It was August, and I was supposed to get a matching tattoo with Aimee, who I’d met in June. She got the tattoo. I didn’t. “Chicken,” Aimee said. We’d spent weeks doodling different versions of it, talking on the phone about possible fonts for the phrase we wanted etched on both our skin: Whither thou goest. A heavy-handed phrase, to be sure, but it had been a long and weighty summer.
I still got a tattoo that day—of a plate, on my arm. The plate was from a poem by Patrizia Cavalli that I’d read for the first time just the day before.
The truth is I was chicken. Instead of getting a tattoo to seal a friendship I wanted so badly to last, I got one to commemorate a heartbreak over someone I barely knew. I didn’t know then that it was a choice to filter my memories in blue—didn’t know that wasn’t the only way to preserve them.
But it was August of the summer that I met Aimee. She still got the words we had chosen tattooed on her skin. “Chicken,” she said, and before her, I was.
The first time I see Aimee, she’s dressed like she’s ready for picture day. Her silky black hair is pinned back at each temple with a little clip, and she wears a black cardigan patterned with little pink roses over a neat grey skirt. Because she is dressed this way, and because she seems, standing in line behind me at the Starbucks in New Haven, a little too exuberant, all giddy chatter and quick little looks, I think: we are going to get along. I am drawn to people who are larger than life, hold more world than I do.
In workshop, it turns out we’ve written mutual love notes to each other’s writing. After workshop and lunch we go to the British art museum with other members of our workshop group. We move through the rooms more or less together, but each of us falls into our own museum habits: some standing for minutes at a time in front of a painting, others just strolling slowly by, always moving. I keep moving. Aimee passes four or five things with a joke or a snide comment, and then at a fifth she’s caught, awestruck, mouth suddenly slack, her body absent from wherever her mind is.
In one room I finally stop to scrutinize a painting I can’t decide if I like, can’t decide if it’s important that I like it, can’t believe I forgot I have no idea what to do with art at museums, when suddenly I feel her close to me.
“How long have you been standing there?” I ask, laughing.
“Not that long.” She peers into my face. “You used to have a nose ring.” She touches her finger to the dimple in my right nostril and walks away.
I take a picture of every member of our little group: Maher, an endearingly overzealous student from Boston getting his PhD in architecture. Rahul, a suave, impeccably put-together man in his early forties who runs a nonprofit in DC and lives with his partner and their baby in New Haven. Mark, a long, lanky literature PhD in his thirties from Calgary. And then Aimee, Korean-Canadian, in her early twenties like me, working as a waitress in Toronto by night, gathering a motley crew of friends into a writing group by day, reading and writing every minute in between.
In my photo of Aimee, she’s sitting on a bench in the middle of a small room of sculptures, positioned the same way as the one behind her, face reaching up to her left. It’s supposed to be a goofy imitation, but it winds up seeming sincere. Aimee has the same long neck and broad shoulders as the marble woman behind her, and the same poise. There’s an earnestness about her posing as this statue, and in my taking a photo of it, that is new to me. Aimee is the first person I’ve met who is so utterly unabashed about her desire to live, breathe, learn from, make her entire life into art.
That evening, an aging doctor-turned-writer, then unknown to me, gives a reading. Even amplified as it is by the microphone at his lips, his voice barely reaches the middle rows of the hall. We can’t hear him, but no one seems to be willing to say so.
I feel a tug on my notebook. Aimee is gently pulling it from my hands, and I let her. She scribbles something, and then passes it back to me.
We can’t hear you, Richard Selzer!
We hold back our laughter and strain our ears anew toward the story.
Somehow, as the story goes on, either Richard Selzer speaks louder or our hearing grows more acute, attuned as it is to his gentle voice, and eventually we can hear him. It’s about a woman who allows her dying husband’s heart to be harvested and transplanted into another patient. Then the woman and the patient who has her husband’s heart meet, and she puts her ear to his chest and listens to its beat. “Whither Thou Goest,” the story is called.
The room is still.
I hear Aimee give a small gasp as the writer reads the achingly beautiful sentences of the end of the story, and I turn to see her eyes shining. A while has passed since the story began, but it feels as though one moment I was looking at Aimee’s mischievous face and the next, at her teary one. In my mind, her emotions have passed through her as swiftly as a summer thunderstorm. She feels me looking and grasps my hand, and mine, tentative, squeezes hers back.
We fall into a rhythm in New Haven: breakfast together at the campus dining hall in the morning, workshop, lunch, masterclasses and lectures and readings in the afternoon, evening readings, and then, mentally exhilarated and unsettled and spent, dinner and drinks, so many drinks, in town until the wide, dark hours at the bottom of the night. Nights are what the whole day is for. Or maybe it’s less nights than drinks.
Rahul knows New Haven. “There’s a garden in the back of this restaurant,” he says, and we follow him. It’s less a garden than a patio, wooden tables and benches on the kind of fancy smooth gravel that defies gravel’s purpose. But Rahul calls it a garden, so to us it’s a garden.
We start to order drinks; everyone is getting wine. “Let’s just get a bottle,” Aimee says. “Or, bottles.” It becomes the rallying cry of our nights: Let’s just get a bottle! By the time it has become that rallying cry, I’m worried I won’t be able to afford many more bottles. But if anyone else feels that way, they don’t show it. And at a certain point I think: fuck it. Why shouldn’t I just get a bottle?
There’s something sparkly in the air when Aimee says it, and when Rahul picks the wine, and when Mark, with his long, delicate fingers, uncorks it. There’s something new about all of this that I can’t place. I have friends, and I drink, and I read and I write at home. I have fun, I tell myself, a desperate inner mantra. I like my life. I’m halfway through a graduate program that will launch me into my teaching career; I have Tom, who loves me, and who I’m going to join in Portland when he moves west to begin his graduate program and I finish mine. But I find myself starting to think, sitting in the garden with these new friends I barely know: I didn’t know how to have this much fun, this kind of fun. I didn’t know you could live like this—within every scene, instead of drifting somewhere above it.
But it’s Aimee, really, who glues it together. Being in her company feels like being inducted into a secret society. When she gets drunk she only becomes a slightly blunter version of her sober self, and continues to sip her drink as delicately as though she were sewing. And when she turns to me to refill my glass, and when she turns to me with shining eyes and a hidden smile to communicate something unspoken about whatever’s going on at the table, and when I understand her, I feel like I am being woven into something larger than myself. I hold so much more than I thought I did.
Ordinarily, I am the person who wants to leave even as I’m ordering a second drink, which I know I won’t finish. I’m the unnerving person who, even after a late night out, gets up for a run in the morning. I’m the nerd who has never pulled an all-nighter to complete an assignment. I have never not completed an assignment. I wouldn’t know who I’d be without an assignment.
I wake up the next morning at the same time I always do and lace up my sneakers. I’m halfway down the trail I’ve found, dragging myself through the haze of several let’s-just-get-a-bottles, when I realize: this sucks. So I stop. I walk the rest of the trail through the woods, looking, for the first time, at the leaves.
It’s only after my third brief conversation with Mark that I learn his name. Until I heard Maher enunciate the “k,” I wasn’t sure if it was Marv, or maybe Marl. The few times I’d had to say his name until then I’d said “Mar…” and sort of closed my mouth to end the word as ambiguously as possible.
One of the first few nights, my workshop group gives a reading. We each have five minutes. A few other groups have come to listen; people wander in and out.
Mark reads a piece that, we learn, is composed of just one sentence. My mind is blown by the gimmick, but more so by the way that he reads. He speaks his words slowly, stringing the consonants at the end of one word and the beginning of the next together like a line of music, lingering on the right vowels. He pronounces “again” a-gayn. His sentence occupies the full five minutes, and a little more, such that by the end, when our timer is waving at him to wrap it up, he rushes the last few lines, incoherent and flushed. It detracts just a little from his reading, which, by the looks on the faces around me, we have all fallen for.
At a bar after the reading, Mark says, “You read so well.” I’m stunned. “No, you do,” I rejoin, like an idiot.
“Your writing reminds me so much of my friend’s,” he says.
“What’s her name?” I ask.
“Then I like Leah.”
“She would like you,” he says, and his eyes crinkle when he smiles.
The evening of the fourth day in New Haven, I slip out of a panel early, during a break, less slipping than clambering over my friends’ knees to get out of the rickety wooden seats of the lecture hall. I’m climbing over Mark, inadvertently straddling his lap for a brief moment, all overcompensatory smiles and apologies.
“Wait, where are you going?” he says.
“To Boston. To surprise my boyfriend,” I say. “It’s his birthday.”
“Oh.” His brows rise, and then furrow. “Drive safely, OK?” He looks at me and his eyes are clear and concerned. For a moment I’m jarred, then touched.
“I will,” I say, and hurry out.
In Boston I ring Tom’s doorbell and put one hand around the candle in the cupcake I’m holding in the other. It’s windy and by the time Tom opens the door, the flame has gone out. When he sees me his face melts. “Wait,” I say, and I try the lighter a few more times before I finally get the candle re-lit. He blows it out and takes me inside.
Back in New Haven, a well-known Irish writer gives a lecture in the drafty hall by now so familiar to our little group; we take our usual seats at the front and to the far-right of the room. Aimee and I scribble notes to each other as we listen.
Have you noticed how tiny Mark’s hands are? she writes.
I look at her and shake my head. Then I half-turn in my seat and look back at Mark. His gaze is focused on the writer. I look at his hands. I turn back to Aimee and grab the notebook.
They’re just delicate , I write, and Aimee almost laughs out loud.
I was watching him use the salad serving spoons and it was comical , she writes. Like a hobbit.
I have to laugh, but I’m overcome with a sort of embarrassment that I don’t understand.
After the lecture, the writer announces that he’s headed to the Irish pub in town to watch the World Cup. A large number of audience members enthusiastically cluster around him and follow him out.
We follow, too, and after a while, enough people have had their few minutes of conversation with him and left that I spot an opening. I fall in beside the writer.
“I loved your lecture,” I say. “And your book.”
“Thank you,” he says.
“But I do have to tell you,” I say, “I still can’t drive on the FDR without feeling paranoid that I’m going to get sideswiped right off it.”
“Oh,” says the writer, “I’m sorry about that.”
“Oh, no, I’m joking,” I say, but by now he has turned away. I see Mark ahead, so I quicken my pace to join him.
“How was your trip?” he asks. I tell him, cringing at its cuteness: the cupcake, the candle. He tells me it’s sweet. He asks questions about Tom. I tell him about Portland.
“Wow,” he says. “That’s a generous sacrifice.”
“It’s not a sacrifice,” I say. “Well, I will miss New York. I wouldn’t leave otherwise.”
“You’ll be closer to Calgary,” he says. “Come up for a visit.”
“I will,” I say, wondering if either of us mean it. We chat a little more, and then fall into a not unpleasant quiet, our arms swinging side by side. For a split second it feels, absurdly, like we’re going to hold hands, like we’re in school and this is a buddy system. I feel safe with this buddy I’ve found, looking out for me, in this foreign but familiar environment—familiar for all its structure, and in the summer camp-like feeling of forging fast friendships and grouping instinctively together; foreign in the place my mind has gotten to live in these few perfect, surreal days. I didn’t know you could be like Aimee, meet someone like Mark.
In my mind, I take his hand.
Aimee is in love, she has decided, with Jon, a man around our age in our workshop who will hang out with us and then vanish, show up and vanish, show up and vanish. We don’t know where he goes. This drives Aimee nuts. They slept together on the second night of the conference, and every night since.
“I’m not usually this corny about people I like,” she says, over lunch, “but when his tongue is in my vagina, I see God.”
I laugh. “I don’t even know what that means.”
Aimee turns to me. “Haven’t you had sex that’s so good you want to worship it? Like, you want to build a religion around it.”
“Honestly, no,” I say.
“What about Tom?”
“He’s lovely,” I say. “He’s great.” She stares me down. “It’s fine,” I say.
“We need to get you better than fine,” she says.
I shrug. “I don’t think I care that much.”
“You would if you fucked Jon.”
I fall into another rhythm in New Haven. Every night, after the bar, as I’m walking back home, woozy and content, I pass a 24-hour grocery with a full hot bar inside. I fill a container with all the things I don’t eat: macaroni and cheese, gooey barbequed chicken, a hearty beef stew. I’ll just eat a little, I think, and put it away. I’m just going to have a taste.
But when I get home, I eat the whole thing, using my fingers, rolling the rich sauces around in my mouth. I fall asleep burning with guilt, vibrating with fear. My body feels foreign and dangerous. It’s something about this place, I think. Tomorrow things will be back to normal, I think. Tomorrow, I won’t eat.
But tomorrow, and the next night, and the next, I do it again.
Our last few days in New Haven are hot and sunny and melt by like butter. Our second-to-last night, we picnic on the grass in front of the dorms, sweaty and chatty. Aimee and I share cartons of Chinese. I eat noodle by noodle, savoring each strand.
It’s bright, and I have to squint until the sun moves far enough down the sky. When it does, I look up to catch Mark staring at me. I look away with a jolt, then meet his eye, then break his gaze again. “What’s up?” Aimee asks me. “It’s just hot,” I say.
Our last night, we skip dinner entirely and tumble into a dark, cozy bar. We conquer a corner of sofas and settle in for the night. I can’t look at everything hard enough. Rahul and Aimee are huddled together in furtive discussion, all secret smiles and sidelong glances. Maher and I squish into an armchair and share a pitcher of wine, drinking from its lip. It feels like we’ve been here a year instead of a week: already Rahul’s husband, who hasn’t met us, knows all of our names. There’s a bar we stopped being able to frequent halfway through our stay on account of the bartender who seemed to harbor an inexplicable hatred for Mark. We each have a story to tell about the warm, witty, and very physically compact director of the conference. “I saw him in the gym,” says Mark. “On the elliptical. He looked like a hobbit reaching for things.” We laugh and Aimee desperately tries to catch my eye as I studiously avoid it.
The night grows long. Mark leans over. “Need another drink?” I start to say no, gesturing to my pitcher, and cut myself off. “Yes.”
We go to the bar and perch on two stools. He orders for him and for me. We make idle conversation, and finally he catches my eye. I don’t realize I’ve been avoiding his until now.
“What are you thinking?” he asks.
“That’s never a fair question,” I say. “What are you thinking?”
He says, “I’m thinking I’d like to kiss you right now.”
I tell him I can’t. He tells me he knows.
I ask, Does he feel this way often. He says, No.
I’m drunk and everything has been a haze for the past hour, but this moment sharpens, briefly. Already I have inscribed this exchange in my mind, assuming that, whatever happens, it will be significant, whether it points to the beginning of something or to an ending.
We leave the bar and go to another, have beers that neither of us need. Our foreheads drift together; I keep our distance. We talk; I don’t know what about, except for when he says, “Oh, that reminds me: I have a gift for you.” He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a severely bent copy of the latest Paris Review, as though he’s been sitting on it for days. “I don't remember why,” he says, frowning at it. It has nothing to do with me, but the gesture, I tell myself, is the more important part.
I say thank you. When the bartender comes for the third time to tell us they’re closing, I leave it on my seat.
Next to the bar is a twenty-four-hour cookie shop. He asks if I want a cookie. I say no, but I do. My stomach is twisting in hunger, something it hasn’t done in a long time. I thought I didn’t hunger anymore. Tonight I am ravenous.
He buys a cookie anyway, mint chocolate. He offers me the bag and I reach in. Our bodies come close, touch. Finally, gently but determinedly, he tilts my chin up. Finally, feeling hot and dizzy and hungry and guilty and bursting, I let him close the gap. My lips are dry, and in my guilt I make no effort to wet them, nor respond in the least to his. There are still crumbs of cookie on my tongue. It is a terrible kiss.
He releases me when a panhandler approaches us for money. Clumsily we try to turn away, but she is insistent. We both fumble with our wallets; we each give her a dollar, avoiding each other’s eyes.
I go back with him to where he’s staying, one of the dorms. We’re going to watch TV in the lounge, we say. When we get there there’s a man passed out on the couch. He leads me to his room, which is actually a suite: a front room barren of furniture, of anything, gathering dust in its corners, and a bedroom. I leave my shoes and sweater and the cookie in its bag just outside the door of the bedroom. I keep thinking about the cookie.
We’re standing next to his bed.
“I can sleep on the floor,” he says.
“That’s so dumb. We can just—sleep.” I crawl onto the twin bed. He follows, stretching his long body out beside me. We both lie face-up. I can feel his arm tense, and untense, and tense again.
After a while he releases a sound like a whimper, and I look up, alarmed, but he’s fallen asleep, his breath in sleep unfamiliar and strange. It takes me a while, but finally I curl into him, and fall asleep.
In the morning we wake, bleary, mouths fuzzy. I rest my elbows on his chest and look at him. I can’t ask any of the things I want to ask, say any of the things I want to say. Aimee, I know, would. Be Aimee, I tell myself.
“Do you feel your years?” I ask. He looks at me quizzically and I laugh in a burst. “I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I just mean, do you feel like you’re thirty-five?”
He thinks. “It feels normal,” he says. “It’s weird that you’re twenty—what?”
“Christ.” He sighs, dramatic. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
“Maybe I am starting to feel my years. Deep in my bones.” He pulls me toward him. If I don’t participate, I reason, it’s not as bad. Our lips rasp motionless against each other.
In our last workshop, the morning we’re due to leave, we debrief.
“I have one warning to give you,” says the author running ours. “When you leave here, don’t do anything rash.” We laugh. “I’m serious,” he says. “People tend to leave here and do really dumb things. They quit their jobs, they leave their wives, they move to New York.” I glance at Aimee, who’s grinning like a maniac. “I’m just saying: take a beat. If you want to make some big life change, just think about it. That’s it. I wash my hands of this.”
We have our last breakfast at Rahul’s house. He, the truest adult among us, has a gorgeous stone home with a sprawling yard, a large curly dog, a dishwasher. “It was the smallest one we could find,” he says, of the house, I think. He’s laid out an elegant spread of thick-cut bread, sun-softened butter and cream cheese, lox arranged on a platter with tomatoes and julienned onion and capers, a large bowl of fresh-cut fruit. I take a plate and fill it with fruit and the sweetness cuts straight to my head.
Aimee falls into the patio chair beside me, sinking down into its cushion, looking as rough as I feel. She gives me a look she knows I can read, then looks idly around. She does a double-take at her own arm. “Is this dirt?” she says, for a moment disgusted, and then she laughs, wets a finger on her tongue, scrubs at it. As I watch her scrubbing away, so focused, tendrils of hair falling into her face, I feel an ache. I wish I had spent my last night with her. Nothing is worth as much as watching this new, beautiful friend discovering traces on her skin of her own mistakes.
After breakfast, we say our goodbyes. Maher leaves in a cab. Aimee goes into the house with Jon, and shortly after I carry a stack of plates inside. I put them in the dishwasher and turn to see Mark standing in the doorway. Wordlessly he pulls me into a hug. It’s long, and warm—the first of our physical contact that hasn’t made me cringe, and it’s so much worse.
Over the border, miles become kilometers. I drive carefully and too slowly, trying my best not to do anything wrong. By the time I arrive in Toronto and park in front of Aimee’s house, I’m a mess of nerves. It’s balmy and Aimee comes out in a crop-top, billowing linen pants, and oversized sunglasses, which she pushes up over her hair to wrap me into her arms.
“I need you not to leave me again,” she says. “I need you.”
I find this hard to believe as she introduces me to her city, her friends, the places she spends her time, infuses with her shimmering perfume. I needed her. The weeks—barely two—that I’d spent without her, home in New York, I’d felt deflated, refolded, packed back into my own life, which no longer seemed as exciting as it had. I hadn’t been dreaming big enough, living big enough. I’d been too afraid to get what I wanted. Why was I always so afraid?
With Aimee, I’m not. “You’re so skinny,” she says to me over drinks the night I arrive. She narrows her eyes, like I’ve kept this from her. “You’re too skinny! We need to feed you.”
And we do. In Toronto, I eat. And I drink; we get bottles, and bottles, and bottles. Every morning, hazy and happy, I creep out of the spare room in her house where I sleep and crawl into bed with her and her scruffy white dog, both of us beyond dewy with sweat and the smell of sticky bar counters and the sweetness of summer leaves. I wear her clothes and meet her mom, who feeds me kimchi stew and sets out cold cuts and chunks of pungent cheese for us every night in case we’re hungry when we get home from a night out, drunk and exhausted and, finally sated, sitting on the floor, gazing at each other, enamored—of the cheese, of the city, of each other.
We hunt down the exact kind of wine we drank in New Haven, a Sancerre I still can’t afford. But we don’t talk about money. We buy a case of Sancerre.
We go to Ward’s Island and lay a picnic on the beach, brie and bread and wine. It’s too cold to swim but, loath to have taken a ferry all the way out not to swim, we dive in. It’s even colder than we thought, and it starts to rain, on and off, rain and then sun, rain and then sun. We hold each other in the water and float. I can feel her fingers on my ribs, but I don’t say anything and neither does she.
Drying off on the beach afterward, she talks about Jon. They’ve been exchanging emails and writing since we left New Haven.
“You know Mark has a meeting with an agent in Toronto, right?” she says coolly.
My stomach squirms. “No. When?”
She looks away, brushes sand off the smooth of her stomach. “I think this week, actually. He said he might be in town Thursday. Hey,” she says, suddenly bright, “should we hang out with him?”
She texts Mark to make plans. Aimee is working Thursday night, so we’ll meet at her bar and keep her company.
Thursday, Thursday, Thursday. I’m anxious from the beach all the way there. I can’t think about anything other than Thursday night, even as it becomes Thursday night—other than, in small bursts, what Aimee and Mark are talking about about in all the texting they’ve been doing without me.
Thursday night, I’m sitting at a table at Aimee’s bar when Mark walks in. He orders a drink, and another for me, though my first is still half-full. We make small talk until, finally, Mark says, “I missed you.” I lean over the table and kiss him, and for the first time, fueled by alcohol and envy and the same layers of stuff that are running me broke, it is good.
Aimee appears at our table with a basket of fries. “Mark!” she beams. She throws her arms around him and slides into his lap. “Gang’s all here!” She passes me her phone to take a photo of them, and I do. They’re smiling and beaming at each other, both beautiful. I can’t help but feel a twinge of envy.
She leaves. Mark talks, and I talk, fumbling for words. Aimee brings complimentary drinks. I’m becoming drunker, and I don’t know what either of us are saying, except we keep making half-ventures into untrodden territory, asserting and reiterating, over and over, that, Well, we’re both adults, so—so— So, what?, says a little voice in my head. So that means you’re allowed to cheat? I drown the voice with another beer.
Aimee shows up with a young woman in a jean jacket. “This is my friend Natalie,” she says. Natalie settles onto the bench beside me, and so then it is Mark and Natalie and I. We ask Natalie too many questions. We keep getting drunk. Natalie orders a burger and sips a beer, her eyes tracking Aimee through the bar. We are making Natalie uncomfortable, I can tell, with our drunkenness and our less-than-subtle glances at each other across the table. But I have no control over the impression I’m making. For the first time, I’m a body first, and only then the person in it.
The night becomes a blur. Aimee’s shift ends and she joins us; we drink. Mark and I try to play pool when the table frees up. I am a terrible shot sober and I am worse now. I support myself with the edge of the table, laughing. I know I am embarrassing myself, but everyone else is so drunk I already know they won’t remember.
We all leave the bar and go to Mark’s hotel. Aimee and Natalie and I pile into the clean, white queen bed, nestling under the covers. Mark has a bottle of red wine, and he pours it into the plastic cups that come in those crunchy paper bags in hotel rooms. Natalie and Aimee decline. I drink.
And then suddenly Natalie and Aimee are gone, and Mark and I are alone, and he is in bed, and we are close, and I know nothing until suddenly I am pulled back, thick as glue, to the sound of my phone vibrating on the nightstand beside the bed. I jump up, fix my skirt, grab my shoes in one hand and purse in the other. “Are you sure?” Mark is saying, and I run out the door.
From the lobby I call Aimee. She and Natalie are in a cab going home. “Just take one to my house,” she says, and I babble, confused. “Fine,” I hear, and she hangs up. In ten minutes their cab pulls up and I get in.
“What happened?” asks Natalie.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Aimee says, “Poor Tom.”
This is probably more for my sake than for yours, but—though I have come to loathe “for what it’s worth”-type sentiments—for whatever it is worth (ugh), you’ve been on my mind a lot. It’ll pass, I’m sure. It sort of has to. But I figured I’d air the sentiment &, I don’t know, see if that helps.
Hope Calgary’s lovely.
I attach a piece of writing I have written about him that I have written in such a way as to veil it with superficial details that do not correspond to him. Mark’s eyes are blue, but this character’s eyes are green.
I’m glad you aired the sentiment. In truth, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately, too. Since New Haven, in fact. I wish I’d been able to spend more time in Toronto. I had—have—such a good time with you.
Your piece is quite wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the narrator’s search for the affirmative sign that there is something between the two characters in question. The mundane gestures of the everyday achieve an immense tactility. We are no more than eager exegetes, after all, resigning our expectations to quieter, subtler nooses.
He sends me a piece he’s been working on. It’s a long sentence in the voice of a man in some kind of literature or writing program, sitting in a lecture, gazing at—fixated on—the ear of the woman sitting in front of him, fantasizing about leaning forward to lick it, but the object of his lust is entranced by the lecturer, oblivious and innocent. There are words like nipple-pronged and pappus-like fuzz and hirsute. I think of him thinking these words in the lecture hall at Yale, the day I left for Boston to see Tom.
At the end of the month, Aimee comes to New York. Her first day all we do is take pictures of each other.
She’s been in touch with Rahul, and we’re going to New Haven toward the end of Aimee’s trip to see him. Rahul has news: Mark is meeting an agent in New York, and so he will come, too.
Aimee won’t stop teasing me. “You can’t ignore how small his hands are for his body,” she says. “And what’s going on with his hair?” And interspersed between all of it, a new refrain: “Poor Tom.”
By now, though, Tom and I have talked. In September he will go to Portland, and I will finish my degree in New York. In December, we will talk about my visiting Portland, to see if we can put things back together.
“Are you broken up or what?” Aimee asks.
“Yes,” I say. “I think.”
“Who cares?” she says. “You have me.” And there’s a part of me that loves her so much that I almost don’t.
We meet Rahul at our café in New Haven, embrace him from both sides, ply him for details about his life, his partner, his new baby. Aimee orders soup. “Aren’t you hungry?” she asks, when I decline.
“You should really eat something,” she says. She eyes me as I sip a coffee, sighs pointedly, and turns her full attention to Rahul.
Finally, Mark arrives. “Now the gang’s actually all here,” says Aimee, getting up to hug him. Mark has barely sat down before he’s ordered a bottle of prosecco. He smiles at me, and I smile back, but after that he doesn’t meet my eyes the whole time we’re at the café.
After the café, we progress to a little bar we’d never gone to in June. As soon as we sit down, Rahul and Aimee look at each other. “We should go now to get a reservation for dinner,” says Rahul, and Aimee jumps up. They leave me with Mark, alone.
“How are things?”
“Good, good.” Mark still won’t meet my eye. I force some chatter; he responds, but looks around, looks down into his glass, fingering the stem.
A young woman approaches our table, and I recognize her as someone who was at Yale in June.
“It’s so good to see you!” she says to Mark, who stands to hug her. “How is your writing?” She gushes to Mark about Mark, and he lights up. They stand just beside me and talk for ten, fifteen minutes. I drain my glass and look at the walls. They’re painted a dark blue, brushstrokes pointedly visible, large globs of dried paint marring the walls. Even if we’d come to this place earlier in the summer, and it were more familiar to me, I feel I still would have hated it.
Aimee calls me; the table is ready. We meet them in the garden, our garden. Aimee and Rahul chatter over a tableful of food. Mark chimes in intermittently. I drink to keep myself busy.
At intervals, Aimee and Rahul find reasons to leave us alone, and in those windows we don’t speak. Rather: Mark doesn’t talk, and I refuse to force conversation. A bitterness is welling in my stomach. Toward the end of dinner, when Mark stands to go for a cigarette, I can’t stand it. “I’ll go with you,” I say.
We slip out a gate into the parking lot beside the restaurant. Somehow, there is still a tinge of hope that if we just get close enough, if we’re just alone enough, he will give up the act, turn to me, tilt my chin up again, kiss me—and this time it will be allowed, and I will be free, and it will be good.
“So…” I am close to him, my body open. He can’t light the cigarette; it slips from his fingers around the seventh attempt and falls to the ground. “Do you still want that?” I ask, and I bend for it. He catches me by my shoulders and sits me down beside him on the curb.
“I just,” he begins, and I wait. Minutes of silence pass.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Aimee finds me in the bathroom of the restaurant. She picks me up and takes me back to Rahul’s house, brings me to the bathroom to get me ready for bed. Aimee is chattering, brushing out her hair, changing clothes while I stand at the bathroom sink. Suddenly it bursts. I close the lid of the toilet and sit down and put my face in my hands. Aimee rushes over and kneels in front of me. “Oh, no, no, no,” she says, and wraps me up. She shepherds me into bed and I curl into her, and after a long time, fall asleep.
In the morning I wake up with dread already unspooling in my stomach. I have no idea how loud I was last night, but the house is not that big. I have never been more embarrassed in my life. But Aimee is waking up slowly beside me, sleepy and stretching and perfect, and she turns to me with her bright, beautiful grin. She makes me laugh, and we laugh and laugh, less and less restrained, until Rahul comes in and politely but firmly asks us to leave. We are exiled from the magic of the summer, but in that moment, Aimee has all the magic I need.
Back in Brooklyn, we both get tattoos.
Through the fall I feel my body changing. It’s responding, it occurs to me, to my happiness of the summer, to its excess, but with delay, like a boat to an oar stroke that turns it too far.
In Toronto, we celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving in her friend Rona’s apartment. Natalie comes, and a gaggle of other friends of Aimee’s, some I’ve met, some who are new. They have their rhythms, their jokes, their own magnetic field. They put on the Talking Heads and dance around, shouting the lyrics. Rona plays along on her guitar.
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself,
How did I get here?
I’m warmed, and wistful, and sad. I can’t quite identify what it is I’m feeling. I go to the bathroom and come out again and see them framed through the doorway to the living room, and I don’t want to step back in.
This is not my beautiful house!
This is not my beautiful wife!
I leave Canada a day early. Aimee is perplexed, and, I can tell, a little hurt. But we hold each other briefly before I go, and when we pull back her eyes are gleaming.
I drive home carefully, slowly, looking at the dying leaves.
Aimee calls. “Did you see Mark got an Instagram?”
“Seriously?” I pull it up on my phone. There are only a handful of photos: of a lineup of groomsmen at a wedding, of a stack of books on a hardwood floor, and several of the same woman, short-haired and dimpled and cute.
“Who’s this bitch?” says Aimee.
It only takes me a second. “It’s Leah,” I say. I click on a photo of her with her arms around his waist, slotted into the concave of his chest like a clean, shiny coin. I think of her ear, hirsute with pappus-like fuzz.
I outgrow all my clothes.
I help Aimee and her friends launch the third issue of a journal they publish of poetry and fiction. Aimee is friends with the owner of the little café-bar where their group meets up. We take it over for the launch party.
Aimee’s friends read their serious, sultry poems. Most of them are about sex. One of them is about bulls, and teeth, and also sex.
When the readings are over, I set down the drink I’ve been nursing all night, well whiskey and Coke. The sugar clings to my teeth. I find Aimee.
“I think I’m gonna go,” I say.
“Wait, what?” She pulls me over to the side of the room. “Why? Stay!”
“I’m not feeling so great,” I say. “Is it OK if I meet you back home?”
She’s quiet a minute. I can tell she’s frustrated. “I don’t want to go now,” she says.
“You don’t have to. Stay. I’ll take a cab home.”
“I don’t know when I’ll be home.”
“That’s OK. I’ll probably be asleep.”
“Fine.” She slips back into the crowd. Someone hands her a glass of something sparkling and she lifts it to her lips, and she lights back up.
At home, I poke around in her fridge. These days, I cannot eat enough. The relief of eating dulls everything else, for a little while. When I crawl into bed I feel homesick, but not for New York.
Aimee comes to New York. It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen her, and she is just as beautiful, but a little calmer, more composed. Her hair is cropped to her shoulders and she wears a large, soft sweater over elegant pants that sweep her ankles as she walks. She has sparkling silver acrylic nails.
I meet her after work in my own soft sweater and boyfriend jeans, new clothes that make me look like I know what I’m doing. I’m starting to. I feel like I’ve shed a skin and come out new. “You look great,” says Aimee, and I believe her.
We catch up over drinks at a bar on the Lower East Side. She’s finished a draft of her novel. I’ve just heard back from an MFA program. “But I don’t think I’m going to go,” I say.
“What?” Aimee looks almost angry. I’m touched. “Why not?”
“I think I just want to stay here,” I tell her. “I like how things are. I don’t want them to change.”
The bar empties. Aimee has tipped the bartender well all night and he gives her a drink for free. “Share?” she says, and I smile. “It’s all yours,” I say.
Afterward, we linger on the street outside the bar. At Yale we would have smoked. In real life, neither of us smoke. We move onto another bar.
Aimee is supposed to see Jon while she’s here, but he hasn’t written back to her since she’s been in New York. I examine her face, her eyes reflecting the blue neon of the lights over the bar. “I don’t care,” she says. “I’m over it.”
I text Jon for her, something petulant and obnoxious, in a way that doesn’t implicate her, but lets him know that the two of us are together. He doesn’t respond.
“Who cares?” I say. “You have me.” And I know it doesn’t work, but she smiles anyway and squeezes my hand and turns back to the bar, into the blue again.
The poem by Patrizia Cavalli goes:
You sit at the head of the table
heady with wine,
and hold forth,
made proud by my tears.
But I’m the one who’s crying
and I won’t move.
So you get up, be useful,
pick up the plates!