Joyland

The West |

All The Secrets Of The Universe

by Janet Frishberg

edited by Lisa Locascio

Before I believed Sam could change my life with his hands and attention, before Aunt Linda’s funeral, before any of it, I was technically just his employee. At work, I stood by the microwave in the yellow kitchenette, waiting for my oatmeal to be hot enough to eat. He leaned against the counter near me, eating a banana and peanut butter. When there was a minute left on the microwave, he kicked my dusty boot with his clean black Converse. His shoes were either brand new or regularly washed. I wondered how to make fun of him in just the right way. I’d known him for almost three months. We only talked at work.

“Those your camping boots?” Sam asked, nodding his chin toward my feet.

I watched the linoleum floor, slightly dirtier now. “Yep.” The microwave beeped. There was nothing else to say, or that’s how it seemed to me, back when I first liked him and was trying not to let him know. Walking around that office, I wondered often if I’d be stuck in this sludgy inaction forever.

#

The first time we slept together, months after I left that job, I learned exactly how much older than me he was and thought it meant something. Five years.

He was hard with me that time. The times after too. Just as hard as he needed to be for me to be happy and no more, which made him different than a lot of the men who'd been inside me before him, who were either too gentle in a way I despised or needlessly forceful. The only way I used my voice that first time was to ask him to put on a condom. I was surprised he didn't just know; what was his plan? I wasn’t upset with him. In the moment, I took it as a sign of intimacy, his trust in my body and his own. Besides the condom, he did everything else exactly the way I wanted. It was what he wanted too, I guess, or maybe he could read my mind.

We fucked twice within two hours. I was surprised this was possible. I came first both times and was also surprised this was possible. When he went to put his face between my legs, I pulled him back up. What I didn’t say was: “This will make me love you too much too quickly.” Not that night but soon after, I let him. I can't say I regretted it but I also didn't not-regret it when it was 3:17 am and I hadn't heard from him all night.

#

In my final interview with Sam, before the first time, before I realized he’d be my manager, he asked what scared me. It didn’t strike me as a strange question. “Maybe…people I love dying slowly,” I told him. “Or quickly.”

The job was to provide administrative support for a team of account managers for a mid-sized company “in the healthcare space,” as I told people at bars. What mattered to me about it was that it paid four dollars an hour more than my current job at the front desk of a dentist’s office.

In the interview, Sam didn’t ask why that was my fear, so I didn’t tell him my father had been dead for almost three years. Instead, I said, “What about you? What scares you?”

“Flying,” he said after a few moments. “Just the takeoff and the landing.”

“Why just those?”

“Good question,” he said, nodding. The non-answer to the question; I loved it until I hated it but I always knew that if, when, he died, I’d love it again. I did that all the time then—categorized traits and actions into “if he died tomorrow.”

Once I began seeing Sam every day, I noticed the crinkles by his eyes. The way his stubble grew in patchy. The little kid grin that spread across his face when we saw each other from opposite ends of the hallway. The way, when we spoke, even for just a few minutes in the morning, it felt like there was nothing he cared more about than hearing my answers to his questions. Everything new I learned about Sam I made into reasons to like him: that he sometimes DJed at a friend’s house during parties, that he felt at home in California sunshine, that everyone at work knew who he was and, somehow, liked him. You work with Sam? they’d say when we met. Literally the best. I imagined what it would be like to be chosen by him.

When I told my best friend Lacie about my growing crush on him, and that he was also technically my manager, and that I also didn’t know for sure if he was single, she said, “Elena, you’re in love with potential. My brother says women need to stop being in love with potential and start just being in love with people.”

#

Eleven months in, I left that job for a new one at a different health care company, a startup. Another small hourly raise, still admin, but they’d pay overtime, and they said I’d be working plenty of it.

He gave me a goodbye hug in the hallway on my last day at my old job. Our clothed pelvises didn’t touch. In another version of the story of us, he could have faded out into the history of people who meant nothing to me. A LinkedIn recommendation would have been how I remembered him after I forgot the intensity of my crush, the way I used to analyze every interaction at work—an errant smiley face, an extra-strong interest in my weekend, a hand on the shoulder—and text my friends about signs.

Instead, we ran into each other in the park a few months later. His eyebrows: two short straight lines. The tuft of hair on the top of his head standing at attention. It was Rosh Hashanah week and I was making Lacie come with me to a New Year’s party. A quick conversation in the park, each of us en route to different parties, his hand resting on my hip for longer than felt normal when we said goodbye. Once he was safely out of earshot I said it was so awkward but Lacie said he just seemed stoned.

After that came a Facebook message, how was the new year s party? any resolutions? A few more messages, Lacie on a camping trip with her family without cell service, empty space in my Google calendar, a drink and another and another, a walk through a bookstore, a walk at Land’s End, a walk through the park, a sitting in the sun with beers and sandwiches watching other people’s dogs play on the grass, our bodies inside each other at the end every time, a reward for all the calories we consumed in public and then burned together in private.

Those first weeks of seeing each other were exactly what I’d imagined during the months when we worked in the same office. I wanted to be around and inside his body in a way I’d never felt before. I knew how to tolerate someone, but he was like an essential nutrient I needed to consume. “This is so simple,” I said to his bicep one night before we fell asleep, and his murmured response sounded like a question mark. I didn’t say anything else, scared that more words would mess it up, not wanting to jinx it. I had been chosen, and I didn’t want to stop being chosen.

There was a predictability to what would happen after we had sex. He’d throw the condom away in the bathroom and run the water in the sink for a few minutes, I assume washing himself and his hands. Then he went to the kitchen to get us a glass of water. I’d jump out of bed and pee so I didn't get a UTI, unless I was too lazy or tired and risked it. Then he came back to the bedroom and, once I was lying down, arranged the covers perfectly so that they covered every corner and up to our shoulders, and climbed back in bed. And then there was no question about it, he grabbed whatever parts of my body were accessible and wrapped his appendages around mine, legs covering each of my legs, one hand holding my head so I didn't have to hold it all by myself. This felt exactly the way I wanted it to, and I wondered often if maybe this was what I'd been in pursuit of all night. I was accustomed to men who turned away after, their backs to me, claiming tiredness or hotness or inability to sleep, or, even worse, sat up in bed, checking their phones, and then asked me how I was getting home. It meant something to me, this pressing of hands against my chestbone, and my cold upper arms, and my cheek skin where it was red and irritated from the day-old stubble on his face. I also liked the marks he left that needed healing, small bruises on the insides of my thighs I admired later in the shower and sometimes showed him with something like pride. I didn't talk about it to Lacie or my sister or anyone.

#

Once we began sleeping together I quickly loved the way he kicked his toes up in the middle of every step. His mouth tasting of lemon cough drops, which he sucked on near constantly, a habit he said he’d picked up after quitting smoking a few years before. “Holy shit,” I would say sometimes after we both finished, and he would grin and pinch whatever part of me he could grab, and I would feel it like an electric current running through my skin.

I also loved the ways I’d never seen him in real life but which were displayed in his apartment. The photos of him in a suit as the best man at his brother’s wedding in Cabo, or naked on grass as a toddler amongst sprinklers. Medals for completed marathons hung on his bathroom wall; he’d stopped running after tearing his meniscus, he told me. I imagined things we had never done together but that seemed possible. Building sandcastles in Half Moon Bay. Sam holding my hand hard as an airplane took off, bound for somewhere tropical or a family affair.

#

Five months in was my aunt Linda’s memorial service in Minneapolis. A stroke. Linda was my father’s sister, the Christian side of the family. My mom and my sister Felicia didn’t fly out for the service.

I didn’t tell Sam why I was flying across the country for the weekend because he didn’t ask. I wanted him to ask; I also wanted him to want to ask. He was supposed to be the one to make my existence make sense. I had a steady job. I had friends and a room in an apartment in a pretty good neighborhood, but nothing felt right. A boyfriend was the missing piece. He was supposed to love my sticky loss away.

Minneapolis in the beginning of winter meant the local cafes were coming out with special winter drinks full of lavender and nutmeg and sea salt and caramel. That weekend my cousin Jenna and I went to get coffee several times a day just to have something else to do. Jenna was six years older than me and worked as a phlebotomist. I envied the concrete nature of her days in a way that I’m sure she wouldn’t have liked. On Sunday before the service, we stood in line together once again for lattes. We were three people away from the counter. She stared up at the menu of options and said, “God, I can’t imagine being twenty and going through this.” I tried to remember who was twenty, then I realized she was talking about me, past me, although she’d gotten the age wrong by a few months.

“Nineteen,” I said on impulse, and checked my phone, where there was nothing from Sam. I was trying to pay enough attention to her but I also knew no amount of my attention was going to make this better.

In the church that afternoon, my jaw was buckled seatbelt-tight. I felt all the muscles along the back of my head, behind my ears, clenching and unclenching as if they were dancing to some terrible house beat. The pain felt familiar but I couldn’t remember noticing it before. I wondered if my ears were wiggling visibly, if this was how to do that trick, if everyone who knew the trick had once learned it at a funeral.

Some of the family who hugged Jenna and me at the reception after were the same ones who had hugged me at my father’s funeral. I hadn’t seen or heard from them since then. Aunt Linda and I hadn’t spent much time together the last few years either. My father was the connector Lego piece to his side of the family—without him alive, I didn’t know what we were to each other.

By the time I had decided I was going to Minneapolis and booked my flight, in on Friday night and out on Monday morning, the beds in the houses of all the family members I liked most from childhood summers were full. They offered me the couch and I said I didn’t want to bother them and booked a hotel. I wanted a door to close. I wondered how many conversations about my California salary had happened behind my back, but Jenna didn’t say anything when she picked me up at the airport to drive me to the hotel, and I didn’t tell her I was romanticizing the physicality of her job. Because we didn’t acknowledge it, it seemed not to have to matter.

Sunday night after the service, I was supine and awake in the hotel room at 2:48 a.m. We’d eaten crumbly cookies, crackers, so many dry foods brought by kind people, and five different kinds of homemade mac and cheese at their house. The friends of the family trying to fatten us all up in our grief, like that wouldn’t happen naturally with despair and winter.

I listened to the heater in the hotel room shhhhing dry air into the room, remembering when I began college and first visited home. The drive from Logan out to our house, me saying to my mother, “The trees are bare early this year,” and her saying nothing but nodding, tugging on her dyed caramel hair with her free hand while she drove towards Waltham, towards home.

My father in the work shed in the backyard that fall, his body full of cancer but not yet diagnosed, his Premier rolling tobacco sitting on the edge of his work table. Something he only did in the shed. Telling me, with a brief glance up from his handsaw, “Elena, just promise me you’ll never work somewhere so quiet you can hear the air conditioning.”

“Okay,” I said, and then graduated early, into the recession, with a newly dead father, and took any job I could find. I signed the contract confirming my temporary, at-will employment and moved to San Francisco, while my mother sold the house we grew up in and said nothing to me about it except to ask if I wanted her to send me my old sheets and comforter.

#

When he was first dead, I felt the absence of my father like some sort of black hole inside me. I thought, especially those early years, that the solution was to find another love outside of my body. Someone who would stabilize whatever magnetic force had been created inside me that was sucking everything good inside it and turning it into negative space. And I can't say quite how I knew Sam was supposed to be that love but I knew it like I know when I need water in the morning, and I knew also I would do whatever was within my power to help him know that too.

#

Seven months into it, not that we were counting, I saw Sam outside a bar in Hayes Valley, down the block from where I sat with Lacie at a café. He stood like a cliché of a jeans model, one foot propped up on the brick wall he leaned on, making a triangle shape with his kneecap. I could see his mouth, pursed, working a coughdrop. With his left hand only, he checked his phone. Mine had been museum quiet all afternoon.

Lacie followed my gaze but didn’t notice him—she was always squinting across the street and I was always telling her to go get glasses. I didn’t feel like telling her that the guy across the street was Sam. “Sam Sam?” she’d have said. He and I pretty much never hung out with my friends but of course she knew his face. Sometimes we hung out with his friends, or at least his roommates, if they were already in the living room when we got back to his place late.

“What?” Lacie asked, looking down the street. Her long brown hair was piled sideways on her head like a stack of pancakes about to topple over.

“I have to pee,” I lied and went inside. When I sat down on the toilet I did have to pee. I wondered how long I’d been ignoring that feeling. Lately I had the sense that all my stories, about Sam, about work, about my jaw, were boring the people who were supposed to be my best friends. I wasn’t sure if this was a flaw in the friendships or my stories or my life.

When I got back from the bathroom, he was gone, as if I had imagined him.

#

Lying next to each other in the mornings, we'd often speak of his unhappiness, which descended on him immediately upon waking up. More precisely, the fact that he didn't know what he wanted to do for work. He knew wasn’t satisfied where he worked, where I used to work, but he didn't want to leave until he found something he wanted to do more.

“Well, what do you care about?" I asked.

"I don't think that's a good place to start. It's not like everyone gets to work on what they care about.”

"Okay."

"It's a nice idea, E.” He pressed his nose into my neck. "But I need to be practical. I’m not young and carefree like you.” He pinched the fat above my hipbone.

“Well, what do you want from a job that you don't have right now?”

"If I just stay for maybe another year, they'll promote me. I think they will.” He said all of this towards my neck, although he didn’t say it like he was saying it to me specifically, but still, I thought it meant something that he was bringing it up at all. “And maybe they’d let me transfer to the San Diego office." Closer to where his mom lived. I knew little about her. Her name was Gloria; she drank enough brandy that he didn’t like the smell of it.

He reached to his bedside table and checked his phone. “You hungry?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“You think so? What do you want to eat? I don’t think I have anything here but I’d be down to go get something. Something fast, I have a lot I should do today.”

I paused, to make it seem like I was really considering it. Around him, I had no idea what I wanted to eat, or watch, or do. “I don’t know, I guess I’m not that hungry. What were you thinking?”

“Breakfast burritos maybe? Or, yeah, something easy.”

“Terrific,” I said, smoothing out his eyebrow with my thumb. This was okay, I told myself, because agreeable meant chill, and chill was better.

But, on the other hand, having preferences about media and food and activities seemed superior from a long-game perspective. The men he hung out with, I noticed, ultimately committed to women who had preferences. Chill girls were longterm hookups, much beloved by roommates, but picky women became girlfriends.

#

One night when I’d texted asking him what he was up to and had not heard back, I woke up to the sound of breaking glass. I checked the time on my phone, 1:46 a.m. There was no message from him; this gave me a pulse of stomach pain. Lacie had texted after I'd fallen asleep, sweet dreams lady love with a head massage emoji. I went to the living room. I sat on the comfy chair and watched from the second story window as a pale man with a wooden stick shaped kind of like a lightsaber smashed the back windows of every third car on my block.

Two times I almost called 911 but didn't. Instead, I watched the man in action, swinging and quickly making fractured what was whole, until he disappeared, running up the block towards the water, and I checked my phone one more time—nothing, the bars were closing—and went back to bed.

#

After it was over, I wanted to see if I could piece together evidence from our text messages because I could remember so little of what we said to each other in person, but my phone had erased our message history when I upgraded my operating system a few weeks before. I was furious when I saw that—you were supposed to be my external memory—but later I thought maybe it was for the best.

#

One time Sam said he could try to massage the tension out of my jaw from the inside. He washed his hands in the bathroom, preparing; I laid on his bed, face up with all my clothes on, opening and closing my mouth, trying to get my jaw muscles to relax.

“How do you know how to do this?” I yelled towards the bathroom.

“I took massage classes a couple years ago. I thought maybe I’d want to do something more physical for work.” He walked back into his room. “I quit, though, before we moved on from the face and the head.”

“They start with that?”

“No, they don’t start with that, but those are just the classes I ended up taking first. And then I didn’t finish the course.”

“Why’d you quit?”

“That’s a good question.”

When he used to do this in our one-on-ones, like I was so smart, I’d blush and feel proud, and only an hour later realize he’d never answered my question. Now it was annoying but then he had his hands in my mouth, pressing down on a joint I didn’t even know was there. “That it,” I said, like at the dentist. “That the ‘pot.”

“Let’s see,” he said. Like he knew exactly what he was doing. Like he had all the time in the world. And my eyes were closed and my mouth was open and for a moment I didn’t care who was right or what the answer was.

#

I wanted to ask my father what to do when my new manager asked me to please not log any hours I worked on the weekend.

I wanted to ask my father what to do each morning when my temples ached.

I wanted to ask my father what to do.

I wanted to ask my father.

I wanted.

#

When it came, the end came fast. I’d fantasized about broken dishes and screaming from the back of my throat, the kind that left me hoarse the next day, but instead I just found myself wanting to cry on a walk through the park after Sam texted me saying he couldn’t make it to Lacie’s dinner party on Monday, something about performance review season at work. I never invited him to things with my friends because I didn’t want to pressure him or stress him out, but I had this time. Lacie was having a housewarming, and everyone was bringing the people they were dating.

I sat down on a bench in the park and texted my sister. When does it just get easy? She was engaged so maybe she’d know. A few weeks before, we’d been FaceTiming and she’d said to me, “You know, El, charming is also a verb.”

And in the five minutes while I waited for Felicia to respond with all the secrets of the universe, the way I'd been waiting for my whole life, I knew, or thought I knew: it would never get easier with him. I didn’t know how to make a person change. I could try to learn how to leave.

I turned my phone face down on my lap and I sat. The trees turned from green to black and the bushes rustled with the sounds of I wasn’t sure what animal. I tried to remember what it was like before I tied my hope to someone else’s thumbs moving across a screen. What it was like before I forgot the answer to what a person should do.

It was still light out. Two young girls slid down a hill in a red wagon. I wanted to record them screaming happily down the grass, but I pictured them toppling and me catching it on video, one of those awful complicit bystanders, so I didn’t unlock my phone and tried to stare just a normal amount, not wanting to curse them with my attention.

#

Things that never happened, that I wanted to happen, but which I have imagined so many times they probably sit as next door neighbors to the real memories:

Sam takes me to a museum. Later, we sit in the museum café and drink lattes until the light hits through the glass roof of the building. Then he looks at me with his eye crinkles and says, “What do you think about being my girlfriend?”

We stand in the shower together. Sam takes my hand and kisses my fingertips, sliding each one into his mouth a little. Then he looks at the ends of them and says, “Would you let me clip your fingernails sometime?” And I laugh and laugh, breathing in steam until I have to stop, from coughing and smiling.

Sam flies back to Massachusetts with me for the holidays. My mom never sold the house and Felicia doesn’t just stay in Seattle with her new future family. It’s snowing and we both have all the days we want off work. We walk through the woods behind the house, the same woods I walked as a child. In a voice made from seventy-eight degrees and highways filled with cars that don’t even know what rust is, he says, “I can’t believe you grew up in all this.”

#

About four months after Sam stuck his amateur masseur hands in my mouth, trying to ease the pain in my temporomandibular joint, we sat on his back outside stairs. I wore a wool sweater; the fibers itched my arms. The wind was doing its Sunday too-much-ness like it always does at the end of the weekend, kicking us out of ease and rest. Sam said, “I think maybe you’ve been more excited about the idea of me than about actual me.”

I swallowed and tried to see if this was true, if it felt true. What does true feel like? I wanted to ask. A velvet covered chair, the wood bark of a tree that’s still alive, the plink of water dripping on marble. “I tried to be honest with you from the start,” he said. “About what I was available for.”

Later, I wasn’t sure if he’d said this at the beginning, after that first night together, but I hadn’t heard it. I said: “I don’t get why this has to be so complicated. Don’t we care about each other?”

“There’s just always this feeling that it isn’t enough for you. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted, Elena.”

I left through the side door of his yard. On my way out, in one hand I grabbed petals from what I imagined to be some exotic California flower, growing along his wooden fence. They were dark red like a cabernet, and I held them in my sweaty palm carefully, trying to keep them intact, trying to keep from crushing them.

#

On a Friday morning a few weeks later I read about the challenge. It was supposed to take a year; it required giving away one thing a day. I wanted to do even better and get rid of 400 things in just twenty-four hours. I’d stayed home from work to finally go to a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon, so I had the time.

“What do you regret?” Sam asked me once, over mimosas in a window seat. I once told Lacie, when she asked what he was like, that he was the kind of person who was full of the right questions at the wrong times.

I texted Felicia, saying: Im doing a 400 less challenge and my sister wrote back: what do you mean and I wrote back: where do all the things come from??? and her … bubble popped up and then disappeared. I waited for three minutes but she said nothing. The only way I could be in action since he stopped wanting to see me and stopped responding to my text messages was furiously. I had no space for unread novels, for unused pale blue pillowcases. I did not need unworn silver necklaces, or olive green pleather ballet flats, holiday cards with puppies on them or three unopened flavors of exfoliating scrub. With each item thrown into a paper grocery bag, I rid myself of another should in my life.

I put the items onto the sidewalk, along with all my uncomfortable underwear and a stepstool I made with my father that always wobbled. I wanted to tell someone what I was doing so they’d know I was mighty and fierce and pure now but I couldn’t think who would get it, not the way I wanted someone to get it. I was throwing away my mistakes, I was moving forward from imperfect, I was more than the physical objects of my existence.

After, I strode up the street towards the bus to my doctor’s appointment, trying to walk the way a person with a singular purpose might.

#

At the doctor they took all kinds of scans of my jaw and said they’d email within ten business days with what they found.

“Who looks at the X-rays?” I asked.

The physician’s assistant whispered, “Oh, we have an international team of doctors who view them online, it’s all done online now.” She winked at me.

When I got home, I found not a single item where I’d left it on the sidewalk. Everything was gone, including the wobbly stool.

This was what I’d wanted earlier when I was just a person whose jaw hurt. Now I was a person with unknown problems whose insides were going to be viewed by strangers in other countries. All that was left on the gum-splattered sidewalk was a tiny paper bag that used to hold bracelets and extra hair ties, drifting swiftly towards the gutter and probably, eventually, the bay.