by Michael Harper
“You could stay.”
“And do what?”
The words sit there like a dead body. We've all been left at this age. Not quite old. Definitely not young. An age where decisions seem to be made against a timer. It's easier to meet people. Harder to fall in love. Everyone's a little too smart. But not quite callous enough to forfeit our fairy tales completely. When we meet someone new we can't help the flicker of a comeback which sparks briefly behind our eyes. Then we push too hard and too fast, forcing the issue as we race against time. Not allowing anything to grow. Retilling the soil, thrashing the fallen fruit into the earth before it has decomposed and planting again, hoping for a harvest before the first freeze.
That's where we found each other. Desperate and haunted. Doing our best not to seem deranged, when all we actually want to is to find someone who has suffered like us. But they can't be vulnerable too early. That's intense and disturbing. And not too late. That's withholding. Only in the moment right before you're ready to spill your own guts all over the canvas.
Nadia traces a scar across my knuckles. She like to count them, my scars. She says they are beautiful. She only loves them because they're novel. Far removed from her life and romanticized.
She looks at people who work with their hands like they're zebras. She's amazed whenever I mention a book I've read or a Renaissance painter. Her parents are intellectuals. A psychologist and professor who have a rivalry over something neither of them understands. Their 30-year abstinence feels like a staring contest. Both waiting for the other to cheat so they can be declared the winner.
I've never met them. She tells me this. She tells me everything. All of her affairs. All her scorned lovers. All her bitterness. It comes out easily now that I'm leaving. When I told her a friend offered me a job in Rapid City, she cried. I didn't even know she liked me until that point.
She waits for an answer both of us know isn't coming. Then she laughs aloud in a forced way which replicates remembrance.
“The new guy at work asked me out today. It was so sweet. I was having a slice from that place around the corner and when he walked into the break room he said, if you like Italian we should check out this place I know on the north side of town.”
She glances at my face. I feel my breath catch for a millitick in my chest. I wonder if she noticed the hiccup in the steady rise and fall of my breath.
“Maybe it would be fun?”
She's quiet. The loose ceiling fan rasps at us.
“I don't know. He's young. I don't want to waste my time running around with kids. They never know what they want.”
The tension eases. We kiss. Holding it like we can stretch moments into something that doesn't end. A measurement of time we can count but not rationalize. Like a lifetime. It ends and she sinks back onto my chest.
“The job will probably be a dead end,” I say.
She smells a trap and sniffs carefully around the edges of my words. “You told me it's a great opportunity.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” I feel like a drink or sex or chocolate. I can feel something uneasy moving around inside me. Wrestling with the logic of life and the good fortune of existence. The momentary ecstasy of seeing someone’s pleasure in your company and body measured against the extended solitude of uncertainty. The dreaded moment when you must weigh a person’s existence against your own timer, waiting there naked while they do the same. Every answer providing relief which compounds into imprisonment.
I almost tell her I'll stay. I taste it on my lips. Then I remember all my pasts. All the half-forgotten misery. The compromises which turn you into a stranger to yourself. And I suck my words deep down into my lungs like the last pull of a cigarette.
We both wear enough scar tissue for the other to spend a lifetime counting. The deformities becoming the only faces we know how to show. I'll leave soon and become another colorless speck on her body, as she will on mine. We will know more about each other than people we marry. Our relationship crystallized under the metamorphosing pressure of time. A diamond hidden deep in our chests. Hard and cold. And when I look at it, I will wonder how something so beautiful can be so sad.
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