that. Perhaps he meant that either choice, beach or mountains, was an equally adult preference to have.
I said, Do you have any?
I said, Blanks versus blanks?
He turned his glass around in tiny circles. No, he said, and touched his neck. I don’t think so.
That’s okay! I said, and placed a hand on his shoulder, which was warm like a fresh loaf of bread.
He said, I know a personality test.
I said, Will you show it to me?
He agreed to administer the test.
Do you want another drink first? I said.
He looked down at my glass, then at his. Okay, he said. I ordered us two more.
Then he said, Imagine a desert.
I squeezed my eyes shut and whispered the words, desert, desert, desert. I was trying, I really was, but my mind buckled in half. A blush spread across my cheeks—I could feel it, the heat and fizz blinding me, accumulating behind the cage of my face. In ninth grade I played for my school’s JV soccer team and suffered one season-ending concussion. Since then, this was the closest feeling to that. All muddled and hot and dizzy. Brain injury as foreplay.
He said, Do you see the desert?
Yes, I said. What time of day is it?
Does that matter?
I explained: Desert is half sand, half sky, so the color of the sky depends on the time of day.
Blue sky, white sky, black sky, whatever. He said the sky didn’t matter, so I quit thinking about the sky. Also, life didn’t matter.
All he meant was that I shouldn’t worry about sustaining life—for example: where was I going to get water, food, shelter, et cetera? I was not to worry about these questions since this was not a game of survival. This was abstract. A hypothetical. A get-to-know-you-game.
Now that you have the desert, he said, picture a sphere. Let me know when you have it.
I nodded. I said, Got it.
He said, What does the sphere look like? Be specific—color, size, material.
The truth was I wanted my sphere to look however he wanted it to look. A question stood behind the question of the sphere and that was the question I wanted to answer. I crossed one leg over the other and turned my face away from the light. The overhead fixture dumped a reddish tint over us both and caught his abbreviated gestures, the ways he sipped at his ice, kneaded that ugly hat in his lap. I admired how at home he seemed. Comfortable in his body. There was something warm about sitting in the halo of that confidence, and for a moment I mistook it for my own.
Things felt good between us, and I wondered if we had known each other in a past life. Once, when I went to a psychic for guidance, she told me that we were all connected. She said our souls know so much more than our bodies, that we’ve lived many, many times over. Maybe she was right and maybe if she were here, she’d make a reincarnation joke like how thousands of years ago Ruben was the caveman who shared my sheepskin. Next to a fire, our two shadows stretched against a stone wall. Hu-man, I said pressing my forehead to his. Hu-man, he replied. That kid-beanie stretched over his Neanderthal head. This was when darkness was darkness, before cities and power grids and the World Series.
I said: How do you want my sphere to look?
He said, Oh, come on. That’s not how it works. Your test, your sphere.
Okay, I said.
But my decisions didn’t end up feeling like decisions at all—they were just the first things that came to my mind. So I made the sphere a reflective metal. About yea high, hollow. Nothing inside—sealed shut like a vacuum. I wanted the surface uninterrupted and smooth.
He said, A vacuum-sealed metal sphere?
Is that weird?
No, he lied. What else?
No, I said. The sphere isn’t special it’s a sphere.
Got it, he said, backing off. He took a sip of his drink and looked up, like he was reading something off the ceiling. What do you do for work?
Webinars, I said. Remember?
Oh yeah. On what?
Little bit of this, little bit of that.
Of course I wasn’t going to tell him! My webinars were on tantric speed dating, manifesting your soulmate, studying the powers of Venus and the astrological laws of attraction. I’m not witchy or observant. If you want to know the truth, I don’t believe in anything—it’s just the only thing these webinar women will pay for. After leading these courses for years I’ve found the group often concludes with the same takeaway: everyone ought to spend more time offline.
So, I said. What’s the verdict on my sphere?
Well, he said. It’s interesting.
Ready to learn what it means? He said.
The sphere is you.
It’s how you see yourself.
I said, A reflective, hollow, vacuum?
That’s when I realized that there was something very dangerous about Ruben. I did not know him, and yet. I was willing to do pretty much anything to make it work. Because of this, there was already an unkind air between us. Ruben drummed his fingers on the mottled bar top, working over my test results in his mind. The bartender was pouring me another drink since I had ordered a third and Ruben asked if I was okay.
I said, I don’t know. Tough sphere.
He laughed, and oh god. That laugh.
The bartender placed a new, full glass on a now damp and pulpy coaster, then slid it forward. I took it in my hands and relaxed to feel its cold and smooth weight.
Ruben asked if I was ready for part two.
So we’re back in the desert, he said. And you sense a buzz in your back pocket. You pull out your phone and see that you’re getting a call from an unknown number.
I said, Okay.
He said, Do you pick up?
I said, Probably, I’m in a desert, so.
He said, Don’t worry about that.
I said, Don’t worry about the desert?
Just—(he was getting annoyed)—just don’t be so literal about this. This isn’t real remember? It’s all in your head.
Did he think I was an idiot? I looked down at my napkin. I had shredded it into three triangular pieces. It’s all in your head, I told myself. I could feel myself wilt, sweat needling the back of my neck. Okay, I said. I’m sorry.
You don’t have to be sorry.
I know—I said—sorry.
He drank his drink. We breathed. Then he said, So do you or do you not pick up the phone?
He lifted his eyebrows and put back some of his drink.
What, I said.
Then he looked at me rather seriously and said, You really want to know?
I said, How much more of this test is left?
Only a couple more parts, he said. Next he told me to picture some flowers. Anywhere. He said, Any amount. Tell me about them.
I thought that this part was easy. Flowers represent vitality, originality, creative spaciousness, and inner life.
I said, There are thousands. Millions! The flowers extend like a carpet in every direction, toward the horizon in a three-hundred and sixty degree panorama. They are wild and blooming in a hundred shades of ROY G BIV. A carpet of multitudes.
He choked on his drink.
He said, That’s a lot of flowers.
I said, Yes! And knocked back a gulp of my fresh cocktail. Yes, it is!!!
Damn, he said.
I asked if the flowers represented my creativity—my ability to manifest fortune.
Not really, he said. Those are your future children.
What? I said.
He nodded and drank more.
I excused myself to the bathroom. In the humming overhead light, I gazed into the mirror, watched myself stare back with as much objectivity as I could. What did my movements say about me? I waved my hands under the faucet but the motion sensor was blind, so nothing came out. I cursed, muttered. The anger I sometimes feel toward inanimate objects amazes me. The primalness of it. We all think we’re so evolved.
A toilet flushed from the back stall and a polished-looking woman with heavy curls glided toward the sink. When she extended her fingers under the faucet, water came pouring out on her first try like it had been waiting its whole life for her hands.
We exchanged partial smiles in the mirror. Julius had left me for a woman who looked just like her, but perhaps all women with bleached teeth look this way—faces shining with an antiseptic beauty.
She said: Love your poncho.
I looked down at the knitted object I was wearing. My mother made it for my birthday last month because sixteen years ago I mentioned that I wanted a poncho and she’d been knitting them for me ever since. This one I liked—it made me feel sturdy.
Thanks, I said.
We shared the mirror as she unsheathed a dark, wine-colored lipstick, traced her mouth with it, and bit down on her lips. I pretended to mess with my hair as she fingered a fleck of red from the corner of her smile. It seemed that women like her had secrets they never shared. What was the lesson there? Why must they make things so much harder for the rest of us? For people like me and Julius?
He and I had been together for years and had seen it all: the endless (then ended) college days, three subsequent apartments—dingy yet expensive—a grand total of six different jobs, one recession, a net thirty-three pounds gained and lost, and two dead grandmothers. And those were just our twenties. Eventually, he found a woman with whom he shared a “deeper connection,” but really, she was just a hot girl. She knew how to pose for the camera—always turned a studied forty-five degrees from the photographer and knew exactly where to place her hand on her hip to create a bronzed toothpick of her bicep. He’d never admit that kind of stuff mattered. Facing outward to the world with a sparkle and a snap. It felt like lifetimes ago. It felt like yesterday. For Pete’s sake, my mother says. It’s been four years. She thinks it’s time for me to move on.
As I walk down the street to the corner store, I think move on. As I stop to refill my gas tank I think move on. Move on, as I lift the 2% milk off the grocery store shelf, move on as I brush my teeth in the morning, move on as I fold laundry, make the bed, move on. I don’t disagree with her. I just can’t do it. I won’t. Maybe it’s not even about Julius anymore—sensations are a habit, I tell my clients. Sensations become addictive. Sensations make us powerless to ourselves. All those emotions. Julius thought I had too many.
At last, the beautiful bathroom woman looked satisfied with herself. Before she left, we forced our faces into smiles, showing each other our respective sets of teeth in the mirror. Then I removed my poncho and rolled it up into a tight ball and wedged it under my arm. Somehow, this exchange had exhausted me, and when I’m exhausted my eyelids get heavy, making me look high on weed. I could tell it was happening.
From the dispenser, I tore a couple paper towels which hung there like a wide, dry tongue protruding from a dark mouth. I balled up the towels, wiped my eyes, my armpits. I was a small, metallic, vacuous sphere ready to impose on some unsuspecting fool millions of burdensome offspring. But I didn’t even feel sexual enough to pull that off—I was about as sexual as a paper towel dispenser—offering itself up for anything with a heartbeat. I felt sick to my stomach. Maybe it was the bathroom odors, the small automatic air freshener attached to the wall that phsst-ed every minute, tossing up a cloud of mist. Mysteriously spicy. The sink drain crusted over with black mold. I examined my teeth, their vaguely yellow tint, and my aquiline nose, which seemed to cast an impossibly large shadow over my face. I examined my arms—their weird, disproportionate excess. I tore off another paper towel, wet it under the faucet, and dabbed my neck. A small sigh escaped my mouth. I’d been in the bathroom for a long time. That’s when I got a text from him.
How humiliating! My atoms were humiliated.
I rushed back outside to meet him but he already had his coat on and stood there with his collar sticking straight up, yellow pom-pom lobbed to the side, thumbs typing into his screen. I could see the check was taken care of, pinned to the bar with a heavy pen.
Sorry, he said. Something came up. Kind of an emergency.
I said, Oh. Is everything okay?
He said, Yeah. HVAC problems.
I glanced out the window to check the weather (pleasant), and decided not to ask about the particulars of these problems. I hated putting people on the spot, making them lie to me.
Annoying, I said. Looking at him made me dizzy again. Tangled in the head. I said, Welp.
He said, What?
Okay, he said. Good meeting you.
Ruben exited the bar with his hands stuffed in his pockets. His posture was dignified, even though I could see him through the glass starting to jog. He was running toward his car.
I returned to my duplex that night, stepping into the loyalty of a dark, quiet house. Stairs groaned all the way up to my room. I slipped into my sleep-clothes which I always kept pooled at the foot of my bed next to a crusty coffee mug and a hopeful box of prophylactics. I languished over the covers. My retainer tightening around my top row of teeth. I considered texting someone. I considered texting him. It was my sphere, wasn’t it? My flowers? BTW I was in the bathroom for so long because I was getting to know a lovely female who will teach me how to also become a lovely female. I’m good r u good?
When you think about it, nighttime is made for rumination. It mimics the mind and dream space—all its dark emptiness, quivering with questions: What’s behind the door? What’s under the bed? Why did I make that blue joke to the Uber driver when he offered me nuts? Why did I sleep with Todd? Why did I sleep with Bryan? Why did I sleep and continue to sleep for an entire year with that dueling pianos player who pulled my hair too hard? And then there was Julius—the question of what actually happened—which is to say, I have no idea. We chased the passion of our first year with blind commitment: dog chasing car. Nothing had ever been so easy. Then I began doing things and couldn’t stop—wearing leggings after he had explicitly told me that he doesn’t like other people seeing my legs, getting a drink with other women my age I met in webinar—he hated when I drank. I said the wrong things during sex spoiling the mood, and he would push me off of him. I was relegated to the far edge of the bed where it was cool and empty. Loving him was learning the rules to an invented game. I was breaking them before I knew them, and now I didn’t trust myself to know anything. Babe, he said before kissing my head. I won’t give up on you. Then he did.
In my webinar, Astrological Compatibility Pisces Women & Virgo Men, I pressed my clients to be honest with themselves. I, on the other hand, couldn’t keep the order of events straight or remember how much of the Julius story I had made up. I make things up, you know. Julius tells me I do. Now I’m starting to wonder, is he right? Could it be Julius who makes things up, not me? What I mean by that is, what the heck had I done that was so bad? I mean really—what had I done? More than anything in the world, I needed to know.
The blinds were up, and light from the boulevard traveled in abstract shapes across my blanket. A blanket knitted by my mother from the same yarn as the poncho. It’s checkered with blue, purple, yellow. Colors of a contusion. My legs were burning hot. The covers were very, very heavy since I’d been using that weighted blanket I ordered online last winter. Also, multiple layers of wool afghans, some coats and scarves I’d piled over the bed to simulate the weight of a human being. If I could sleep crushed under the steel girder of an oil rig, I would. It’s not like I live alone exactly, but Wanda is no comfort. Wanda is the downstairs tenant, or rather, I am the upstairs tenant. We see each other in passing. She’s always dressed from head to toe in some shapeless purple garment. A muumuu? I know she comes from a family of bricklayers, has fond memories of the Nixon administration, and hates the smell of marijuana. She rents out the top floor of the duplex to me for only $600. It’s like having my own little apartment with a sweet little live-in landlord. Who am I kidding? She’s not sweet. She’s an old witch who rams her broom against the ceiling very time I step too loudly in the shower.
There was a clatter from downstairs—pots and pans. It was loud. So loud it vibrated the walls, jolting me into a standing position. The noise continued for a little while, like something heavy and alive had fallen into a garbage can and was trying to fight its way out. Wanda? She was too old for this kind of activity.
I opened the door of my bedroom, called out: Hello? It was quiet again. Something told me the sounds I was hearing were definitely not Wanda. Another crash. Julius? He used to come over unannounced. Used to wake me up with sex before I even knew where or who I was. Sorry he’d say afterward, and things felt balanced for a couple days.
I grabbed the nail file from my dresser. It was pointy and dusted with white nail powder. I wiped it on my hip then held it out again, spoke into the darkness: Hello?
The walk downstairs was steep and I had to hold onto the walls because I was wearing socks and because the floor was slick and because I don’t trust Wanda to remember my name let alone call an ambulance if I fall down and snap my spine. In a way, we are perfect for each other. Some days as I hunch over my computer in my bathrobe eating pickles from the jar, I can feel myself becoming her.
Hellooo, I said it this time in a voice that was trying at lightheartedness, communicating that I was a non-threat, presenting no obstacle in the heist. If he were a burglar, have at it. Burgle-away. He could take whatever he wanted from the shoe rack or the refrigerator and I wouldn’t even call the cops. In fact, I would wish him well, bring him chilled water, open up the pull-out couch and show him my wide variety of bedside candles. Maybe I’d let him stay the night.
By the time I was downstairs, the dark was so thick and so black that for a moment I thought I had gone blind. When I placed my feet down on the bottom floor, the wood went soft and granular. A cool mound of sand under my feet. Above me, was open space, gigantic night. The roof?—gone, and the front door had been ripped off its hinges. In fact, no hinges. No walls. No house. I was alone on an oceanless beach. The moon beaming brightly like a billboard.
I removed my socks to feel the texture of the desert slide in-between my toes. Around me was all warmth and stillness. I thought, An impossible thing is miraculous! Then I thought, I’m not making any sense! It was true: My mind was broken! An expansive swath of earth just appeared on the ground floor of my duplex and still my biggest question was peripheral: Who cares enough to believe me?
I began walking forward, and somehow understood something: I must cover a great distance. My footprints looked like narrow-faced strangers. My hands looked like tired men. A great deal of time passed, and several times, I glanced back to where I came from. Each time, the house was still gone.
I couldn’t report on what happened, even if I wanted to. But what I will say is that I saw a lot that a person would not believe. The tiki torches from the bar on Wallace, clouds the color and shape of giant purple muumuus, a mob of turkeys, all oddly intelligible— Move on!—gobble, gobble—Move on!—burying their heads in the sand. I ambled through a geodesic dome of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units whirring on high, a sound bath of Om. The bartender on the other side. He held open the door with that familiar look of worry. Like I’d flown off the handle. Gone berserk. Blown my top. Popped my cork. Hit the roof. That’s fine—I know what I saw.
Eventually, morning came. All parts rearranging—I wondered about my future and survival with the detached curiosity of a stranger. The sun ripened, an eyelid cracking open, and at last, I came upon it—a sick joke! My sphere, that small shining thing wedged into the earth. Wind brushing sand back and forth, grains tapping hollowly against the hard surface and in it, my reflection. The length of my face distorted through a bend of metal, my eyes, bright and searching. I looked really sad. But also, like myself.
A vibration emanated from my back pocket. I let it buzz buzz buzz, and when it stopped, something unhooked from behind my chest. A long yawn of silence and a sense of the immanent. Who knows what or how much? Not me. The only thing I cared to do was sit and watch the sky change. Such a big thing! How could anyone say it doesn’t matter?