I Was Told I Could Stay
He says I have striking eyes and he’s staying in a condo behind the Gillette building. I have normal eyes. Of medium size and average color. The shade of slush. So he lacks imagination. That’s fine.
He’s in town for business and staying with a friend, but the friend has had a baby and he feels he’s in the way. His friend’s couch smells like baby powder. I ask: Is that such a bad thing? It is.
“It’s one of those smells,” he says. “Okay on its own, ruined by association.”
“Air-freshener, baby powder—it’s all shit to me.” He has impeccable posture and discusses the return on investment from a third round of martinis.
To think I’d imagined I was done with all this. David had hunched, over bars, when he walked—created a curved space where words were buoyed and protected, a private room. This man with his posture is like a megaphone, our conversation spewed for anyone to hear. I hunch for both of us.
From behind the bar, Sal offers to call me a cab. It’s just struck two. I almost accept, but that won’t get me anywhere. “Thanks, but I think I’ll walk.” Sal eyes the man beside me and shrugs before we’re thrust into the cold. Perhaps he’ll tell David I was here.
We take side streets toward the Gillette building and by the time we decide on a cab, there are none around. It’s only half past. Such a sleepy city, Boston.
He has a good chin, a jaw that catches my attention. Always the angles, such predictable penchants. We haven’t discussed where we’re going exactly, if there’s even a “we” to speak of. He says he’s from Phoenix. With a tan in December it had to be somewhere like that.
“I’ve never been there.” I think of cacti, crag cathedrals in the desert.
“Does Boston compare?”
“I love it,” he says, flashing a smile. “I’m in town for an interview.”
If it’s a line, it’s a good one. Just enough promise to hook the serious and flighty both. He pulls his scarf up against the wind and is eager to reveal other things. Genzyme. Dartmouth. So he’s clever. Brina calls this the triangulation game. Setting down our dots—job, degree, hometown. Orientation points for strangers.
“Are you cold?” My teeth are chattering. Small traitors, all of them. Invite advances when I’m still making up my mind. David with his jacket that first time, insisting until I took it. I pick my way through the beginnings of slush.
He’s very tall, at least six-two, and broad in the shoulders. A nice change, to look up. “Anywhere else we can go around here?” There isn’t. We’re in a part of town that’s all warehouses, unoccupied office buildings and lofts. A no man’s land between Fort Point and Southie at an hour when nothing’s open but the South Street Diner across from the bus station.
Be bold. “Just my place,” I say, turning to walk backward and look him in the face.
His eyes smile. “Lead the way.”
We pass the Gillette Building, its penultimate “t” gone dark, and cross the channel. I wouldn’t walk it alone so late, but we can cut through the post office lot and skip the bit under the overpass.
Snow’s collecting. He thinks it’s grand. Bends to feel the weight of it. Powder or packing? In the bar he’d been so serious.
What do you drink, he’d asked earlier, as he took the stool beside mine, like what do you like in bed. Today it’s gin. Pine-Sol for the brain. Then it was about the music, what did I think of it. I thought it was terrible. I hated Sinatra. He sounded so smug.
Was I lying? I prefer to think I was finally telling the truth, and that I’d been lying for years, when I told David I loved how he played the standards. When he cooked chicken piccata or cleaned the refrigerator. When we ate, read, fucked, or danced in the living room. He had the same taste as my paternal grandmother, her only taste now she’s forgotten everything else. Only Frank and Ella and Dinah and Duke are left. The whole gang. A couple of months with David and I’d learned the words too. We’d had a regular party, that first visit. David dancing with Gram, Gram singing with Frank, and everyone thinking I had the world on a string.
I hadn’t planned to go in, had been walking three blocks out of the way to avoid passing the lounge since the split. David’s favorite dive. It trafficked in rat pack cover bands and dirty martinis. Upholstery all ruby vinyl. I’d forgotten to turn on A Street and ran into Phoebe on the sidewalk, chain-smoking.
“Well, hello,” she said. Waitressing in the lounge had rubbed off on Phoebe’s speech. “Haven’t seen you around in a while.” She spoke like Lauren Bacall, or tried to. Modulated her delivery, overused the pregnant pause. Even parted her hair way over, managed the finger waves. She was more a friend of David’s than mine.
“I’ve been branching out,” I said. What did she expect?
She nodded, and took longer than necessary to exhale a mouthful of smoke.
“David isn’t here tonight.” The pause, a slow drag. “You could go in,” the smallest shrug of a bony shoulder, no coat in the cold. “If you wanted.”
It was 9:45 on a Friday night. I could pretend to have plans “Is Sal on tonight?”
Phoebe turned her head. Sometimes I think she looked away just so she could look back in slow motion. “Sure is,” she said.
I left her and took the steps down to the bar. They kept the lights dim, reddish. Carpet like a bowling alley’s. Sal gave me extra olives.
The man and I cut through the lot where they park the city’s postal trucks. All lined up in rows. Formal almost, like a closet of hanging suits.
“This is really neat,” he says, gazing around like it isn’t a parking lot.
“Through here.” I guide us down the rows. They’re narrow, labyrinthine, as private as my apartment. David and I paused here more than once. Something about the outdoors, the stolen space. He’d loved it anywhere but in a bed.
This one’s similar. He takes my hand, tries to swing me in. I let go, play crack the whip instead. Turn down the alley and run. We always run down the alley. He catches on quick, and chases. On the street he wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me into his side. With our coats and gloves the contact feels chaste, like kissing a photograph.
“So what do you do?” he asks, suddenly chatty, realizing, perhaps, we’ve talked only of him. Brina would tell me to make something up. She’s brilliant at it. Has 20 full biographies on the tip of her tongue. Says it keeps things light. Like Charles Wallace and his multiplication tables. They can’t get in your head if you’re busy making shit up.
“I edit textbooks.”
Not only am I terrible at lying, I seem always to make the truth sound duller than it is. Two more points and I’d be pegged. Butterfly to corkboard. Or moth, from the way it’s going. Blind and dusty, destined to die in a closet. Brina would suggest an exotic expat childhood for balance. Or a degree in art history from the Sorbonne. But he might speak French. People who speak French always want to prove they speak French. They launch into it at the first sign of a phlegmy “r.”
“What sort of textbooks?” he asks.
“That must be stimulating.” He nods to himself, sounds almost sincere. Textbooks are a dead end with most people. “Did you study psychology? Or get into it another way?”
“I studied history, actually,” I say. “Not far now.”
The snow is falling faster, in globs and at a slant. It’s deep enough that we make tracks. “Tell me about Arizona,” I say.
I’d considered it before, moving to Phoenix or Tucson. Just before I met David. Somewhere stark, with clean lines, where each of the things I erected would be deliberate and well planned. Before David, Boston felt cloying—I was too often swept along. By family, old friends, an academic press lashing out in its slow decline, ugly to watch and be a part of. The plan blanched upon meeting David, but it seems a small treasure now. An artifact from when I thought a new city was all it would take to change my whole life.
“I lived in Chinatown, too,” he says as we pass under the pagoda, “in San Francisco.” I know I’m meant to ask about San Francisco now, but I’ve managed to misplace my keys.
“When did you live there?” I root around as we stand on the sidewalk between the Gourmet Dumpling House and a shop selling rotisserie chickens.
Finally, a familiar rattle. They’ve gotten into the lining again, in with the change and hairpins. He continues talking about San Francisco as we climb the stairs, about the damage to his gearshift on the hills. As soon as I get the door open he lunges for a kiss. I’m caught off guard, so there’s some gnashing of incisors at first, but it improves once we get the door shut. We bring the cold air in on our clothes. I pull away to unwind the scarf from his neck. It’s monogrammed along the edge. BRG. Did he get it monogrammed himself, or was it a gift? I take off my gloves and coat and make for the liquor cabinet.
He asks about photos on the fridge, posters on the walls, mostly things of Brina’s, though she moved in a mere two months ago. I tell him about Brina and how she’s out of town. I should tell him she’s coming back, weave a net.
“Where’s she gone?”
“Montreal for the weekend.”
“A show. She’s a professional opera singer.”
For some reason, lying about other people’s lives is easier. Although Brina had warned about audaciousness. She only used the opera gig when she was really, truly drunk. Why couldn’t I have been the opera singer? I was drunk. But then they always asked her to sing.
“I love the opera.” Was he serious? Why couldn’t I meet a man with normal tastes? Who liked Dylan or Springsteen. But then, he could be lying, too. Internally rolling his eyes at another fine-arts-inundated late twenty-something looking for love that only exists in Puccini.
He slides along the sofa and takes my wine glass. “Perhaps we can see your friend sometime, if I get this job.” He combs the hair away from my face and neck. “I hear your opera house has excellent acoustics.”
Is this considered smooth? It feels smooth. When I close my eyes just before he kisses me, the spins set in and I open them again, too late. Conventions are important when kissing strangers. When the kiss is not yet more than a sum of its parts. Lips, teeth, tongue, too-large pores and the stray hairs between eyebrows. I’m affected by how he doesn’t know I’m looking at him, how he’s engaging in a pact I’m already breaking, that we’ll both shut our eyes, feel instead of look, attempt to be swept up, and in the event of falling short, pretend out of empathy or etiquette, unsure of where the other stands, how serious we’re all being. Does he really want to take me to the opera? His lashes are long and curly, and there’s nothing wrong with the kiss except that his mouth is cold and unfamiliar.
David referred to sex as “makin’ whoopee.” “Shall we make some whoopee?” he’d ask, arching an eyebrow, finding himself charming.
“Let’s,” I’d say, finding him charming, as well.
It would be difficult to say that what we make now is as blithe, as easy, as unrestrained as “whoopee.” But it’s something. Polite, proficient, like a foxtrot.
The next morning I gain an awareness of my head as a distinct and separate entity before anything else. An arm pulls me into the hollow of a body—the movement jars. He’s not awake yet, but rooting, like he’s accustomed to waking up beside someone. I wonder if there’s an Arizona girlfriend or wife or, more benignly, but perhaps worst of all, he’s merely accustomed to being invited up by the women he meets on trips. The forearm has a heft to it, a weight that David’s didn’t. This is something. I pull the duvet over the pillow, the feathers clumped in their separate squares, blocking out only half the light.
Coffee wafts, like smelling salts. He brings me a cup, has put on his pants. To leave? Or because he’s coy. David had liked to prance, was naked at every opportunity. Vain that way. Perhaps this man is just normal, wears pants as a rule in unfamiliar places.
“Good morning.” He bends, kisses my forehead. It isn’t what I expect. Each sip brings me closer to myself, though I have not yet decided whether to join, completely, the living. He climbs over me and under the duvet. I’d pushed my bed against the wall a month ago, convinced I might use more of the space if no one would be sleeping on the other side. Now it feels childish. He sits up, cross-legged beneath the covers, creating a tent. Tan lines above his knees, but even his pallid parts are darker than my forearms. We’d disdained sunbathing, David and I, remained pale and sporadically freckled where his limb could’ve been mine in a tangle. I bring the coffee into the tent, push David out of it. The man and I camp until the sun moves past the window and it becomes dim enough, safe enough to emerge; once we overheat, over sleep, become sticky with sex and sweat, must seek out supplies, fresh water, acetaminophen.
I make omelets while he showers. They’re sad and flat, with nothing in the fridge but mustard, eggs, and lemons. After we eat I escape to the bathroom. Sit on the edge of the tub and let my face slacken. He’s neat. When David showered it was like the flood. Floor slick, bathmat sodden. The only sign of this one is the steam. I half expect, half hope he’ll be gone when I emerge. Instead he’s washed the dishes. Smiles from the sofa like he doesn’t know the steps. He flips through David’s copy of Steppenwolf and I pretend to have read it when he asks. The afternoon wears on and he doesn’t leave. Because of the snow emergency, he says. Two and a half feet and counting. Hasn’t got the right shoes. We order Vietnamese from the only open restaurant on the block and he picks out an armful of films, instructing me to choose.
We go to bed early, wake up late, and I can’t imagine why he stays. The sex is the kind that makes me think more, rather than less, though we seem to be pretending it’s something better. The fact of bad sex had been one of those bleak adult discoveries, like filing taxes for the first time. There I’d been, blithely assuming sex was a pure, cosmic added-value, only to discover it was more like roulette, and I’d been on a lucky streak since high school. David, now, a mere oasis.
He asks for my number as he gathers his things. “For the opera, remember?"
In my head I’ve already closed the door. “Of course.”
He roots for a pen. I offer to get one. “No, it’s here, I’ll find it. I like to use just one until it runs out.” He laughs, suddenly awkward. “I guess that’s strange.”
I fight the physical urge to let my fingers form a handgun, float up to my temple. David and I would argue over what it said about us, that I aimed for the temple, that he put the barrel into his mouth. I recite my number, trying to figure out where to invert the digits, whether to switch the last nine for a five. But it comes out correctly, too quick. Let him have it.
I close the door, feel relief. Then it recedes. The snow muffles sound from the street.
I go back to my bedroom—to sleep, to strip the bed, to curl into a ball—I’ve just got the sheets off when I feel how stuffy it is and strange. I climb over the bed and push at the sill, get it up in one heave, inhale the sharp fresh scent of snow, the familiar tang of garbage beneath the ice. I wish for creosote and citrus but get fish sauce, Durian pelts, fry oil, and cabbage. Overlaid with the waft of roasting chickens from next door, a signature aroma. I was always the one to close the window; David would open it. A small war. I sit by the window. Breathe it in.