They were sitting on the back porch. She had moved into this place the day before. He had a glass of wine in his hand. The weeds were overgrown. He was supposed to have moved in here, but he hadn’t. She was alone. Too bad, she thought. She wasn’t sure she meant it. She was tired of doing the laundry. She was sick of being nice. Her wine glass fell over in the grass. When she saw that, the pool of it sinking into the dirt, she laughed.
They were on the levee. He had his arm around her waist, loose. It was dark. There was a possibility they would be mugged. It didn’t matter. He tried but didn’t say anything. She made a face like she didn’t care. The river was huge. You could see it in the dark. His hand was on her side. She set her lips. There was no moon. She could hear him breathing.
He was asleep. She had her hand on his chest. She was looking at him. Outside, there was lightning, but no thunder. She could not recall a time when she felt like this. She thought about bisecting him. Rooting around in his organs. Taking a look at his brain. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. She knew she would remember this night. She would not be sure why.
They were in a bar. They were in a bar with a woman and a man. It had been the two women, but they had made calls, and then the men had come. She knew when she talked to him that he was drunk. He was drunk and he was at a strip club nearby with one of his friends. Now, he was here. The other man and the other woman didn’t know each other as well as she and the man knew each other, even though the other man and the other woman had been dating for awhile. The other man had his arms crossed over his chest like he was trying to hide his heart. She looked at the man that she was with. She loved it when he was drunk. That was the only time he said what he wanted. Later, the other woman would tell her that her drunk boyfriend who had been at the strip club looked at her like she was his whole world. And, she thought: You bet.
She stood in the middle of the street looking down the road at the train going by. She thought about how it would be to drop her bags of nothing and run for it. Grab the side. Pull herself on. The city would slip past. Then, it would be gone. One more place she had been and left. One more time she had started over and given up. She looked down at what she had. A bar of soap, some light bulbs, a kitchen clock. She wrapped her fingers tight around the bag handles, feeling the plastic dig into her fingers. Dear God, she thought, please let this weight be enough.
He turned his back to the naked girl on the stage behind him like he was trying to make some kind of a point. He smiled at her, showing her his crooked teeth. He slid himself forward, pushing his knees between hers to open her up. He looked at her with his dead face, his eyes on hers looking back at him. The man across the room in a seersucker suit who did not want to be there was watching them. He could see the back of the man’s head. He could see the girl’s face. He watched the man lean in towards the girl. The man was saying something into the girl’s ear. The girl’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. It made the man on the other side of the room want to go home, back to his wife. He knew that expression. His wife showed it to him when, for once, he did everything right.
He put her in the tub. He had done something wrong, and both of them knew it, so he was doing something good to try and cancel out the bad thing he’d done. There were bubbles, candles, a sponge. He sat on the floor next to her in the tub. He started reading her a poem from a book. He was nervous. The way he felt for this woman was very big and very strong, so much so that he feared, sometimes, it would overtake one of them, although which one of them, he was not sure. In the meantime, his hand was on her leg. He tried to read the small words of the long poem in the candlelight while he attempted to bathe this woman about whom he felt so strongly that he was now sure, after having searched his head, and the dictionary, that there was no word for how he felt about her because words, after all, were failures, and this woman was not that, and he did not want to be that any longer. He read the words of the poem and prayed to God that he would not make a mistake, now or ever. The girl, for her part, was amazed. She sat looking down at the half-buried naked landscape of her body, listening to the man, watching his hand on her. It was hard to believe. He was terrible, she knew, and he knew, but he was also very, very good, better than he could possibly begin to imagine at this point in his life. In her old life, she would have hoped the man’s hand would find itself atop her head and push her down underneath the water, so she would be stuck looking up at the surface, unable to see him, incapable of breathing. That didn’t happen. Later, she stood naked in front of him while he dried her off with a towel. They both noticed that he was very, very careful.
After awhile, the two of them bought a house. It took a lot of saving and scrimping, but, in the end, they had done it. They moved themselves, hauling all their stuff. They were silently impressed at the end of the day they had not gotten into a fight while doing so. The next day, the girl woke up, early. He was asleep at her side. It was only when he slept that his body, finally free of the tyranny of his mind, would come to her, very close, to rest. She could hear the train coming. They were near a bend in the line. The steel wheels were singing against the twin tracks as the train pulled itself forward and shifted its course at the same time. They sound lulled her back to sleep. Later, he sat reading in a chair that he had put next to the window for this purpose, to sit in a chair, inside a home he owned, with a woman in which he could believe. He could hear a man yelling next door. He stood near the window, standing to one side of the frame, so that he would not be detected. The man was yelling at this wife, loud. Periodically, there were other noises, possibly of this man striking this woman. Occasionally, a baby cried. The man standing next to the window dropped his chin down to his chest. For this, he was grateful. A great cacophony would always be there, threatening to rend everything wide-open, wanting to swallow him back into it. Today, it was next door, not here with his chair, and his book, and his window. He felt overcome by whatever was inside of himself. She was standing in the doorway behind him, he could tell. She didn’t say a word.
Originally, he had come from a long time ago. Things were different then. It was bad. He couldn’t remember most of it, and he thought that was probably for the best. He had terrible dreams, though. That was enough. His life, for the most part, had been a forced march. Things were sad, depressing, low. Various women had seen fit to remove his heart from his chest and pulverize it with the little hammers of their stiletto heels. He had prayed, for years, for some kind of a break, some type of an intercession, a lone winning hand. He could not grasp how the woman had found him and not the other way around. It was not that it didn’t seem right; it was just that it underscored his undeniable inability to control his own life. When she had presented herself to him, he had known everything would be different. It was one of those things. He had gotten drunk and tried to explain it to a man that he worked with while at a bar one night, but the man had only looked into his drink. It wasn’t the same. There, she was. Initially, she had haunted him. For awhile, he had thought he hated her, until he realized he had hated himself. Then, something had happened. The map of his brain had been left to its own devices as he ran around inside his head chasing after this woman. New connections were made. Different paths were followed. At a certain point, he saw the sense of it. He let himself go. He collapsed. She had been there to help him pick up the pieces. That was how she was. As for her, he had known that he had his work cut out for him the first time he saw her silhouette. She was from somewhere else. Inside, she trembled. When he touched her, she jumped. But there was something else, something that had come together inside of her upon his advent. Here, and this. He woke himself up in the middle of the night to watch her sleep, at peace, for once, dreaming God knows what, but going nowhere, in his bed. She was real.
He was old. Thank God. That’s what he thought everyday when he woke up and found he was still alive. Downstairs was breakfast. In the backyard was a hammock. Sometimes, at the bar around the corner, people tried to talk to him about who he was, but then he would go home. He had always been private. This was no different. He had time now. He thought a great deal, about his life, about the man he had been, about things grand and unimportant. His mind used to shoot forward at a terrible velocity, him struggling to keep up with it. These days, it did the speed limit. He liked that he could look out the window. He sat on the back porch in his underpants. His wife walked in the side gate of the yard. He balanced his beer on his head. She laughed at him and waved. He watched her walk the perimeter of their property. The dog was following her. Yes, he thought. I understand. The sun was hot. The beer was cold. He was finished. He thought about what his wife looked like naked. He whistled, soft. She turned towards him. She knew what he was doing. She came for him. He waited for her. He had once read that speaking the truth kills the truth, and, so, with this woman, he had never said a word, never told her a goddamn thing, and yet, she knew it all. He thought to himself, Lord, you can fucking take me now.
Eventually, she forgot everything that had happened to her before she had met him. Sometimes, she would think about the upset glass of wine in the yard, and she would think to herself: You dumb bitch. What a fraud she had been, even to herself, inside her own mind. In reality, at that time, she had wanted to rip her heart out of her chest, soak up the wine with it like a sponge, extend it to him, and tell him, Here, please take this because I cannot stand to be alone with it for one more minute. Now, at least, that was over, done, gone. These days, she suspected that her ass was sliding down the backs of her thighs, that her looks were fading a bit. She didn’t give a shit. That was the thing of it. Every other man she had been with before this one had thought that her problem was that she had hated herself, but the truth of the matter was that she had lived in a near constant state of terror that there was no there there inside of herself. Today, she knew better. She washed a bowl and imagined upending the glass of wine on top of her old self’s head. She wouldn’t have liked that at all. Tough shit. She should have more compassion for herself, she knew. She was too busy being happy to fill her head up with remorse. She checked the clock. Her husband would be home soon. It wouldn’t be soon enough.
She had been walking down the street. That’s when she had seen him for the first time. She could see the side of his face. He put his head down for a moment. Later, she would come to know he did this sometimes, for emphasis, to draw out a moment in a story. That day, he was telling a story. In the future, he would tell the story of what had happened that day–when she wasn’t around. It would be his story. That was the point. She had her version. He had his. The ending would always be the same. She would tell her version of it over and over again, to herself, to her friends, to anyone who would listen. It was the best story she knew. It was the only story she had ever heard in which she truly believed.
Susannah Breslin is a freelance journalist and the author of You’re a Bad Man, Aren’t You? She can be found online here.