Nathan’s driving but it feels like falling, and in the fading day he sees nothing but the road, not the wooded hills or corn fields or farms or the nice new houses on the outskirts of town or the shabby houses at town’s edge, and even the road he barely sees, having driven it so many times years ago, the road between his small college town and her bigger small town, between his house and her smaller house, and as he approaches her Nixon-era ranch on a street of like ranches, he seems to float, a parachute spreading as he drifts to ground. Dead leaves, the same sapphire-gray as everything in the dimming light, layer the yard. The big oak. Shrubs. Decorative brick. His mother suddenly dead; his sudden trip home; his father telling the story—“I came home and . . .”—again and again; the excess of flowers and well-meaning people; the ludicrous God-talk from church-going locals; the absurd comforts from professors who believed nothing; the brand-new holiness of his mother’s piles of crap; the siege of all the ways he’d been a bad son: all leading here, always here, to Angie’s door.
He’s here. She can feel it. That opening in her throat; that perfect awareness of her mouth. Consumed by the need to consume. Keep washing. Bubbles sparkle. Sponge whispers against plate. When you wash dishes, wash dishes, Buddhists say.
Her sponsor said not to go to the service and she didn’t. Because she’s learned to be good and careful. Every fucking minute of the day. Plus, how much better that he came to her? Some part of her knew he would. The same part that’s been waiting six years for this, the same part that always wants a drink. Then again, she doesn’t really know he’s here. It could be—is probably—her wishful addict’s thinking. She should open the door and check. But her mother. Her daughter. Wash the dishes. Bubbles. Plate.
All those years, her mother had trusted her because it was less work to trust her and her mother already worked so hard. Before Nathan, Angie had stayed out of trouble, kept up in school. With boys, just kisses, not sex. If she ever fell in love, she’d thought, she would have so much sex. Sex was the opposite of being abandoned. Had her parents stopped having sex? Is that why her dad left? Her mother blamed the booze. It was easier than blaming herself. In that picture Angie had kept under her bed, her dad wore old jeans and a brown plaid shirt, a farm-boy cap, his feet a good yard apart, making a mountain out of his skinny self. His eyes are shadowed, his grin, huge. As if the grin itself is a joke. On the person behind the camera: her mom. On the viewer: her.
Now she’s an adult, so to speak; her mother doesn’t trust her anymore and she’s glad. Maybe if her mother had been a different sort of person, lazy, happy, unpragmatically less trusting, maybe if her mother had been the opposite of herself then she, Angie, would be the opposite of herself. Would be better.
Once he knocks, it’s over. Behind that door, the mud green carpet where, back in high school, while her mother worked, they learned about fucking: how best to do it, and what it could do. Back then, he wanted to be with her always. Even now, thinking about her tiny gasps and colossal moans, her juddering tits, her pleasure-warped face—though he’s gotten these things from other women, he wants hers back then, when sex was new and love inebriating and he’d leave her house transformed: no longer just a brainy kid with fighting parents and a wimpy wish to emulate his peers, boys with flat, happy features and violence in their eyes.
How they’d fought, though. Even back when only he drank, sometimes, at parties; she never touched the stuff. But then she started drinking, so much that she’d failed her classes and couldn’t graduate. He broke up with her when he left for college. But when he was home on break and his parents would start their inevitable sniping, he’d find himself driving by Angie’s. Driving turned into stopping and knocking. The next day she’d break up with a boyfriend, but “not because of him.” Then, of course, sex and professions of love, fighting and another breakup. After a particularly long separation, while in the dregs of his first grad school semester, he called her at two in the morning. and she deserted her man and quit her job and left Ohio to live with him in Colorado, where she not just fell but dove off the wagon and he started to hate her. He also still loved her, because he had to: if he didn’t, he was either a bad person who’d ruined her life or a lost soul who’d derailed his own or both. But he’d ended it anyway and hasn’t seen her since.
Surely her mother’s there. And her daughter (“a-dor-a-ble” was his mom’s painful report). A thirty-one-year-old single mom, still living at home. Jesus. Turn around!
“I’ll get it!” Angie shrieks.
Kayla’s in the living room with her stuffed-animal mob. How would Nathan be with Kayla? A few months after she’d moved to Colorado, they’d gone to a wedding in the mountains. She didn’t drink, but he did, and made a too-loud comment to his grad-school friends about the irony of weddings: how funny, he said, that such grand romantic displays lead to the banality of marriage. On the way back to their hotel, she asked to stop by the liquor store. He refused. She screamed at him about what “real men” do and don’t do, not because she cared about real men or what they were supposed to do, but because it was an easy way to hurt him. At the hotel, he brought a pillow and a blanket into the bathtub and she said just come to bed and he wouldn’t leave the tub so she turned the shower on him. When he jumped out of the tub, she tried to block his way; he pushed her aside, ramming her shoulder against the wall. “That was an accident,” he said drily. “So don’t call the police.” Then he apologized: “God, I sound like my dad.” She apologized, too. “I lost control,” she said. “And I wasn’t even drunk.” He didn’t laugh, but together, they found places for the wet pillow and blanket and clothes. “You are a real man,” she said, trying to make up for before. “You know how I know?” She reached for his cock.
He’d smiled. “And you,” he’d said lovingly, pushing her to the bed, “are a real bitch.”
The door opens. Angie. “Nathan,” she says. Her face looks tired and rumpled, but her cobalt eyes shine. The pink in her cheeks, her haphazard ponytail, her addled smile give her a windswept look, as if he’d met her on a Colorado mountain after a long, hard climb.
“Angie,” Nathan says, sticking his hands in the pockets of his unbuttoned trench. He’s still skinny, but heavier somehow, in the brow, the lips, the curls dipping against his forehead. His eyes are deep, dark pools, rimmed red.
“My mom died. Did you hear?” He’d meant for that “Did you hear” to have an edge, but it comes out plaintive.
“I’m so sorry, Nathan. Yes, I heard. I wanted to go to the service, but my sponsor thought I shouldn’t. I’ve stopped drinking,” she says. Words rush out before she can stop them. She forces herself to meet his eyes. “For good. I mean, I’m not supposed to think that way, because, you know, it sets up expectations and pressures. But I’ve been sober for almost two years.” Ugh.
“That’s great,” Nathan says—too heartily, he thinks.
“Angie,” calls Angie’s mom. “Show some manners. Invite the boy in.” She wants, Angie knows, to keep an eye on them.
“Nathan Feld,” her mom booms. “I heard about your mother. I’m so sorry. Come here.” She opens her arms. He hugs her hard. “I know,” Angie’s mom murmurs, stroking his back.
Angie wants to pull her mom off Nathan by the hair.
Finally, Nathan and her mother disengage.
Should she hug him? Not yet. “Kayla,” says Angie. “This is Nathan. Mommy’s old friend.”
Kayla looks like Angie, with wider cheeks and darker eyes. His coloring. But not. It hurts Nathan to think of Kayla’s dad. Even though “he’s not in the picture,” as his mother once breezily relayed.
“Hi,” Kayla says flatly. Angie pinches her face into a smile that she hopes looks like motherly pride. Maybe she never made it to college, but she made Kayla, who’s pretty great. Does Nathan see it?
“Hello,” says Nathan. Is he about to cry?
“Please,” says Angie’s mom, removing her paperback romance from the couch. “Sit down.”
Nathan sits on the brown-plaid couch where he and Angie had sex. Angie sits on the rust-orange chair where he and Angie had sex. Beside him sits Angie’s mom.
“You mind getting me a Diet Coke, Angie?” says Angie’s mom. “Nathan, what would you like?”
Angie wants to say, Get your own damn Coke. She says, “We don’t have much. No booze here, of course.” Her mom frowns. Angie can’t wait to drink her regular Coke. At least it has sugar. And caffeine.
When she comes back with the drinks, a silence, punctuated by clinking ice and Kayla’s chirps, grips the room.
“So you’re a professor now?” Angie finally says.
Ouch. He’s an adjunct writing instructor, teaching classes he doesn’t want to teach to students who don’t want to take them. Nathan’s mother always called him a professor, and he’d roll his eyes and correct her—if his father, the professor, didn’t do it first.
“I teach composition,” he says. “I hear you’re a nurse?”
“Not exactly,” says Angie. “I’m a certified nursing assistant. Less school, less pay.”
“And I’m not exactly a professor. I’m an instructor. At, like, three different places,” Nathan says. He grins at her, delighted, for the first time, by his lack of success. “Also less school and pay. And forget benefits and job security!”
“Speaking of jobs,” says Angie’s mom, “I’m sorry to say it’s our bedtime. I’ve got an early day tomorrow. Angie, too.”
“I’ll be okay, Mom,” says Angie. “You go ahead.”
“Well, it’s Kayla’s bedtime too. And I’m afraid that’s your job. I’ve done enough of that in my lifetime.” She chuckles. Angie wants to scream.
Nathan stands. “I should get going anyway. I just wanted to stop by and, you know, see how you all were doing, take a little break from the doom and gloom.”
Angie’s mom hugs Nathan again and says her goodbye. Angie forces back the dirty look she wants to flash her mom: it will reveal too much.
She goes to Nathan.
He’s afraid to touch her. Angie takes a sharp breath and reaches around his neck, like she would before a kiss, but her arms drop into a hug. Her head presses into his chest. He holds the middle of her back. He smells shampoo and a warmer, darker scent—her flesh. He pulls away.
“Bye,” says Nathan. But his eyes say something else.
Later that night, while Angie’s mom snores across the hall, Nathan taps Angie’s window. Angie’s wide awake, waiting for this tap. She sneaks to the front door and lets him in. They creep to her room. She locks the door. He moves to kiss her, but she pulls back. She takes off his coat, his shirt, his pants. Her eyes rake over his narrow body: collar bone, nipples, penis, hips, knees. He watches her, his eyes wet and soft. “Do you love me now?” she asks.
During the fight that had led to their last breakup, she’d demanded he say he didn’t love her.
“But that’s not true,” he’d said feebly. “I do love you. I always will.”
“You always will? Sounds like the kiss of death to me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t win.”
“Because you’re with me.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“That’s exactly what you said. You’re always saying you didn’t say the things that you say. You think you’re being sneaky, but you’re not. I’m not as stupid as you think.” She cried, that unattractive honking she always released after holding it in for too long. “Say you don’t love me. Please.”
He sighed, the feigned impatience in his breath betraying real fear. What had she done? Don’t say it, she thought. He said it. He looked stunned, as if he’d just then realized it was true. He said it again.
Now, years later, plunked back in her childhood room, he says, “I love you. I really do.”
She sobs, those same stupid honks. “Where the fuck have you been?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I was confused.”
“You’re always confused.”
“I’m not. Not now.”
“I have a kid.”
Every part of him feels awake. Even his toenails want her. His liver. For the first time since his mom died, he laughs.
“What’s so funny?” she says.
“Nothing.” He brushes his hand across her chest. Her lovely sigh. He takes off her sweater. Her face has that wounded look it gets when she wants him. She unhooks her bra. They work together to remove her underwear and jeans. He lifts her onto him and holds her there. Her eyes and mouth open the way they always do when he enters her, as if it’s a great surprise. “Marry me,” he hears himself say. Her mouth opens wider. Before she can reply, he thrusts, hard.
After, she’s afraid to bring it up. Nathan lies across the width of her twin bed, staring at the ceiling, his feet on the floor. She’s nestled against him, studying his profile: the burdened brow, the grave downcurve of nose, the sad, sealed mouth—his resting face, even in good times. “I love you,” she says, a test to see how it feels, to see what he’ll do. She pictures Patricia, her sponsor, shaking her bleached blonde head at her across a restaurant booth.
Nathan turns, pecks her lips, pets her face. “You know what’s ironic?” he says. She braces herself, remembering the sadism often hidden in his love of ironies, the bitter glee. “I hated how my mother fed my father’s contempt, so I treated her with contempt. She made it so easy for him to hurt her: all he had to do was look at her wrong and she’d scream. When I got old enough to understand, I could feel compassion for her, but ten minutes with her on the phone—I couldn’t wait to hang up. And you know what? I knew, I knew I’d regret it later, not being kinder to her. And I’d try. But not hard enough. Why, Angie?” His voice cracks. “Do you know why?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Sometimes we just are the way we are.” Inside her rises a wave of sorrow. Feel it, she hears Patricia say. Face the truth. She hates it when Patricia says that. Which truth? The truth of how she feels now, let down, suspicious, quietly panicked? Or the truth of before, the salvation she felt when he knocked on the door? He who giveth taketh away. But he who taketh also giveth. Which truth, Patricia? And Patricia would say, The hardest truth. The truth that keeps you alive.
“You know what else is ironic?” Nathan says. “Right now, my dad’s the saddest fucker I’ve ever seen.”
“Nathan,” she says. She can barely get out his name, but she pushes on. “You should go.”
“No! I want to be here.” He can’t go yet, he thinks. That’s not how this works. More needs to happen first. “I’m sorry I brought up marriage. That was absurd. But, to be honest, I can’t imagine marrying anyone else.”
“Me neither,” she says. She takes his hands. “But you have to go.”
“Is this your revenge on me for saying I don’t love you a million years ago?” He knows this isn’t her revenge. He sees it in her face, beneath the sadness and fear—something hard and final. “You made me say it,” he says.
“You say it. Say it now.” Don’t say it, he thinks. He sees their story before them, an unfurled scroll. Someone laughs at him: His dad? Your love isn’t the Torah, that someone says. Try a misleading travel brochure. He doesn’t care what it is. He wants it. He doesn’t know why or what to do with it. He knows there are worse problems than its loss and better pursuits than its gain. He knows that what he calls love might not even be love, but lust, immaturity, desperation, deceit. So be it. He’ll call it love.
“Say it,” he says again.
She looks up at him with a child’s eyes, her body curled into itself.
“You can’t say it, can you?”
Angie lunges. Sex? Violence? But then she’s squeezing him hard. A hug. She presses the crown of her head into his throat. “Nathan,” she rasps. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” Raquel walks into the room and Noah shuts the laptop. Anna would have jumped on that. “Hiding something?” she’d say, the jest in her voice a blade. Not Raquel. She comes up behind him and massages his neck. Then she kisses the top of his head, which makes him feel like a child and leaves an itch he resists scratching.
Good Raquel. Morning sickness around the clock and still a massage and a kiss for him. “How are you feeling?” he asks, an attempt to give something back.
“Shitty,” she says, her smile weak. “Always shitty.”
“Well, it’s not your fault. Not completely. And it’s for a good cause.”
Unlike the other good causes in Raquel’s life, this one has arrived by accident. “It was going to happen eventually,” Raquel said when she found out. “Right?”
For the briefest moment, Noah wondered if Raquel had tricked him, if her care with her diaphragm had been a charade. But he knew Raquel would never do such a thing. Why the stab of disappointment at her unshakeable virtue?
“Right,” Noah, chastened by his bad reaction, answered. They liked to joke that after four years together, they were practically married, the humor at once a dismissal of and a nod to actual marriage, as if only by avoiding it could they truly succeed at it. Raquel, whose parents had divorced when she was five, disliked the institution, and Noah, whose parents had stayed together unhappily, disliked the reality. But his dislike contained an ideal, a vision of how marriage should be. Perhaps it was that vision that had made him say, “Do you want to get married?”
And perhaps Raquel shared that vision too, because she’d beamed, her eyes watering, as if she hadn’t spent great chunks of her life pontificating against marriage and all it stood for, a stance Noah now suspected had been for his benefit, another fruit of her kindness. She reined in her smile and said, “Why not?”
This is why she’s in his office: The invitations. Her artist friend has drawn up a pretty pen-and-ink patch of Boulder Creek winding beside an entreaty to attend their wedding. If Noah likes it, Raquel’s friend who owns a copy shop will reproduce it at cost. Friends everywhere: he’d talked her down to fifty guests. They’ve rented a simple space east of town, less pricey, no Boulder Creek but pretty enough, with a view of the foothills. Her parents and their spouses have already reserved hotel rooms and bought plane tickets. His father too. Three months from now: by then, Raquel is sure, her first-trimester misery will have passed.
Noah examines the invitation, though he already knows what he’s going to say. “It’s perfect.”
Raquel sticks a finger in the air and flees the room. From down the hall, a retch. A flush. The hiss of the sink. She reappears. “Oh, good,” she says. “I’ll call Devi.”
As soon as she leaves, he opens his lap top. “Nathan,” she rasps. “Goodbye.” Now what? Nathan and Angie are supposed to get back together and ruin each other’s lives. Where’s the full-length story he needs for his book? More to the point: Is it really over? He and Anna? Of course it is.
But after all these years, why write about her now, of all times? Why open that door?
Save his lingering grief over his mom, he has a good life: He’s a lecturer at the university, with a three-year contract that makes him the envy of his less fortunate grad-school friends. He has a growing list of published stories. He meditates daily, writes regularly, takes his anti-depressants religiously. He hikes and camps and climbs rocks when he can. Pretty, smart, sweet Raquel: she makes his good life better, no? The baby will change some things, but not that. Maybe he’s a little too attached to some television shows. Maybe, even though on paper, he and Raquel don’t have cable because television just isn’t that important to them and it’s the opiate of the masses, etc., the real reason he doesn’t want cable is that if they had it he wouldn’t meditate, write, teach, remember his anti-depressants, or go outside. Because TV on Netflix is bad enough and sometimes all he can think about is that next episode of The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or The Wire or The Office or Bojack Horseman, or, God help him, Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy. And maybe sometimes he can’t wait for Raquel to go to bed so he can watch his show. And maybe he wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks about his show, and what’s great about it and what’s wrong with it and why he loves it anyway even though the best shows are nothing but the best-told lies and why his own stories are full of lies, about something that happened because of something that happened and look how well he tries to write about it and how the imposition of order and beauty on the stuff of life is an exquisite violence, and Anna, Anna Clark, how cruel he could be to her and how he will never love anyone like that again, with all that sweet desperation and raw, ugly need, and how every love thereafter became about not loving like that, about being a smarter, kinder person, about being less alive.
Still, when Noah’s mother died he didn’t think of Anna. He could contemplate nothing but his own sadness. Anna had come to the service. She stood in line and took her place in front of him, and it was like those movie scenes when someone awakens to a blur that becomes clear. Anna was softer and droopier than he remembered and wore a silver wedding band. He could tell she was nervous. Something fluttered in his stomach and then one of the pain-bricks that kept dropping down in him dropped and crushed the fluttering thing.
“Noah,” Anna said, her eyes filling. She hugged him. “I’m so sorry about your mom. I didn’t know if I should come.”
“No,” said Noah. “Thank you. I’m glad you did.” As soon as he said it, he knew it was true. The last time he saw her, she was sitting in his tiny, sinkless bathroom, threatening to kill herself with his nose-hair scissors. Not long before that, they’d been in bed, talking about baby names. She’d liked the name Agatha. “Agatha?” he’d said. A mean quip rolled into his mind. They’d been rolling into his mind, and sometimes off his lips, since she’d arrived in Colorado, since their big fight on her first night, since the manic “we-can-make-this-work” discussion after, since their pretend-mutual decision for her to get her own place, since she’d lost her own place and had to move in with him. The mean quip that just rolled into his mind was exceptionally mean. He knew what she wanted at that point in her life, and how it had conflated with him, her move out west a doomed mix of nostalgia and fresh start. He’d watched her fill out forms and delete them. He’d watched her fill out forms and submit them, only to find there were more forms to fill, more requirements yet to gain, always something missing. But before they’d started talking about baby names, she’d complained about the sex they’d just had. “It was boring,” she said. “Where were you?” He felt ashamed of the boring sex, which was boring because he was tired of her but couldn’t admit it because his belief they were “meant to be” was the closest thing to a religion he had. And so, though her dig at their sex hurt his feelings, he apologized and initiated a semi-honest analysis of why he’d been boring, sharing thoughts about how they could avoid boring sex in the future. Somehow, as was the way with them, this turned to baby-name talk. And now he had a mean quip rolling through his mind, a quip so mean yet nonsensical that he had to laugh.
“What?” Anna said.
“Nothing. It’s just this dumb thought I had. I shouldn’t say it.”
“Then don’t.” Her eyes glinted with fear. This somehow made him laugh harder.
“It’s just—“ he said. A voice inside him said, Now! “You only like the name Agatha because you never went to college.”
Soon after, she made him say he didn’t love her. Then she closed herself in his bathroom with his scissors. Then she dropped them on the floor and started cackling. “Suicide by nose-hair scissors,” she said. “Good god.” Then, “I need to go home.”
Noah always thought that if he saw Anna again, he’d apologize for everything. But now, his gladness about her coming to the service vaporized. He looked at her pretty blue eyes that clearly wanted something from him and he felt nothing for her, no gladness, no guilt, no lust, which did not prevent him from wishing he could throw her down and fuck her right there on the chapel floor. Another pain-brick dropped. Noah squeezed Anna’s hand and, again, thanked her for coming. She kept standing there. Closed for business, he wanted to say. He turned to the next person. At the edge of his vision, he saw her still. He glanced at her, a command to leave. She left. A few days later, he and Raquel flew home.
But lately, when he can’t sleep, he replays seeing her at the service, just like he used to replay the nose-scissors night. Before the nose-scissors night, he’d replayed the pre-grad-school breakup, although that technically wasn’t a breakup because they technically weren’t together. They’d started fucking again while they tried to “figure things out.” Sometimes she’d accuse him of using her, and he’d say, frantic to defend himself from the accusation’s truth, “Of course I am. I use you and you use me. That’s what love is.” But then he happened upon her outside his friend’s house with his friend’s younger brother. The brother took a bicycle from the back of Anna’s mom’s Ford Escort and kissed Anna on the lips. Even now, he can see them. Even now, his stomach turns.
He pushes a button, deletes his story’s last lines. Angie rasping, “Nathan, goodbye”: good luck with that, Angie. Nice try.
Anna sits at her computer, as she does on nights when her kids are asleep and her husband’s at a gig, and googles “Anna Clark.” When she married Tim, she kept her name. Changing it scared her. Maybe she’d mistake herself for someone else and forget she was a drunk and drink their marriage away. But she’s stayed sober for five years. And it’s getting easier. “Don’t say that,” her sponsor, Robert, says. “That’s exactly what your addiction wants you to think.”
Multiple Anna Clarks appear: the Harvard scientist, the Taylor Swift fan, the scrapbooker extraordinaire. Dead women. On page two, there she is: her name listed with an unremarkable time from the 5k she ran right after she’d started seriously getting clean.
Is she addicted to screens? Yes! But who isn’t? And doesn’t everyone google themselves, looking for clues to the mystery of who they are and are not?
“Noah Gold” she types. Nothing new there. Lecturer of English at University of Colorado. A 4.2 for overall quality and a chili pepper for hotness on Rate My Professor. Stories published in various journals. One of these stories has a link: it’s about a forty-something recovering male alcoholic who finds God and goes back to college and becomes obsessed with his headstrong female professor, who seems to like him until he makes missteps. The first time she read it, her heart thumped: Was she the alcoholic? But where was Noah? Was he the alcoholic? The professor? Neither and/or both? If she’d asked these questions of Noah, he’d have rolled his eyes and lectured her on the nature of fiction. “Writing fiction is not self-expression,” he’d have sneered. “It is not therapy. My job is to create convincing characters and compelling conflicts. Not to parade my neuroses or exorcise my demons. Where am I in this story? Who cares?” And then she’d say, “You should care. Because your story really isn’t that good.” But maybe she wouldn’t have said that. That was the old her. And who knows what he would have said? By now he might say, do, be anything.
So when she heard Noah’s mom died, she decided to go to the service. Because despite their past troubles, she told herself, they were once important to each other and she wanted to be there for him in his time of need. But mostly she wondered what it would be like to see him again. She entered a big stone church, where all services at Rousseau College, regardless of creed, were held. Noah was with a woman, the kind who never wears make up or nice clothes and is just sort of pretty but doesn’t seem to mind.
Anna sat. A young rabbi said something rabbinical. He reminded her of Noah, but then again, sometimes everyone and everything reminded her of Noah.
Other people stood and spoke. The service ended. Anna walked toward the rainbows of Jesus and other figures patched into the windows surrounding the altar and found a place in line. The line moved. Stopped. Moved. And then: his eyes. Black pupils, brown irises, whites tinted red. Black lashes. Tiny pink tear ducts. Noah’s eyes! And they were looking at her eyes. Then in them. Then at again. She wanted to say something sincere, but not too sincere. She started with his name. “Noah.” She thought that would be easy, but tears instantly rose. To hide them, she hugged him. “I’m sorry about your mom,” she said. He looked at her blankly. “I wasn’t sure if I should come.”
He thanked her and said he was glad she did. But then he squinted, as if she were too bright, and looked away. “Well, thanks for coming,” he said again. Time to leave. But she couldn’t. Noah shook someone’s hand. She opened her mouth. There was something very important she wanted to say. But she didn’t know what it was. Noah glanced at her, an impatient thrust to his head. She forced herself to go. And even though people around her were crying, she walked fast so no one could see her cry.
That night, she didn’t drink, but it was hard. And she didn’t call Noah, and that was hard, too. She loved the lack of high drama in her life more than she hated it. But still, she’d thought then, and, staring at the computer, she thinks now: Wouldn’t it be nice to have some final, adult conversation? Was that what she’d been hoping for at the service? Why wasn’t the hug and hand squeeze and lack of hate in his eyes enough? Why wasn’t anything enough? Why does one question always lead to the next and the next?
And why is her hand now moving toward the phone? Why is her breath stuck in her chest? Why does that stuckness feel like power? Why does her finger press a number as if it were skin?
And why is Nathan/Noah based on a real-life female and Angie/Anna based on a male? And why does Angie/Anna also share many traits with the real-life female but Nathan/Noah share only a few with the male? And why, of the many things that happened between the female and male upon whom Nathan/Noah and Angie/Anna are based, has so much been left out? For instance, why leave out the time that the female got drunk and kissed a boy at a high school party that the male did not attend? Or her subsequent confession and apology to the male, which did not prevent her from drunkenly almost kissing another boy, at another party, before the male walked in? Or that time she came home from a family trip and the male revealed he’d slept with the female’s friend and then broke up with the female to be with the friend? And why, the morning she got home from a campout where the male and the female’s former friend zipped their sleeping bags together, did the female beg her parents to institutionalize her? And why, instead, every Tuesday after school, did her dad, who couldn’t say the word “psychologist” without sneering, drive her fifty miles to see a psychologist? And why, when the psychologist gave her a personality test and told her she was feminine to the point of masochism, did she like the masochism part but not the feminine part? And why, after telling the psychologist about a nine-page letter she’d written the male and the psychologist said, “You must give him that letter,” did she not give the male that letter? Why, instead, did she meet her best friend in the school bathroom one morning to chug screwdrivers from Tropicana bottles? And why, after she got caught, did she like being grounded so much, holed up in her room with her small TV every night, taking solace in Quantum Leap? Why couldn’t she take a quantum leap and not get drunk and not kiss or almost kiss those boys and instead be the best girlfriend ever to the male so he wouldn’t break up with her for her former friend? And what about the other boys from that year—the skater boy, the former friend’s ex, the motorcycle boy, the frat boy, the other skater boy, and the first skater boy again? Why so many untold stories in just a single year? And why must this story, flung in any direction, hurtle back to the male, as the female herself hurtled back to him at the end of the following summer, feeling extra female as she strode through her small college town in big hoop earrings and a long white skirt?
And there he was, the male, his shirt torn of sleeves, his biceps plumped, his smile aimed at her. A walk to the river, some jokes, some talk, a back rub, a kiss, and they were together again, the past erased, the future unreal.
Let’s end it there. Let’s pretend we have the power to end it. Let’s discard what’s to come: the slivers of joy riding waves of turmoil, years of it, on and on and off and on, and then just off, a static now barely audible, now too loud.
Let’s pretend I’m telling a story. Let’s pretend the story’s not telling me.
How have you been?
Jennifer Wortman’s collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. Love.
will be released by Split Lip Press on June 1st. It can be pre-ordered here